Raising an Optimistic Child
Tips for Parents Dealing with Optimism versus Pessimism
An Optimistic Child: 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 halfempty” rather than the
“glass is half-full” kind of kid? Is there anything you can do about it?
The good news is that optimism, which 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 a more 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 OK in the end, is the cornerstone of resilience. It is also considered to be important to achieving success. Research shows that an optimist who believes that they can achieve success is, 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 was 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 toward pessimism, there is a lot you, as a parent, can do to increase your child’s optimism quotient. There is evidence that we learn how to view the world and its potential from those around us at an early age and that a depressed, negative parent can easily influence us to interpret events negatively. 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 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.
you spot that automatic negative thinking in your child, your need to
challenge their 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:
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.”
key to teaching optimism is to view setbacks as temporary, isolated
events that are not personal and are within your power to fix. Thus, 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
react 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 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 essential 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 Depress and Build Lifelong Resilience” by Martin E. P. Seligman.
Michelle Yetman, PhD, is an assistant professor, clinical psychologist at LSU Health Shreveport.