By Mary Travis, PhD

In my opinion evaluation results, academic interventions, counseling, coaching, and group work all rest on principles from Positive Psychology. Positive Psychology is different from positive thinking in three ways:

• Positive Psychology is grounded in empirical and replicable scientific study

• Positive Thinking urges us to be positive all the time and in all places; Positive Psychology does not

• Positive Psychology is founded by researchers and scholars who spent years in traditional psychology studying anxiety, trauma, and depression. Positive Psychology does not replace traditional psychology – it supplements it.

What role does negative or pessimistic thinking have in Positive Psychology? Although optimism is associated with better health, better performance, long life, and social success, there are times when negative thinking is more realistic. Studies show that in some situations negative thinking leads to more accuracy and being accurate is important. Optimists may underestimate risks – not good if you’re deciding whether to take off in the middle of a thunderstorm – you want a realist and a dose of negativity in situations with serious consequences.

In my practice Positive Psychology represents a shift in the underlying principles and goals that inform how I work with individuals, groups, and systems. The old way of working identifies disorders and disabilities. In the traditional paradigm, psychologists start by identifying what is lacking or wrong in an individual’s functioning. Once that disorder has been identified and labeled there are basic ways of working with the disorder – a method for ADHD, methods for anxiety and depression, a curriculum to “bust bullies.” Each method has its gurus and leaders from Stephen Covey to Mary Pipher to Rosalind Wiseman. Each of these curriculums or methods is well researched and has valuable information, perspectives, and approaches.

If we work solely from the traditional paradigm and using another’s perspective, we can easily miss the mark and end up treating low self-esteem, poor motivation, anxiety, depression or victims of female aggression rather than helping Angela (who happens to have low self esteem), Brian (who lacks motivation), Lori (who has extreme anxiety), John (who is depressed and pulling his eyelashes), or Caroline (who is a victim of a group of “mean girls” at school). Positive Psychology suggests we look at the individual and the individual’s strengths AS we look at the disorder or lack of adjustment. The individual’s strengths are invaluable tools to use in overcoming any difficulties he/she is encountering at a particular time.

Another difficulty in using a particular method, approach, or curriculum arises when that method isn’t a good fit for an individual. The individual may attend some sessions and then leave counseling without having made progress, either blaming the counselor or blaming themselves. Sometimes parents will do the same and communicate (verbally or nonverbally) their frustration with the child. After a few such experiences, an individual begins to feel helpless – beyond the pale – “nobody can help me.” Once this helpless feeling is learned, there is no progress.

The phenomenon of learned helplessness was identified by the father of Positive Psychology, Martin Seligman. He noticed people who feel helpless don’t try anymore – no matter what punishment or reward is offered. One research study identified two groups of children and presented each group with problems that were impossible to solve. The group identified as “learned helpless” gave the problems a try, couldn’t solve the first few, and spent the rest of the time “waiting for it to be over.” The group that was not identified as helpless spent the whole time trying different approaches, moving on to other problems and then returning to the first one, generally working hard. What was the difference? The latter group believed they could do it if they worked at it. That’s Positive Psychology in a nutshell – the counselor believes and helps the clients come to believe that Angela, Lori, Brian, John and Caroline have the inner strength to overcome whatever they are facing at the time.

The three central concerns of Positive Psychology

• Positive Emotions – Contentment, Happiness in the Present, Hope for the Future

• Positive Individual Traits – The Capacity for Love and Work, Courage, Compassion, Resilience, Creativity, Integrity, Self Knowledge, Moderation, Self Control, Wisdom

• Positive Institutions – Responsibility, Civility, Justice, Parenting, Nurturance, Work Ethic, Tolerance, Purpose, Leadership, Teamwork

Some findings from Positive Psychology are not surprising

• Wealth is only weakly related to happiness.

• Activities that make us happy in the short term (shopping, good food) don’t make us happy in the long run.

• People who express gratitude on a regular basis have better physical health, optimism, progress toward goals, and help others more.

• Healthy human development can take place under very adverse conditions due to a process of resilience that is both common and ordinary

• Engaging in a “flow” activity is so rewarding that people will do it for its own sake, rather than what they will get from it.

• People who see others perform good deeds experience an emotion called “elevation” which motivates them to perform good deeds, too.

Some people might wonder – Why not devote your professional time to treating the disorder? If people are hurting and failing – shouldn’t those areas be the focus of professional intervention? Why are they failing? What is hurting them? How do you help them figure it out and move on?

Of course, my practice doesn’t ignore the hurts, failures and diagnosed causes of a client’s difficulties. However, I know that there are strengths that I can help a client build that will serve as buffers not only for this situation, but also against future mental and emotional difficulties. These strengths include courage, future mindedness, faith, work ethic, hope, honesty, perseverance and the capacity for insight and flow. It’s not only about relieving suffering. It’s also about helping a client leave therapy to live a fulfilling and meaningful life – no matter what “curve balls” that life throws them.

