Raise Your Child to Be an Optimist

"We don't have to engage in grand, heroic actions to participate in the process of change. Small acts, when multiplied by millions of people, can transform the world..... To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness.... If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places -- and there are so many -- where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction." - Historian Howard Zinn

It's easy to feel frightened and overwhelmed in today's world. But it IS possible, even in scary times, to be guided by the values that matter most to us, including the commitment to provide a calm, loving home for our children. To do that, we need a sense of optimism -- the conviction that things will work out, and that what we do can have a positive impact.

The world needs optimists today more than ever, because we humans have a lot of problems that we need to solve. And people who are optimists have better lives, because even when times are hard, optimism is a cornerstone of resilience.

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?

Can you help your child become more optimistic? 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 parents can unthinkingly influence us to interpret events in a negative way.

Luckily, research shows 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 your child see it as exemplary of their entire life, do they think the misfortune is pervasive, permanent, and personally directed at them? (“Why does this always happen to me?") If you see that your child is pessimistic, you can help them to learn optimism.

2. Challenge 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 deflate pessimism, challenge the four thought patterns that lead to pessimistic thinking:

  • Permanence: "This always happens and always will."
  • Pervasive: "Nothing ever goes right."
  • Personal: "This always happens to me."
  • Powerlessness: "There is no real relationship between cause and effect; things just happened; I am the victim of what has occurred."

3. Teach your child the principles of Optimism.

The essential trick is to remember that you perceive a setback any way you choose. This is so important that it bears repeating: What happens to us is much less important than the story we tell ourselves about what happens to us.

Help your child to choose to perceive setbacks as:

  • Temporary
  • Isolated rather than pervasive. They don’t indicate anything about any other part of his life.
  • Impersonal. This is not a referendum on my value as a person. 
  • 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 that one instance. 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:

“Is it possible that there are some ways that 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:

  1. There are actions I could or can take to change the situation. (As opposed to "I am a victim here.")
  2. There are specific reasons something happened. (As opposed to the global "Everything always goes wrong.")
  3. The cause is clearly leading to the effect, and that is true over time. Sometimes I can affect those factors, which means I can make the outcome better. Sometimes I can't affect those reasons, but that means they are not my fault. (As opposed to "Bad things just happen to me" or "Life is just out to get me.")

5. Confront negative self talk.

The problem with self talk is that when you hear it, you believe it! Then you act as if it were true. But in fact, just because you are telling yourself something does not mean it's true. It's a belief that could be wrong. There are many ways to interpret events, and some are much healthier than others.

Cognitive therapists teach pessimists to confront this kind of thinking with a three step process: Notice it, Externalize it, and Dispute it (NED). You can teach yourself, and your child, the NED process:

  1. Notice negative self talk.
  2. 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.)
  3. 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. All of the techniques in this article work for adults, too, of course. And they all offer opportunities for wonderful dinner table conversations with the whole family. Why not start an Optimism challenge this month!

 

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