Can you make your child more optimistic? Optimism, or the conviction that things will work out in the end, is a cornerstone of resilience, and an asset in achieving any kind of success. Research shows that optimists, who believe they can achieve success, are in fact more able to do so. They are less likely to get depressed, get fewer illnesses, have longer relationships, and live longer.
When life seems to be dealing one blow after another, you want your child to believe that things can get better. Otherwise, why should he pull himself together and keep going?
There is some evidence that optimism is an inherited trait, and certainly we know there is a biological basis to much depression as well as to a tendency to be upbeat.
There is also evidence, however, 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 way our parents talk to us becomes our inner voice. But findings from Cognitive Therapy show that we can change the way we talk to ourselves about events and how we interpret them, which has a direct impact on our emotional reaction to our experiences.
The bottom line is this: even if you are born with a tendency to pessimism, you can greatly increase your optimism quotient.
So how do you help your child to become more optimistic?
1. Notice how your child thinks about things. Is the glass half full or half empty? When something bad happens, does he see it as exemplary 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 to learn optimism.
2. Confront Pessimism. Pessimistic thinking can be defined as expecting bad things to happen. Pessimists think catastrophically. For example, they might say, "I won’t make any friends at this new school. No one is going to like me."
To confront pessimism, challenge the four thought patterns that lead to pessimistic thinking:
Permanent:"This always happens and always will."
Say: “I know you don’t feel like you’ve made a good friend yet. But some of these kids will become your friends. You won’t always feel like this.”
Pervasive: "Nothing ever goes right. Nobody likes me."
Say: “Most things in your life go right. Most people like you. You had friends at your last school, and you will make friends at this school.”
Personal: "This always happens to me. People just don’t like me."
Say: “I know that you haven’t made a friend at this new school yet. But that isn’t about you. It’s about these kids. They have all been together since preschool, and they haven’t even noticed yet that there’s a new kid in the class. It’s nothing personal, they’re just focused on each other. Once they notice you, they’ll want to be your friend.”
Powerlessness: "There is no real relationship between cause and effect; things just happened; I am the victim of what has occurred."
Say: “There are actually things you can do to make friends. Let’s talk about some specific things you can try.”
These thought patterns of negative thinking were first identified by Dr. Martin Seligman, one of the world's leading thinkers about optimism. He and his colleagues have found that children who learn these thinking skills are much less prone to depression than children who haven't been taught these skills. (Gillham, J., Reivich, K., Jaycox, L., and Seligman, M. (1995). Prevention of Depressive Symptoms in Schoolchildren: Two-Year Follow-up. Psychological Science, 6, 343-351.)
3. Teach your child Optimism. The trick is to remember that you perceive a setback any way you choose. Help him choose to perceive setbacks as temporary, isolated (not pervasive, in other words they don’t indicate anything about any other part of his life), not personal, and within his power to fix.
How can a setback be impersonal? Certainly, some bad things are just bad luck, and could have happened to anyone. In many cases, of course, it is clear that he brought the setback on himself, but it still doesn’t indicate anything about who he is, but how he chose to act. In other words, he failed the test because he didn’t study, not because he always fails tests and always will.
Maybe most important, help your child to see that he isn’t powerless in the situation. Martin Seligman, the trail-blazing researcher on optimism, says that the most important question to ask when confronted with misfortune is: “I wonder if there are some ways you could change the outcome with some personal effort on your part?"
4. Help your child learn to cultivate Optimistic Thinking with these three ideas:
There are actions I could or can take to change the situation.
There are specific reasons something happened.
The cause is clearly leading to the effect, and that is true over time.
5. Confront negative self talk. The problem with self talk is that when you hear it, you act as if it were true. Cognitive therapists teach pessimists to confront this kind of thinking by a three step process: Notice it, Externalize it, and Dispute it (NED). You can teach yourself, and your child, the NED process:
Notice negative self talk.
Externalize it. Treat it as if it were said by an external person whose mission in life is to make you miserable. (Some kids call him NED.)
Dispute it in the same way you would an external person. We generally have the skill of disputing other people when they make false accusations, and we can learn to do so with ourselves as well.
6. Model Optimism. Do you say things like “I know we’ll find a parking space soon!” or “We’ll NEVER find a parking space! I KNEW this would happen!”? Your view of the world and your prospects within it communicates itself to your child daily. If you want to help your child become more optimistic, experiment with learning to be more optimistic yourself.