Why Parents Should Teach Optimism – And How to Do It

Why Parents Should Teach Optimism - And How to Do It

When it comes to thought processes, one of the most important habits of mind that children can develop is optimism. Children who practise optimistic thinking are more resilient, they are less likely to give up in the face of challenge and they tend to interpret experiences in a way that gives them a sense of control and confidence.

Pessimism, on the other hand, leads to helplessness and withdrawal – it doesn’t matter what I do, it won’t work, so there is no point in trying.

Optimism is not about temperament, it is a habit of thinking that relates to how we interpret events. And it can therefore be taught.

Imagine two children (let’s call them Optimistic Olly and Pessimistic Patrick) who both play soccer for the local under 11s team (the Variable Vikings). The team has just lost a game 1-0 due to a defensive error by Olly and Patrick.

For the detached pundit, there are lots of different ways of interpreting this result, that’s why sports programmes usually have a panel of experts rather than just one! The Vikings were unlucky – they had possession for most of the game and narrowly missed going two goals up in the first half. Or, the Vikings failed to stay firm defensively and were punished for not taking their chances.

Despite both being equally involved in the same incident, Olly and Patrick choose different ways of interpreting the experience. When he comes off the pitch, Patrick is upset. He puts his head down and leaves as quickly as possible. In the car on the way home, he tells his dad he wants to stop playing for the Vikings. According to Patrick, it is his fault they lost the match. He is rubbish at soccer and the coach won’t pick him for the team again anyway so he might as well stop playing. Pessimistic Patrick’s interpretation of the match does three important things – it personalises (it was because of me), globalises (I am rubbish at soccer) and catastrophises (they won’t pick me again). And it leads him to give up.

Optimistic Olly, on the other hand, hangs around with his teammates after the match and talks to the coach. “Bad luck, Olly” they say to him. “We need to practise our finishing and our defensive passes,” says the coach, “We could have won that game 2-0.” Like Patrick, Olly feels bad about the result and knows he made an error. But in Olly’s version of events, the result wasn’t all his fault and it isn’t all doom and gloom. He asks his dad if they can go to the park after school this week so he can practise his passing: “The team isn’t having a great season and we need to win next week.”

Olly’s optimistic habit of mind leads him to explain events in ways that are specific and that allow for change and future success. Optimism helps children to learn from experience and try again.

So what can parents do to encourage an optimistic outlook?

  1. Be a positive role model.

    Model being optimistic. Monitor the running commentary on life that you present to your children. If children hear lots of optimistic comments, they are more likely to develop this way of thinking themselves. Look for and point out the good side to events and experiences. Offer interpretations of events that are specific, that locate control and influence and that allow for a different outcome next time. Avoid personalising (I am to blame), globalising (I always do everything wrong) and catastrophizing (I will always do it wrong). If you find yourself falling into these habits, try and substitute explanations that are local and specific and which allow for a different outcome next time (I did this thing wrong because I wasn’t concentrating. I will remember to pay more attention next time so I can get it right). Look on the bright side and find the positive even when things haven’t gone well.

  2. Interpret failure as an opportunity.

    Whether things have gone well or badly, the most important question that parents can ask their children is “What will you do differently next time?” Present failure as a natural part of learning that helps us to recognise what we don’t yet know or can’t yet do. Always say what your child did well before you discuss what they could do better. Help them to self-evaluate: “What went well?” “What would you change if you could?” And encourage your child to identify how s/he can influence future events and to develop a plan of action to effect change.

  3. Encourage children to set their own goals.

    When children are anxious about failing, allow them to set their own goals and work out for themselves how to achieve them. Even if they set the bar really low for themselves, if it is an achievable goal that they accomplish by themselves then they will gain a sense of competence that will lead to them setting a more challenging goal next time. Support them to participate in activities where they will experience success.

  4. Challenge negative explanations.

    There is seldom just one correct answer to the question “Why did that happen?” Encourage children to look all around an issue rather than settling on their first explanation. Pessimistic Patrick’s explanation as to why they lost the match is that it was his fault. He is right: he made a mistake. But it is not an adequate explanation for the overall result.

    If a child is interpreting events negatively, don’t contradict them but encourage them to come up with six reasons as to why something happened. Why six? Well, it’s quite hard to come up with six personalising, globalising and catastrophizing explanations and there is a good chance that somewhere in there will be one that allows for a locus of control and change. When pressed, for example, Patrick might admit that Olly was also to blame – follow this lead. What did Olly do that contributed to the error? Is there something you and Olly could practise in training that would make that less likely to happen again? What skills does Olly have that might help strengthen your defence in the next game? When will you get a chance to talk to him about that?

Teaching optimism is one of the most important things that parents can do to bolster children’s emotional wellbeing. How children interpret events connects directly to their self-esteem and how they feel about themselves. A child who believes he has competence and influence, even if he makes mistakes, will have a positive view of himself and of the world and will be much more likely to make the most of opportunities. Pessimistic Patrick’s habit of mind is not fixed, it is open to influence (and that is optimism in practice!).


