We all want our children to grow up happy and able to reach their full potential. But what if their thoughts and feelings are holding them back?
In this article, you’ll discover the dangerous consequences of pessimistic thinking and learn about the incredible power of its opposite: optimism.
Packed with psychological insights and practical advice, these blinks explore how you can raise your child to be an optimist – and, as a result, set them up for a lifetime of success and resilience.
Why should you teach your child to be optimistic?
Optimists come up with more positive explanations when things go wrong.
Conventional wisdom tells us that an optimist is a glass-half-full sort of person, while a pessimist sees the glass as half empty. But there’s a lot more to optimism than that.
In fact, where you stand on the optimism-pessimism spectrum impacts every area of your life, including your mental health.
A person with a pessimistic mindset will dwell on the worst possible explanation for something bad happening.
For instance, if she fails an exam, a pessimist might think: “I failed this exam because I’m stupid. I’ll never be able to succeed.” An optimist in the same situation, on the other hand, might think: “I failed because I didn’t study hard enough. Next time I’ll work harder – and I’ll do better.”
When a pessimist turns to worst-case scenarios about the future, it’s known as catastrophic thinking. But pessimism isn’t just about being downbeat about failure. A pessimistic mindset can negatively impact your whole life.
The reason for this is that when you dwell on worst-case scenarios, you start feeling as if the future is bleak and that changing your situation is impossible.
These feelings can quickly lead to symptoms of depression, such as low mood and listless behavior. Perhaps unsurprisingly, pessimistic children are more likely to become low achievers and be depressed later on in life.
The state of feeling powerless to change your situation is known as learned helplessness. When you’re in a state of learned helplessness, you feel as if nothing you do matters.
As a result, you often give up without even trying.
Just as we immunize children against physical illnesses, you can immunize your child against pessimism – and help protect them from depression and low achievement.
This immunization works by teaching your child the cognitive skills that foster lifelong optimism.
How can you help your child be more optimistic?
Many parents and educators think the answer lies in one simple concept: self-esteem. If we encourage our children to feel good about themselves, they believe, then surely optimism and a lower risk of depression will follow.
But the link between self-esteem, optimism, and depression is complex.
Since the 1960s, schools and parents have focused on bolstering children’s self-esteem. Schools ask them to write down all the reasons they’re special, for example, or make posters proclaiming, “I love myself!”
At baseball games, parents stand on the sidelines shouting, “You’re doing a great job!” – even when their child is playing poorly. The highest priority, it seems, is boosting children’s self-worth. So why are many of them so unhappy?
Rates of depression have been rising across the Western world since the 1950s. People are suffering from depression at an increasingly young age, too.
In fact, a 1993 study found that nearly a third of American 13-year-olds had depressive symptoms.
So why isn’t the self-esteem movement showing results? Why are our children feeling worse rather than better? The problem lies in a fundamental misunderstanding of what self-esteem actually is.
We’re often given the message that self-esteem is all about how children feel about themselves. But feelings are just one aspect of self-esteem. The more important component is what a child does.
In fact, much of your self-esteem comes from how you behave, not how you feel. It comes from mastering skills, persisting with problems, meeting challenges, and finding solutions to boredom and frustration.
In other words, self-esteem arises as a result of doing well.
By simply encouraging children to feel good about themselves, parents and educators are trying to directly improve children’s self-esteem – which isn’t possible.
This muddled approach explains the recent explosion in depression; we have changed from an achieving society to a feel-good society, one full of empty slogans and unrealistic emphasis on happiness over achievement.
Genuine optimism and high self-esteem aren’t about teaching your child to feel special or happy all the time.
How to teach your child to think about the causes of events in the right way?
Many people would say that it’s about adopting positive mantras or visualizing happy outcomes. But they’d be wrong – optimism isn’t about these things at all. Instead, it’s about how you think about the causes of events.
This is your explanatory style. It’s made up of several dimensions, which you use to explain why an event – either positive or negative – has occurred.
One of the most important of these dimensions concerns whether you see the causes of events as permanent or temporary.
The pessimistic child believes that the things that cause bad events are permanent and can’t be changed. Therefore, she reasons, bad things will keep happening in the future.
For example, a pessimistic child might respond to a scolding by saying, “My Mom is the meanest!” This attributes the child’s unhappiness to her mother’s character – and character can’t be changed.
An optimistic child, on the other hand, might say, “My mom is in the worst mood.” The difference? The mood is temporary. So the optimistic child finds it easier to be hopeful about the future, and that, in turn, makes her more resilient to depression.
You can gauge your child’s optimism by paying attention to the words she uses. If she talks about her failures by using words like “always” and “never,” it’s a sign she might have a permanent explanatory style and may be pessimistic.
