I’ve been studying optimism – and how to teach it to children – for more than 15 years. The research is clear: optimism is a critical skill for happiness, health and success.
When we compare optimists to pessimists, we find that optimists are less likely to become depressed or anxious, and they do better in school and work. They’re also more resilient and they live longer! The good news is that unlike eye color or how tall a child will be, optimism is something that we can change and also teach.
Now, as a mother of four, I know how hectic life can be. Given the pace of our lives, if someone told me that in addition to everything I am already doing, I also need to set aside time to teach my children how to be optimistic, there is a good chance I would explode. The good news is that as parents, we can easily teach our children how to think optimistically through simple, everyday activities and strategies.
So, what is optimism anyway? Optimism is the belief that good things will happen in the future and that you can help bring about positive change in your life and in the world. Optimism fuels resilience in the face of adversity. It makes us feel happy and confident, and motivates us to keep trying even when we encounter roadblocks to our goals.
Unfortunately, it’s not always easy to be optimistic because of what I call “pessimism traps.” Pessimism traps are common tendencies that most of us have that heighten pessimism and block optimism. I’ll describe two common pessimism traps and will share simple activities and strategies that will keep your child from falling into these traps, and will instead build their optimism.
Pessimism trap: Focusing on the bad
As a species, we seem to be hard-wired to pay more attention to the bad things that happen in a day than the good things. It’s called the negativity bias. The negativity bias leads us to notice, remember and ruminate about the parking spots we couldn’t find, the unkind look we received, the quarrel over breakfast. These things stick while the good stuff tends to fade. The more we focus on the negative, the more worry, frustration, anger and sadness we’ll feel.
Optimism strategy: Hunt the good stuff!
Fortunately, the tendency to spend more time thinking about the bad than the good is completely reversible. I’m not suggesting we stick our heads in the sand and deny bad things happen. We can, however, be more balanced in what we focus on. One simple way to build optimism in your children is to help them learn how to hunt the good stuff. Here are two ideas:
Go on a Happiness Scavenger Hunt Next time you are taking a walk with your children, ask them to point out anything they notice that makes them smile: a friend waving to them, a bright red cardinal peeking out from a tree limb, the sight of their favorite ice cream shop. This activity teaches your children to notice and share the everyday good things that surround them, and builds optimism and happiness.
Keep a Good Stuff Journal Another way to counteract the negativity bias is to keep a family journal of the good things that happened in the day. I labeled ours the “Good Stuff Journal” and a couple of nights a week, before the kids go to bed, I ask them to share something good that happened that day. I write it down and ask them one question to help them savor the good thing. Sometimes I ask, how did you feel when that happened? Or, how did you contribute to that good thing? Or, what did you like about that good thing?
Pessimism trap: Negative self-talk
All of us have an internal radio station that plays “You, You, You – 24/7.” I’ve named mine WKRN and I’m constantly amazed by the creative ways it can cut me down, undermine my mood and deplete my confidence. Negative self-talk is common, particularly during moments of stress, and it is toxic! Children, like adults, are often their own worst enemies. Few of us would ever talk as nastily to others as we do to ourselves. The cost of negative self-talk is that it undercuts resilience, breeds pessimism and compromises our performance.
Optimism strategy: Change the play list
You can help your child change a negative play list to a positive one by fighting back against these harsh accusations. In fact, I recommend that you practise this yourself so that you increase your own optimism as well. When we hear our children being overly negative in their thinking, our natural tendency is to try to cheer them up. Recently, one of my sons finished a soccer game and reported, “I’m the worst one out there. I can’t do anything right. I totally sucked.” Every cell in my body wanted to shout out, “Don’t be silly, it’s the World Cup for you one day! You’re a star!”
But I didn’t. Had I pumped my son up with false praise, all that would have done is erode his trust in me. False praise communicates that we don’t want to hear about their struggles or worries. With too much false praise, your children will learn to keep quiet about their fears and disappointments. So instead of World Cupping him, I first listened to him describe how horrible he was and I empathized. Then, after I’d given him time to express himself, I asked him questions that were designed to help him fight back against the overly pessimistic thoughts playing on his internal radio station:
• “What is one thing that you did well in the game?” This question helps children come up with one piece of evidence that proves their negative beliefs are not completely true, and increases their optimism.
• “What is something you can do this week to increase the chances that you’ll play better next time?” This question helps children shift from focusing on the problem to focusing on a solution. When kids create a plan for success, their confidence builds and anxiety lessens.
• “What would you say to your best friend who told you he/she was thinking this way?” this question helps children become more gentle and compassionate toward themselves. When kids practise treating themselves the way they would treat their best friend, they start to focus on their strengths, not just their weaknesses.
As a parent, you can lay the foundation for happiness, resilience and success by teaching your child how to think optimistically. By teaching school-aged children how to think optimistically and how to approach problems and adversities with a clear set of coping skills, we can enable them to approach their lives with resilience and increase their overall sense of well being. And that kind of outcome is enough to put a smile on any parent’s face.
Dr. Karen Reivich is the co-director of the Penn Resiliency Project and a research associate in the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania. She is a leader in the field of depression prevention, resilience, positive psychology interventions and school-based intervention research. Dr. Reivich is a co-author of two books: The Optimistic Child and The Resilience Factor. In addition, Dr. Reivich has a coaching practice and provides consultation to organizations around the themes of resilience, optimism, and strength development.