During my teaching career, I often had to coach the softball team and hold tryouts to select who would make it on to the team that year. These tryouts provided me with many opportunities to observe how my students viewed themselves, the world, and how they responded when things didn’t work out as they expected. Two of my students, Jenny and Rachel, tried out and didn’t make it on to the team. Both felt disappointed, but each handled it quite differently.
Jenny, who had a more optimistic way of thinking, acknowledged that there were a lot of really good players that tried out for the team and there were only 10 spaces. She thanked me for the opportunity to try out and explained that she was going to work on the things I’d suggested so that she would have a better chance of making it on to the team next year. Whereas Rachel, who had a more pessimistic way of thinking, was dejected. She commented, “No wonder I didn’t get on the team, I was the worst girl at tryouts today and don’t know why I bothered. I’m not that sporty anyway – I’ll never make it on to the team.”
Scientists have spent the past four decades studying people who think positively.
This research has shown that optimism is a valuable psychological resource that both adults and children can learn and develop even if their outlook and attitude are inclined to be more pessimistic.
Optimism and pessimism are different ways of thinking about the world and explaining things that happen. Each of us has habitual ways of thinking about what causes things to happen. Optimists tend to take a positive view of life, expect the best outcome, and believe that they have the ability to cause positive things to happen through their effort and skills. They view setbacks as temporary and know they can do something about changing the outcome next time, like Jenny’s response to the softball tryouts. Whereas people with a more pessimistic outlook tend to focus on the negative aspect of a situation, on what might go wrong, and frequently exaggerate the negative aspects of a situation. They are more likely to consider setbacks as permanent situations that are going to negatively impact on all areas of their lives and believe that there is nothing they can do to change the outcome, illustrated by Rachel’s response to the softball tryouts.
We are naturally pessimistic due to our negativity bias, the negative emotions which serve to alert us to potential threats and dangers. This negative disposition has an important evolutionary biological basis. It’s our own personal safety system that alerts us when there are threats and things that are going wrong. We can almost automatically identify what’s wrong faster and more frequently than what’s right and going well.
I’m not suggesting that we simply ignore our problems and stick our heads in the sand pretending that everything is picture-perfect – that’s not what optimists do. They also don’t try to eradicate all of their negative thoughts, as thinking about what might possibly go wrong can help them avoid risky behaviours and placing themselves in dangerous situations. When things do go wrong, or challenges arise, they acknowledge that things have gone differently to the way they wanted them to and that they are disappointed, but they don’t dwell on the negative aspects of the situation and blame themselves.
Optimists acknowledge that there are going to be problems and bumps in the road and set about identifying what actions they can take to navigate these challenges.
They also recognise and accept that some things cannot be changed, are realistic in their outlook, and focus on doing what they can to achieve their goals.
Researchers have found that optimistic people have a distinct advantage when it comes to their levels of happiness and wellbeing. Compared to people who are more pessimistic, optimists are:
- more successful at school and work
- less anxious
- more resilient and better able to cope with negative events
- less likely to suffer depression
As Martin Seligman points out in his books Learned Optimism and The Optimistic Child, one of the best things parents and teachers can do for kids is to help them develop an optimistic mindset.
Children are very attuned to their parent’s explanatory styles as well as those of their teachers and extended family members. They watch everything we do, keenly observing how we think about and respond to different situations. Modelling optimistic behaviours is a crucial way you can help them develop an optimistic mindset.
Sometimes things don’t turn out so well, in these situations, what matters is how kids make sense of the situation or the unwanted outcome. As parents, we need to help guide them from global, personal assessments to more specific, situational ones. For example, “I failed the test because I’m stupid and I’ll never be good at science” is a pessimistic response. Whereas “I failed because I didn’t understand the problems and need more practice” demonstrates an optimistic mindset that shows they have a plan of action to make the outcome different next time.
When you hear your child say pessimistic things, even in an offhand way, gently confront them about it. When they think pessimistic thoughts, when they expect bad things to happen; they are priming their brains for these things to occur. A pessimist thinks in catastrophic ways such as “I’m never going to make friends at this new school. No one talks to me, and no one is ever going to like me.”
To challenge your child’s pessimism, you need to recognise the following three negative 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.”
If you hear them using phrases like these, call them out, challenge their thinking and help them dispute their catastrophic thinking.
Here are three activities you use to develop the foundations of optimism in your children.
Monitor kids self-talk
Start helping your child understand the concept of self-talk, by explaining that we all have a little voice that chatters away constantly to us in our heads. This begins in the second or third year of life, around the same time children begin talking in sentences. Listen for what they are saying to themselves as the majority of their words is said aloud at this age – until age five when they start to internalise it and keep it to themselves. Explain to your child that this internal dialogue can be our best supporter or worst enemy and ask them whether they want a supporter or enemy. Kids frequently communicate their negative thoughts out loud, such as “I’m useless at sports, and no one is going to choose me to be on the team” or “my hair is so ugly”. Support your child in recognising their harsh negative thoughts and internal dialogue. Help them to stop these by discussing the thoughts with them. Suggest that they can become a detective who recognises their negative beliefs which set them up to feel bad, and then scaffold how they can change these thoughts to something more helpful. They could do this by labelling those negative thoughts as their negative brain that is being mean and unkind to them. Let them know that they are the boss of their brain and their thoughts and can change them by asking themselves questions like “How true is this thought? Am I being mean to myself? Is it helpful to think this way? What can I think instead? You could even have them write their mean negative thoughts down onto a piece of paper, then scrunch it up and throw it away and then ask them to replace those thoughts those that are more kind and helpful.
You can help your child gain perspective by giving their worries a score out of ten, on how important the problem really is. Draw a semi-circle on a piece of paper then divide this into thirds with one coloured in green, one yellow and one red. Mark the green section with the numbers 1-4 (4 is on the line between green and yellow) then mark the yellow section with the numbers 5-7 (with 7 on the line between yellow and red) and the red section is marked with 8-10. Similar to a fire safety warning system. Ranking their problems helps children gauge their reactions. You need to establish points of reference for each number from 1 to 10 on this problem/ disaster meter. Draw from children’s past experiences, e.g., a score of 1 out of 10 may be losing your sock. A score of 10 out of 10 may be linked to when a pet or grandparent died. The colours can help children realise the seriousness of the problem and the tool can be used as a reality check when they overreact to negative or bad events.
Unfortunately/ Fortunately Game
To help switch a child’s lens from pessimistic/ negative thinking to a more optimistic style you can play the game Unfortunately / Fortunately. You think of a tricky situation – so you say ‘unfortunately the shop ran out of popcorn’, then your child says ‘fortunately they sold ice cream’. Then you say ‘unfortunately they didn’t have any chocolate ice cream’, and you continue for as long as you can. The best way to do this is for you to start the game with ‘unfortunately’- so your child has to think of the positives.