The following post provided courtesty of Cindy Jett, author of “Harry the Happy Caterpillar Grows: Helping Children to Adjust to Change”. The philosophy behind her approach is important so I hope my readers gain some insight into how to support their children through their development years.
Optimism. Seeing the glass half full. Is it important? Research has found that optimists are happier, experience less stress, are more successful, and are healthier than pessimists. Furthermore, optimists outlive pessimists. We teach our children manners, we educate them and discipline them, all in the hope that one day they will fit into the wider world with success and happiness. What if we were to put similar effort into teaching our children optimism? While optimism or pessimism has a genetic component, research has identified a number of other factors that influence an optimistic mindset.
Help your Child to Develop a Positive Explanatory Style
One factor highly correlated with optimism is an optimistic explanatory style. Explanatory style is a concept developed by Martin Seligman of The University of Pennsylvania. Simply put, it is the way we construct narratives about what is going on around us. Optimists tend attribute successes to their inherent qualities, and failures to situational factors, while pessimists do the reverse: they attribute successes to situational factors, and failures to inherent qualities about themselves. These kinds of narratives affect how we feel about ourselves, how we perceive our the external world, and how we interact with the world. One way to help pessimistic children develop a more optimistic explanatory style is to challenge their contentions that failure is due to a flaw from within. Work with them to see a given incident as situational, and not a reflection of their internal worth. Alternatively, when your child enjoys a success, focus on what about the child helped to bring about the success. Children with pessimistic explanatory styles will often attribute any success to a spate of good luck.
Challenge Catastrophic Thinking
This goes hand in hand with developing a positive explanatory style. Catastrophic thinking is just what it sounds like: imagining a catastrophic outcome, a doomsday scenario. When you listen to your child's complaints, be on the lookout for words like “never” “always” “everyone” and “no one”. Some examples might be “I'll never make any friends at my school”, “Everyone already has friends” “No one will want to be friends with me.” Help your child to challenge these kinds of statements and develop a more balanced view of what the future may hold.
Gratitude is a simple way to practice looking at the glass half full. It is training the mind to focus on the positive, rather than the negative in life. Gratitude has been correlated with emotional health, happiness and adaptability. It has also been correlated with optimism. Once a week, share with your child the things that you are grateful for. Then ask your child to reciprocate.
Teach your Child to be Proactive
Often pessimists believe that they are powerless to change their circumstances. Why bother trying things when it won't help anyway? People who feel helpless have a high rates of depression. Once depressed, feelings of helplessness become more entrenched, fostering more depression. One way to protect children from this cycle is to teach them to be proactive. When your child is experiencing a situation not to his liking, ask him to think of things he can do to change the situation. He may need your help with this initially. Help him make a list of possible actions, and then take pride in him as he checks things off his list.
Altruism foster optimism on several fronts. First, it is a proactive . A child who is actively helping or giving to someone else feels effective and empowered. Furthermore, altruism helps a child develop a sense of connectedness with the world, and affirms the belief that he is a good person.
The importance of this last step can not be overstated. It is believed that children will develop an explanatory style that mirrors caretakers. If mom is calling herself “stupid” for making mistakes, there is a good chance that little Suzy will follow suit. So if you are pessimistic, take time to work on yourself. Seek professional help if necessary.
Cindy Jett, LICSW is a psychotherapist living in Reston, VA. She is the author of “Harry the Happy Caterpillar Grows: Helping Children to Adjust to Change”, a picture story book that teaches young children to think optimistically in the face of change.