Turning Pessimistic Kids Into Optimistic Thinkers

by | Sep 24, 2009 | Character and Moral Intelligence, Emotional Intelligence, The Big Book of Parenting Solutions

REALITY CHECK: Did you know that a child today is ten times more likely to be seriously depressed compared to a child born in the first third of this century? Beware: Pessimistic thinking clouds our kids’ view of the world and affects their emotional and mental health.

Michele Borba

Note to Readers: This week I’m taking on troubling trends that are affecting today’s youth. We’ve discussed Stress, Peer Pressure, and Materialistic, and Self-centered (and Entitled).  Today I’m taking on Pessimistic Thinking Patterns. The key to remember is that kids develop attitudes and behaviors much earlier than we recognize, and those views and actions can affect them for a lifetime. That’s exactly why it’s critical for us to help our kids develop NEW HABITS and parent for real and lasting change. Without teaching new habits our kids will continue to use those older unhealthier alternatives.

Does your child have a “why bother” view of the world? Does he often say, “What’s the point” or “It isn’t worth the effort?”            Watch out…that view can remain with him and impact his happiness and success potential.

Let’s face it: Kids with pessimistic attitudes are among the most frustrating breeds. They give up easily, believe anything they do won’t make a difference, and assume they won’t succeed. Sadly, they rarely see the good, wonderful things of life. They dwell instead on the negative, bad parts, and often find only the inadequacies in themselves: “I’m so dumb, why study?” “Nobody’s going to like me, why bother?” So what’s a parent to do?

First, do know I empathize if you have one of these little critters. I know this is troubling stuff, and at times even heartbreaking. After all, one of the hardest parts of being a parent is when your child isn’t happy. But there is one point you must keep in mind:  Kids are not born pessimistic. Research shows a large part of this attitude is learned along the way. So take heart: research at Penn State University concludes that parents can help their kids become more optimistic. Doing so will dramatically increases the likelihood of your son or daughter’s long-term happiness. So roll up your sleeves, and let’s get started.

There are dozens of solutions to help make a real difference on your child’s life based on the latest empirical studies (and good old common sense) in my book, The Big Book of Parenting Solutions: 101 Answers to Your Everyday Challenges and Wildest Worries. If you have a copy, turn to pages 279 and start reviewing Penn State University research. Also, please look at pages 283 that describe when you should worry- that your child’s pessimistic outlook may be something more. Then choose the new response and habit you want to teach your child. Choose the one that will  work best for your child, and start the process of parenting for real and lasting change. Just remember, change takes commitment and usually a minimum of 21 days of repetition. Here are three  solutions you can use. I’ve provided dozens of solutions to combat pessimism that begin on page 280 in The Big Book of Parenting Solutions.

• Eliminate the negatives you can. Start by doing what you can do:  Cut the sources that might be exacerbating your kid’s pessimism. Possibilities? Why not reduce the terrifying news on CNN; stop talking about the bad stuff on the front page; listen to your own negative talk and curb it; monitor the cynical musical lyrics your kid is hearing? Where once those tragic and terrifying world events seemed so far, far away or only printed words in the newspaper, they are now 24/7 on our TVs and Internet screens. So be more vigilante and turn off what you can control. Enough!

• Look for the positive. Next, consciously stress a more optimistic outlook in your home so your child sees the good parts of life instead of just the downside. For instance, start nightly “Good News Reports: each family member can report something good that happened that day to him or her. Or share optimistic stories. The world is filled with examples of individuals who suffered enormous obstacles, but don’t cave into pessimistic thinking. Instead they remained optimistic, and kept at their dreams until they succeeded. So look for examples to share with your kids. Each night start a new ritual with your child of reviewing all the good parts about her day. Your child will go to sleep remembering the positives about life. If you do it often enough, it will become a routine that your child will do on her own.

• Confront pessimistic thinking. Don’t let your child get trapped into “Stinkin’ Thinkin’. Help him tune into his pessimistic thoughts and learn to confront them. You could point out cynicism by creating a code–such as pulling on your ear or touching your elbow–that only you and your kid are aware. The code means he’s uttered a cynical comment. Encourage your kid to listen to his own cynical comments. Suggest an older kid wear a watch or bracelet. The watch reminds her to tune into how often she is pessimistic. Or even help your kid count their pessimistic comments for a set time period: “For the next few minutes listen how many times you say downbeat things.” A young kid can count comments on his fingers. An older kid can use coins moving one from his left to right pocket.

Do be on the alert for those times your child does utter optimism. If you’re not looking for the behavior, you may well miss those moments when your child is trying a new approach. “Kara, I know how difficult your spelling tests have been. But saying you think you’ll do better was being so optimistic. I’m sure you’ll do better because you’ve been studying so hard.”

Face it, this is a troubling time to be growing up, and cynical kids tune into the bad times often seeing only the downward side of any situation. The world really is a wonderful and hopeful place. We just need to take the time and point out all the goodness in it to our kids. After all, this is their world, and the habits they learn now will last them a lifetime. Let’s make sure that one of those habits you teach is optimistic thinking and recognizing the wonder and beauty in life.

Stay tuned. I’ll be taking on yet another troubling youth trend. The sooner we start parenting for real and lasting change the better our kids’ chances of turning out strong, confident and healthy from the inside out!