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3 year old complains. Can you teach optimism?

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Dear Dr. Laura,

My 3 year old son always has something to "complain" or whine about. Hoping this is some sort of phase and not a permanent personality trait! Is there a way to "teach" a child to be an optimist, to look on the bright side and see the wonder instead of the problems?


I can't tell from your letter whether your son is simply whining a lot, or actually has a pessimistic view of things, so while I'm going to address your question about teaching children to be more optimistic in this reply, please also do a search on this site for articles on whining, which I think may also be helpful. 

Researchers have done a lot of exploration on optimism and have decided that a tendency toward optimism or pessimism is partly an inherited trait. There is also evidence, however, that at a very early age we form conclusions about ourselves and about how the world will treat us. As Einstein said, one of the most important questions each of us must answer is whether we live in a friendly universe. In other words, do things usually work out? Or does it often feel as if life is out to get you?

When parents are more authoritarian, children often feel as if the world is treating them unfairly. In addition, parents who are depressed, negative or angry may influence their children to interpret events in a negative way.

Luckily, research shows that we can change our emotional reaction to our experiences, and parents can help children to do this. So even if your child was born with a tendency to pessimism, you can greatly increase his optimism quotient. And it's important to do so, not just so that he's more pleasant for you and others to be with, but so that he has a better life.

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.

So how do you help your child to become more optimistic? You help him change the way he talks to himself.

1. Help your son confront his pessimistic thoughts. 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:

-Permanence: "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 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 kids 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 happen; 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."

2. Teach your son more optimistic thought habits. The trick is to remember that we perceive a setback any way we choose. Help him choose to perceive setbacks as temporary, 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: "Is it possible that there are some ways you could change the outcome with some personal effort on your part?"

3. Help your son learn to cultivate Optimistic Thinking by asking questions.

  • What are the specific reasons this happened? 
  • Will this ALWAYS happen, or could things happen differently next time?
  • What actions could you take to change the situation or make things happen differently?

4. Help your son learn to confront his negative self-talk. The problem with self-talk is that when you hear it, your subconscious believes it and 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.

5. 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.

The bad news is that all humans are to some degree pessimists because our minds are designed to protect us by always forecasting what could go wrong and what we should look out for. The good news is that we can manage that tendency and change our lives, and we can teach our kids to do it. Good luck!

--Dr. Laura

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