Words like “recently” and “sometimes,” by contrast, suggest optimism.
The second dimension is pervasiveness. Pessimistic children believe that causes are pervasive – that the consequences of failure will be felt across many areas of their life, not just in the area they have failed in.
A pessimistic child who fails to win an essay-writing competition might tell himself that he “sucks at everything.”
In contrast, optimistic children believe the cause of failure is specific; doing badly in one respect doesn’t mean they’re doing badly overall.
An optimistic child might also be upset at losing the essay competition, but he’ll just think he failed because he “sucks at writing” – not at everything.
The optimistic child who doesn’t believe that other parts of his life are affected by his failure can go ahead and have fun with his friends later in the day.
The pessimistic child will spend the rest of the day alone in his bedroom, depressed and withdrawn; his pessimism has caused him to give up on everything, not just writing.
How to teach your child to think about self-blame in a healthy way?
When something goes wrong, what do you do? More importantly, who do you blame? For children at risk of depression, the answer tends to be: “myself.”
Self-blame is their answer to personalization – the assigning of blame when things go wrong.
Unfortunately, this leads to chronic guilt, low-self esteem, and depression. On the other hand, children who routinely share the blame with other people or circumstances tend to have higher self-esteem and lower levels of guilt and shame.
As you might expect, the optimistic child strikes a good balance between blaming themselves and looking for the cause of failure elsewhere.
Of course, you shouldn’t teach your children to always blame the world for their problems. The reality is that we all make mistakes.
Sometimes we mistreat people or handle situations badly. Encouraging children to avoid taking any blame isn’t realistic or ethically sound.
But the optimistic child takes accurate responsibility, an important distinction.
This means she holds herself accountable for what has gone wrong, but she doesn’t blame herself so much that she feels overwhelmingly guilty.
Behavioral self-blame is another way that optimistic children learn to accept their share of blame. This kind of blame is both temporary and specific.
For instance, an optimistic child who is grounded for hitting his sister will explain the situation by connecting his punishment to his behavior. He’ll say, “I got grounded because I hit my sister.”
Faced with the same situation, the pessimistic child is likely to engage in general self-blame. This type of blame is both permanent and pervasive, and it might manifest as thoughts such as, “I got grounded because I’m a bad kid.”
To encourage healthy self-blame, make sure you criticize your child’s behavior rather than his character.
If you were the parent in our example, you should tell your child that his punishment was for hitting his sister – not for being “bad.”
How to equip your child with a framework for problem-solving?
Teaching your child to challenge their pessimistic thoughts will help them on their way to optimism. But when it comes to raising healthy children, optimism isn’t enough.
Once your children begin analyzing their problems accurately, they’ll realize that there sometimes is a real problem they need to deal with.
In these cases, optimism alone won’t make the problems go away. Instead, the optimistic child needs to learn how to solve them.
Many of the challenges your child faces will centre around his social skills – and for children prone to pessimism, social relationships may not come easily.
However, you can help him in this department, too.
The first step toward better problem-solving skills is to teach your child to slow down.
Many children naturally react impulsively, which can lead to actions that they later regret. Instead, teach your child that good problem-solving means stopping and thinking for at least a minute before reacting.
For instance, if someone bumps into your child in the school cafeteria, causing him to spill his lunch, his instinctive reaction might be to hit that person.
But you can teach him that he shouldn’t rush to action.
Once a child has managed to slow down, he can take the second step. That’s perspective taking – thinking about why the other person acted the way she did and what she was thinking when she did it.
The third step in problem solving is goal-setting. Unlike the other two steps, goal-setting happens outside the heat of the moment.
Let’s say your child has upset a friend; goal-setting is where she says what she wants to happen, decides on a goal, and then lists all the ways she could achieve the goal.
For instance, if her goal is to repair the friendship, then she could list actions like “do something nice for him,” or “agree not to do the things that upset him again.”
Optimism isn’t a cure-all remedy for the challenges and adversity that life throws at us. But it can help you and your child tackle your challenges with resilience, hope, and a can-do attitude.
Optimism isn’t about cheerful slogans or wishful thinking. Instead, useful optimism means taking accurate responsibility for your actions and persevering through setbacks.
You can help your children become more optimistic by teaching them to see their challenges as temporary and specific rather than permanent and all-consuming.
The feeling of mastering a skill or task is an important part of optimism and self-esteem. You can start fostering this feeling in young children with something as simple as shopping.
The next time you go to a store, let your child choose and pay for three items himself, and put the items into his own little bag.
Small activities like this will give your child the sense that he has the ability to influence his world and make things happen.