Raising An Optimistic Child

In Kiddos, Lola Shreveport, Michelle Yetman, PHD. by Lola Magazine

Tips For Parents

Optimism versus Pessimism
Johnny throws down his baseball bat and stomps off while saying, “This is dumb, I’m never gonna learn how to hit the ball”. We have all been there, those moments where our kids seem to be negative, defeatists, and have a “give up” kind of attitude. But what if your child always seems to be the “glass is half empty” rather than the “glass is half full” kind of kid? Is there anything you can do about it? The good news is that optimism, was once thought to be an inborn trait and part of your temperament, can actually be taught. Being an optimist or a pessimist is not like having a particular temperament, like tending to be shy or outgoing, which tends to define our personality. Rather, being optimistic or pessimistic has to do with your explanatory story: your way of viewing the world and what you tell yourself when bad things happen. The good news is that even if you are born with more of a pessimistic style, you can learn to be optimistic.

Why is it Important for Children to be Optimistic?
The research is clear; how we view the world has a significant impact on how successfully we can function in it. Optimism, or the belief that things will generally work out okay in the end, is the cornerstone of resilience. It is also considered to be important to achieving success. Research shows that optimists who believe they can achieve success are in fact more likely to do so. Unlike people who believe that the worst case scenario is always the most likely to occur, optimists tend to have faith in their ability to succeed in any circumstance. Children (and adults) who are often pessimistic can be more vulnerable to depression. They don’t do as well as optimistic children who generally have higher levels of motivation and drive, and feel that they have more control over their lives (Seligman, 2007). In fact, optimists are healthier than pessimists, get fewer illnesses, have longer relationships and live longer (Danner, Snowdon & Friesen, 2001). If there were an optimism vaccine, wouldn’t we all want to take it?

How to Teach Optimism
Even if your “Negative Nathan” or “Debbie Downer” seems to be born with a tendency towards pessimism, there is a lot you, as a parent, can do to increase your child’s optimism quotient. There is evidence that we learn at an early age how to view the world and its potential from those around us, and that a depressed, negative parent can easily influence us to interpret events in a negative way. The field of cognitive therapy has shown us that if we can change the way we talk to ourselves about events and how we interpret them, it can change our emotional reaction to our experiences. For example, when you do poorly on a test do you think “I’m not really that smart, I’ll never be good at school,” or do you say to yourself, “That was a hard test; I really didn’t prepare enough. Next time I will start studying earlier.” What you say to yourself, your internal self-talk, affects your behavior and how you are likely to respond in the future.

Notice the Lens through Which Your Child Sees the World
As a parent, it is important to begin to notice how your child thinks about things and responds to events. When something bad happens, does he see it as reflective of his entire life, does he think the misfortune is pervasive, permanent, and personally directed at him? (“Why does this always happen to me?!). If you see that he’s pessimistic, you can help him learn optimism. Once you spot that automatic negative thinking in your child, your need to challenge his or her way of thinking. Pessimistic thinking can be defined as expecting bad things to happen. Pessimists think catastrophically. For example, they might say, “I can’t start that new school. I won’t have any friends there. I don’t know how to make friends.” Their negative thinking may prevent them from being willing to try new things or new opportunities. As a parent, to confront pessimism, you must challenge the four thought patterns that lead to pessimistic thinking. The negative four P’s include the following:

Permanence: “Bad stuff always happens and always will.”
Pervasive: “Nothing ever works out for me”.
Personal: “Bad stuff always happens to me”.
Powerlessness: “Doesn’t matter what I do. I just have bad luck. Bad stuff always happens to me.”

Changing Perspective
The key to teaching optimism is to view setbacks as temporary, isolated events that are not personal, and are within your power to fix. This is the exact opposite of the above negative P’s (Permanent, Pervasive, Personal and Powerless). Martin Seligman, the founder of the Positive Psychology Movement, says the most important question you should ask when confronted with misfortune is, “Could I have done something differently in this situation which would have changed things?” The most important thing is to teach your child that they are not powerless in most situations. Sure, some things are bad luck, but he can still control how he chooses to act and re-act in any given situation. For example, if a child fails a test, you want to stop the runaway thought train of, “I’m stupid and I never do well on tests” and replace it with, “I need to study more.”

Cultivating & Model Optimistic Thinking
Help your child learn to cultivate optimistic thinking. This can be achieved by confronting the negative self-talk and replacing it with positive self-talk. Challenge those negative thoughts such as, “Really, you never do well on tests? Just last week you got an ‘A’ on your spelling test and a ‘B’ on your history test”. Finally, in addition to challenging your child’s thinking process, it is important that you, as a parent, be mindful of your thought process and what you model for your child. Do you say things like “Ugh, we are never going to get out of here; the line is so long” or “Great, we are done with that task, on to the next!”. Your view of the world will help to shape the lens through which your child views the world. If you want your child to be more optimistic, try being more optimistic yourself.

For parents wishing to learn more about teaching optimism to their child, read “The Optimistic Child: A Proven Program to Safeguard Children against Depression and Build Lifelong Resilience” by Martin E. P. Seligman.

written by Michelle Yetman, PhD, Assistant Professor, Clinical Psychologist
LSU Health Shreveport