For Instance, if you came to me with a stressed child, we would use sound principles from Positive Psychology to show ways to help you (and your child) cope with stress:
• Listen- Being heard without judgment creates an atmosphere of trust. Trust builds teamwork. (I listen to you, you listen to me, I listen to your child, You listen to your child, your child listens to us)
• Remember that school life and friends are of prime importance to your child – talk to him/her about school and life. (You are finding out what it is about the present that is working and areas that aren’t working so well)
• Encourage (don’t force) connections with others –whether it is sports or art club – let them choose a way (Community, Flow) . Make it clear that once a choice is made quitting will not be allowed until the season or class ends (Perseverance)
• Set an example for the child who keeps taking on more and more obligations. Learn to say, “No” or “Not this time” yourself and you can help your child to say “Not at this time” too (Moderation/Self-control/Boudaries)
• Accept and reward your child for less than perfect performances (Work Ethic, Resilience, Satisfaction)
• Learn direct and active ways to cope with stress – making your own decisions, developing new friendships or working hard to achieve a goal (Work Ethic, Resilience, Self Esteem)

Positive psychology research shows that the ability to lose oneself in absorbing work, sustained effort, and conversation is a key to building a full life that goes well. So whether it is trichotillomania, homework, diagnosed disabilities or academic stress remember to:
• Problem Solve
• Seek Support
• Focus on the Positive
• Be Grateful EACH DAY

Nervous Habits

Nervous habits like thumb sucking and nail biting are considered developmentally normal. Teeth grinding pencil tapping, shoulder shrugging or throat clearing are not generally thought of as serious problems. Thumb sucking starts in infancy and usually disappears at the end of the fourth year. Nail biting can begin around age 4 and peaks around ages 10 – 13. After adolescence, about 10 – 20% of people still bite their nails and that percentage usually carries through to adulthood.

Research shows that 12 – 14% of school age children have mild transient tics lasting a month to a year. These tics, like eye blinking and lip biting, usually disappear on their own. Other nervous habits are: Nail picking, tooth grinding, cheek biting and hair pulling. The only one of these habits which could be considered abnormal at any age is hair pulling. If your child has been doing this for more than two weeks, you should get help (Martin & Greenwood, 1994). Hair pulling may be the sign of, trichotillomania, a more serious body-focused disorder.

If your child pulls out his or her hair, it is not necessarily trichotillomania (trich). It may be a nervous habit – another version of thumb sucking or nail biting. How do you know? True trich has characteristics that make it unique:

Trich sufferers DO MORE with the pulled hair than simply drop it or throw it away. They will
• Look at it
• Run it across their cheeks or lips
• Put it in their mouth (some eat it)
• Examine the rooto Bite the root

Only after doing something with the hair will they throw it away.

Trich sufferers are often ashamed of the behavior.
• Kids with trich will try to hide the hair they pull at the bottom of the trash can or way back under the bed.
• Kids with trich may become angry and refuse to say anything when you try to talk to them. Other kids with trich often deny or minimize the pulling.

Trich usually makes its appearance in late childhood or early adolescence and may start with a stressful event. A stressful event may be negative as in divorce, death of someone important or loss of friends. Trich can also begin when a stressful event seems positive such as someone commenting on “Your beautiful hair,” having a major part in a play, puberty, beginning high school or going away to college.

Trich may begin after an injury to the scalp or skin caused by lice, singed hair or infection. Trich can also begin for what seems to be “no reason at all” like pulling an eyelash to get a wish, pulling hair to look at it under a microscope, or mimicking observed behavior in a friend or a parent.

Most “trichsters” can’t tell you one incident that started them pulling.

Fortunately, the naming of the condition isn’t as critical to treatment as it is to understanding. It is important to identify the pulling or picking as trichotillomania in order to: Help your self and others understand why it is so difficult to control, proceed with knowledge as you begin treatment, and avoid saying things that are counter-productive to your child.

It is not so important to identify it as trich when you formulate a treatment plan. The best researched plans that meet with success are
• Habit Reversal Therapy (HRT) — If it’s a habit this will work and it will work for trich, too

• Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) — If it’s anxiety, Obsessive Compulsive Behavior (OCD) or trich, this will work

So … let’s not make it more complicated than it is, but at the same time understand that pulling and picking (no matter what lies beneath) IS a problem when:


It causes shame and embarrassment
It consumes a great deal of time
It causes fighting and arguing in the family
Medical problems are cropping up
Social Problems are cropping up
Academic Problems are cropping up

In my experience, academic anxiety drives many of the more severe cases of trichotillomania. When it’s time for high stakes tests, my case load increases about 60%. Homework, too, can be a significant stressor for both the perfectionistic puller and the puller who wants to avoid or escape the homework. Homework however, is a different subject – look for my article “Homework Problems” on the Bright Feats website and