Raise your child to be an optimist

by | May 3, 2022

Raising an optimist isn’t about producing a child who can think positively. Optimism can make your child’s life better in the long term – Dr Laura Markham gives us some pointers on how to do it.

The world needs optimists today more than ever. And people who are optimists have better lives. Optimism, or the conviction that things will work out in the end, is a cornerstone of resilience, and an asset in achieving any kind of success.

Research shows that optimists, who believe they can achieve success, are in fact more able to do so. They are less likely to get depressed, get fewer illnesses, have longer relationships, and live longer.

When life seems to be dealing one blow after another, you want your child to believe that things can get better. Otherwise, why should she pull herself together and keep going?

Can you help your child become more optimistic? There is some evidence that optimism is an inherited trait, and certainly we know there is a biological basis to depression as well as to a tendency to be upbeat.

There is also evidence, however, that we learn at an early age how to view the world and its potential from those around us, and that a depressed, negative parent can easily influence us to interpret events in a negative way. Findings from cognitive therapy show that we can change the way we talk to ourselves about events and how we interpret them, which has a direct impact on our emotional reaction to our experiences.

The bottom line is this: even if you are born with a tendency to pessimism, you can greatly increase your optimism quotient.

So how do you help your child to become more optimistic?

1. Notice how your child thinks about things
Is the glass half full or half empty? When something bad happens, does she see it as exemplary of her entire life, does she think the misfortune is pervasive or permanent, and personally directed at her? (“Why does this always happen to me?”) If you see that she’s pessimistic, you can help her to learn optimism.

2. Confront pessimism
Pessimistic thinking can be defined as expecting bad things to happen. Pessimists think catastrophically. For example, they might say, “I won’t make any friends at this new school. No one is going to like me.”
To confront pessimism, challenge the four thought patterns that lead to pessimistic thinking:
Permanence: “This always happens and always will.”
Pervasive: “Nothing ever goes right.”
Personal: “This always happens to me.”
Powerlessness: “There is no real relationship between cause and effect; things just happen; I am the victim of what has occurred.”

3. Teach your child optimism
The essential trick is to remember that you perceive a setback any way you choose. Help her choose to perceive setbacks as temporary, isolated (not pervasive, in other words, they don’t indicate anything about any other part of her life), not personal, and within her power to fix.

How can a setback be impersonal? Certainly, some bad things are just bad luck, and could have happened to anyone. In many cases, of course, it is clear that she brought the setback on herself, but it still doesn’t indicate anything about who she is, but how she chose to act in that one instance. In other words, she failed the test because she didn’t study, not because she always fails tests and always will.

Maybe most important is to help your child to see that she isn’t powerless in the situation. Martin Seligman, the trail-blazing researcher on optimism, says that the most important question to ask when confronted with misfortune is: “Is it possible that there are some ways you could change the outcome with some personal effort on your part?”

4. Teach your child to cultivate optimistic thinking
There are three ways to approach this:

  • There are actions I could or can take to change the situation. (As opposed to: “I am a victim here.”)
  • There are specific reasons that something happened the way that it did. (As opposed to the global belief: “Everything always goes wrong.”)
  • The cause is clearly leading to the effect, and that is true over time. Sometimes I can affect those factors, which means I can make the outcome better. Sometimes I can’t affect those reasons, but that means they are not my fault. (As opposed to: “Bad things just happen to me,” or “Life is just out to get me.”)

5. Confront negative self-talk
The problem with self-talk is that when you hear it, you believe it! Then you act as if it were true. But in fact, just because you are telling yourself something does not mean it’s true. It’s a belief that could be wrong. There are many ways to interpret events, and some are much healthier than others.

Cognitive therapists will often teach pessimists to confront this kind of thinking by a three-step process: Notice it, Externalise it, and Dispute it (NED). You can teach yourself, and your child, the NED process:

  • Notice negative self-talk.
  • Externalise it. Treat it as if it were said by an external person whose mission in life is to make you miserable. (Some kids call him NED.)
  • Dispute it in the same way you would an external person. We generally have the skill of disputing other people when they make false accusations, and we can learn to do so with ourselves as well.

6. Model optimism
Do you say things like, ”I know we’ll find a parking space soon!” or ”We’ll NEVER find a parking space! I KNEW this would happen!”? Your view of the world and your prospects within it communicates itself to your child daily. If you want to help your child become more optimistic, experiment with learning to be more optimistic yourself.

The idea is not to become some sort of annoying Polyanna in permanent rose-tinted glasses. Life has its ups and downs. But if you and your child can cultivate a culture of optimism – realising that things have just as much chance of going right as they do of going wrong – then you will both be able to roll with the punches much better, and with a much more positive outlook.

by Dr Laura Markham