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Building Your Child's Optimism

“I can’t change the direction of the wind, but I can always adjust my sails to reach my destination.”
Jimmy Dean
Optimism can be an important tool in combating depression. Studies have shown that happy people are more optimistic, and optimistic people are less vulnerable to depression. When bad things happen, they bounce back, and continue to expect that good things will continue to happen to them. Surprisingly, good things don’t happen more often to happy people than to unhappy people. Everyone experiences sadness and difficulty. It is merely a part of life. The difference is how one explains what happens. Happy, optimistic people tend to maintain three beliefs or explanatory styles; that good events last a long time, and bad events pass quickly; that good events are caused by their own efforts and bad things just happen without a reason; and good things have global implications and bad things are very specific (i.e., I am very smart, vs. I am good at math; Jose doesn’t like me vs. no one likes me.)The good news is that optimism can be learned, and it is especially helpful to learn it at an early age.

Martin Seligman is the pioneering psychologist who first studied optimism and has developed tests to measure it, and methods of developing it. Check out his web site at authentichappiness.org. Sign up, and you and your child can take tests to determine your level of optimism. Dr. Seligman also wrote The Optimistic Child to instruct parents on how to help their children develop optimism. Dr. Seligman suggests that most children learn to be optimistic (or not) from their parents, teachers and coaches. They listen to how adults criticize them, and then internalize their style of criticism. For example, calling a child lazy instead of stating that they not trying hard enough today can instill the belief that not only are they being lazy in that moment, but they always will be lazy and this this cannot be changed.

Criticism from a parent should be accurate, and not minimized or exaggerated. Minimizing the impact of a child’s misbehavior doesn’t do her any favors, just as excessive shame is also detrimental. Whenever possible, Dr. Seligman suggests criticizing with a positive explanatory style rather than a permanent and pervasive one. For example, Jose is a 12 year-old boy who didn’t like doing dishes. His parents both work outside the home, and they really want help cleaning up after dinner. One night, after a particularly busy day, his mother made dinner, and before she went to bed, she noticed that Jose hadn’t cleaned up the kitchen at all and became quite frustrated. She found Jose playing video games in his room. Here is an example of a response that would impact Jose’s optimism: “Jose, you are so lazy and disrespectful! Here you are relaxing in your room while the kitchen remains as dirty as I left it. You obviously have no concern for my happiness and are entirely self-absorbed with your own videogames. You will never make anything of yourself if you can’t learn some basic respect for your parents. I’ve had it with your attitude and things had better change fast!” This message is really toxic. His mother attributes his behavior to characterological issues that are permanent and unchangeable. Jose internalizes a message that he is self-centered, lazy and unworthy.

A response that would promote an optimistic internalized message as well as induce more behavior change is the following: “Jose, the kitchen is still dirty after dinner, and I am very frustrated with you. You are a great student, and keep your room clean, and usually are respectful towards our father and I. But tonight you’ve left us a real mess to clean up and I am tired after a long day of work. Turn off your video games until you have cleaned the kitchen. From now on, you need to have me check the kitchen first before you can start playing your games.” While clearly keeping Jose accountable for his behavior, this message is more specific and temporary. She relates specific examples that the problem is not an indication of his general worth, and gives directions on how his behavior should change. Jose internalizes the message that his mother believes that he is a responsible child, and his problematic behavior is specific and changeable.