Parenting tips to help kids be more optimistic especially in uncertain, anxious times.
“I’m not studying. The whole world is falling apart.”
“Why should I wear a mask? I’m just going to get that virus thing.”
“I don’t want to go back to school. Nobody’s going to like me.”
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 of life, and often find only the inadequacies in themselves. And beware: a pessimistic trend amongst today’s youth is increasing. A child today is ten times more likely to be seriously depressed compared to a child born in the first third of this century. Uncertainty only increases pessimistic attitudes.
So what’s a parent to do?
First, do know I empathize. It’s heartbreaking to hear children talk about the bad, pessimistic parts of life. 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. That means parenting can be influential in curbing negativity and cynicism and boosting positivity and optimism.
In all fairness, the news our kids are seeing lately is flooded with “doom and gloom” stories: the pandemic, graphs showing daily death tolls, shootings, riots and the horrific live feed of George Floyd’s death. But there is also goodness: People uniting to march together for justice. First responders jeopardizing their own lives. Teachers giving every ounce of themselves to try to reach children. Kids leaving inspiring messages with sidewalk chalk for others. Let’s show our children the upside of the world and teach proven strategies to reduce pessimism, and scientific research reveals why we must.
Proven Scientific Benefits of Boosting Optimism
REALITY CHECK: Research shows that a large part of an optimistic attitude is learned along the way, and that parents can help their kids become more optimistic, so take heart. What’s more a growing numbers of studies confirmed powerful benefits for nurturing positive attitudes in our kids. Optimistic thinking could curb kid depression as well as less heavy drug abuse and bad behavior.
Studies at Penn State University by Martin Seligman find that boosting optimism may increase the likelihood of your son or daughter’s long-term happiness and school success, as well as emotional and physical health.The research also shows that children with optimistic outlooks are less likely to be depressed and as well as suffer from anxiety disorders, and more likely to be able to bounce back with that resilient spirit when the going gets tough.
Research at Australia’s Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne finds optimistic teens may be somewhat less likely to be depressed than their peers.
Why Optimism is a Superpower
Optimistic kids view challenges and obstacles as temporary and able to be overcome, and so they are more likely to success. But there is a dramatically opposing view: pessimism. Children who are pessimistic see challenges as permanent, like cement blocks that are impossible to move, and so they are more likely to quit.
Psychologists used to believe that attitudinal change isn’t possible, which is why the research of psychiatrist Aaron Beck at the University of Pennsylvania over the past several decades was so significant. Beck completely revolutionized our perspective on optimism and the ability each of us has to shift our mind-sets. Beck believed that how we thinking (cognition), feel (emotion), and act (behavior) interact. In short, out thoughts determine our feelings and our behavior, not the other way around. So, if we change naive, inaccurate thoughts, we can alter our feelings and behaviors and thereby improve our odds of handling whatever comes our way. In short, optimism can be a superpower for our children.
Danger If Pessimism Is Left Unchecked
If left unchecked, pessimism can spiral into cynicism, helplessness, and depression, plant seeds of underachievement, and influence every arena in our children’s lives and reduce their chances to thrive. Their dismal views are a stark difference from optimistic kids, who are far more likely to think about bad events in terms like “sometimes,” “yet.” and “almost.”
It’s no coincidence that optimistic are also less depressed, more successful at school, more resilient, and better able to bounce back from adversity, and even physically than pessimistic kids. But benefits continue this strength also unleashes children’s academic potential, character, and positive mental health. And the need for optimism has never been more crucial than today as we raise our kids in an anxious, uncertain world.
It’s all the reasons why I chose Optimism as the 7th Essential Character Strength of Thrivers. So, roll up your sleeves, and let’s get started on a serious parenting venture: Helping our children develop more positive outlooks about their world. Here are seven solutions to turn your child’s negative attitude into more a positive outlook and make a lasting difference on his or her life. You will find more evidence-based strategies to increase your children’s optimism and reduce pessimistic thinking in Chapter 7 of my book, Thrivers: The Surprising Reasons Why Some Kids Struggle and Others Shine.
1. Curb That Negativity, Pronto!
Start by doing what you can do to reduce negativity. Listen to the negative messages your child may be receiving.
Tune into the news sources, television, video games, music lyrics or movies. On the whole are they more upbeat or down? Cut those sources that might be exacerbating your kid’s pessimism. Possibilities? Here are a few:
Turn off the scary news (or at least limit it!)
Stop talking about the bad stuff on the front page.
Listen to your own negative talk and curb it.
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 vigilant and turn off what you can control.
Studies show that young children can not discriminate between “real” “make believe” or a “repeat broadcast.” For instance, when news shows repeated the images of planes hitting the World Trade Center, young children assumed those were new attacks.
Middle school children said that “late breaking news without an adult there to help them make sense of the news” was upping their fears. The news does affect our children’s attitudes.
Watch out! Pessimism can breed.
2. Share “Good News”
Consciously stress a more optimistic outlook in your home so your child sees the good parts of life instead of just the downside. You might have each family member report something good that happened that day to him or her at the dinner table.
Look for examples to share with your kids in their own world. Most of those good stories are on the back pages of the news paper. I’ve discovered wonderful stories about kids in Reader’s Digest, People, Guideposts, or Parade. The website, Kid Are Heroes — kids who are making a difference — is also glorious!
The Good News is out there! We just have to dig a bit harder to find it and then share it with our children:
“Did you hear about the teens who are Skyping with the folks in the assisted living so they can learn how to Zoom with their grandkids?”
“Did you read about the Boy Scout troop that is sending care packages to all the first responders? Look at the pictures of the nurses opening up those packages!”
“Wow, come listen to this news report: Two sisters in Philadelphia are broadcasting Good News reports in their basement because they’re so tired of hearing bad news!”
3. Institute Goodness Reviews
Each night start a new ritual with your child of reviewing all the good parts about her day. Some parents cut out good news stories and paste them on index cards placed in a basket. Then families review one good news story during dinner. Or review the good news about the day right before your child goes to sleep. She’ll not sleep better, but also remember the positives about life.
If you review those goodness issues often enough, it will become a routine that your child will do on her own.
4. 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.The danger is that doing so can make pessimistic thinking pervasive as well as permanent robbing kids of hope.
Point out cynicism. Create 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.
Tune in. Encourage your kid to listen to his own comments. Suggest an older kid wear a watch or bracelet to remind her to tune into how often she is pessimistic. Each time she sees the watch it helps her remember to be more positive and less negative.
Count negative thoughts. Help your kid count pessimistic comments for a set time period: “Listen for the next five minutes (or other brief time) to track how many times you say downbeat things out loud or inside your head.” A young kid can count on his fingers. An older kid can use coins moving one from his left to right pocket per statement or make tally marks on a piece of paper.
Replace negativity with positive word choices. “That was your pessimistic voice. What word can you use instead?” Possibilities
- Almost: “I always flunk.” Change to: “I almost have it right.”
- Yet: “I’ll never learn.” Change to: “I’m not there yet.”
- Closer: “It’s hopeless.” Change to: “I’m getting closer.”
- Next time:“I’m so stupid.” Change to: “Next time I’ll study more.”
- Try:“I won’t make it.” Change to: “I’ll try it.”
5. Balance Pessimistic Talk
One way to thwart a kid’s pessimistic thinking is by providing a more balanced perspective. If you use the strategy enough, your child will use it to help counter pessimistic talk.
Here are a few possibilities:
Your child won’t go to her friend’s birthday thinking no one likes her. So offer a more balanced view: “If Sunny didn’t like you, you’d never have been invited.”
Your kid blows her math test exclaiming that she’s “stupid.” You say: “Nobody can be good at everything. You’re good in history and art. Meanwhile, let’s figure out how to improve your math.”
6. Be the Example of Optimism
Use yourself as an example. Do feel free to fictionalize, just as long as your child gets the point.
“I remember when I was your age. Right before I’d take a test a voice inside me would say, ‘You’re not going to do well.’ I learned to talk back to that voice. I’d tell it: ‘I’m going to try my best. If I try my best, I’ll do okay.’
Pretty soon the voice faded away because I refused to listen to it. When you hear that voice, talk to it and say it’s wrong.”
Or develop an upbeat family mantra like: “We got this.” “We’re strong.” “We can do this.” Better yet, brainstorm possible mantras as a family and choose one that works best for you. And then start saying it over and over and over until you hear your children repeat the phrase. That means that your voice has become their inner voice. Power!
7. Acknowledge Positive Attitudes
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. And when she is optimistic, acknowledge it!
“Kara, I know how difficult distance learning has been. But saying “I think I’ll do better” was being so optimistic. I’m sure you’ll do better because you’ve been studying so hard.”
Changing negative, pessimistic attitudes is not an easy task, but it is doable. Hang in there and you should see gradual change that switch could well make a major difference on your children both now and for the rest of their lives. Ah, the power of positive parenting!
Dr. Michele Borba, Parenting Expert
I am an educational psychologist, parenting expert, TODAY show contributor and author of 24 books. My blog, Dr. Borba’s Reality Check offers ongoing parenting solutions and late-breaking news about child development. You can also find dozens of research-based and practical tips to raise strong kids from the inside out in my latest book, Thrivers: The Surprising Reasons Why Some Kids Struggle and Others Shine. Refer to Chapter 7 for specific ways to boost Optimism. Additional tips are also offered in UnSelfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World.
Research: George C. Patton, M.D., professor, adolescent health research, Centre for Adolescent Health, Royal Children’s Hospital, Melbourne, Australia; Hilary Tindle, M.D., M.P.H., researcher, Center for Research on Health Care, division of general internal medicine, University of Pittsburgh; February 2011, Pediatrics, online, Jan. 10, 2011