 

Anita CleareAbout the Author: 
Anita Cleare (MA AdvDip (Child Development)

Anita is a parenting speaker, writer and coach and co-founder of The Positive Parenting Project, a social enterprise which aims to bring the benefits of proven evidence-based parenting strategies to as many parents as possible. She also writes the popular and inspiring Thinking Parenting blog.

Anita delivers parenting seminars and clinics in businesses across the UK, supporting working parents to find practical solutions to parenting dilemmas and optimise the time they spend with their children. She is a regular speaker at corporate working parents’ events and also works one-to-one with families.

Fascinated by children and how they develop, Anita has a talent for helping parents view their children and their own parenting strategies from different angles. She is adamant that there is no such thing as a perfect parent and says her ambition with her own children is simply not to make the same mistakes too often. Anita has two teenage sons.

You can find out more about Anita and read her blog at www.anitacleare.co.uk, and follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

2 Comments

Apocalypse Daddy

Love this. When Carol Dweck kick-started the growth mindset revolution I think her message was hi-jacked. Growth mindset became a buzz word for personal development, a phrase for CEO’s and entrepreneurs to sell more books. She was always speaking about our kids. You have captured that essence here. I hope more parents get to read it.

I’m interested in the goal setting and how Alice (my daughter) can incorporate that into her daily morning routine.

Awesome, thanks.

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Anxiety is a sign that the brain has registered threat and is mobilising the body to get to safety. One of the ways it does this is by organising the body for movement - to fight the danger or flee the danger. 

If there is no need or no opportunity for movement, that fight or flight fuel will still be looking for expression. This can come out as wriggly, fidgety, hyperactive behaviour. This is why any of us might pace or struggle to sit still when we’re anxious. 

If kids or teens are bouncing around, wriggling in their chairs, or having trouble sitting still, it could be anxiety. Remember with anxiety, it’s not about what is actually safe but about what the brain perceives. New or challenging work, doing something unfamiliar, too much going on, a tired or hungry body, anything that comes with any chance of judgement, failure, humiliation can all throw the brain into fight or flight.

When this happens, the body might feel busy, activated, restless. This in itself can drive even more anxiety in kids or teens. Any of us can struggle when we don’t feel comfortable in our own bodies. 

Anxiety is energy with nowhere to go. To move through anxiety, give the energy somewhere to go - a fast walk, a run, a whole-body shake, hula hooping, kicking a ball - any movement that spends the energy will help bring the brain and body back to calm.♥️
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#parenting #anxietyinkids #childanxiety #parenting #parent
This is not bad behaviour. It’s big behaviour a from a brain that has registered threat and is working hard to feel safe again. 

‘Threat’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, but about what the brain perceives. The brain can perceive threat when there is any chance missing out on or messing up something important, anything that feels unfamiliar, hard, or challenging, feeling misunderstood, thinking you might be angry or disappointed with them, being separated from you, being hungry or tired, anything that pushes against their sensory needs - so many things. 

During anxiety, the amygdala in the brain is switched to high volume, so other big feelings will be too. This might look like tears, sadness, or anger. 

Big feelings have a good reason for being there. The amygdala has the very important job of keeping us safe, and it does this beautifully, but not always with grace. One of the ways the amygdala keeps us safe is by calling on big feelings to recruit social support. When big feelings happen, people notice. They might not always notice the way we want to be noticed, but we are noticed. This increases our chances of safety. 

Of course, kids and teens still need our guidance and leadership and the conversations that grow them, but not during the emotional storm. They just won’t hear you anyway because their brain is too busy trying to get back to safety. In that moment, they don’t want to be fixed or ‘grown’. They want to feel seen, safe and heard. 

During the storm, preserve your connection with them as much as you can. You might not always be able to do this, and that’s okay. None of this is about perfection. If you have a rupture, repair it as soon as you can. Then, when their brains and bodies come back to calm, this is the time for the conversations that will grow them. 

Rather than, ‘What consequences do they need to do better?’, shift to, ‘What support do they need to do better?’ The greatest support will come from you in a way they can receive: ‘What happened?’ ‘What can you do differently next time?’ ‘You’re the most wonderful kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen. How can you put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
Big behaviour is a sign of a nervous system in distress. Before anything, that vulnerable nervous system needs to be brought back home to felt safety. 

This will happen most powerfully with relationship and connection. Breathe and be with. Let them know you get it. This can happen with words or nonverbals. It’s about feeling what they feel, but staying regulated.

If they want space, give them space but stay in emotional proximity, ‘Ok I’m just going to stay over here. I’m right here if you need.’

If they’re using spicy words to make sure there is no confusion about how they feel about you right now, flag the behaviour, then make your intent clear, ‘I know how upset you are and I want to understand more about what’s happening for you. I’m not going to do this while you’re speaking to me like this. You can still be mad, but you need to be respectful. I’m here for you.’

Think of how you would respond if a friend was telling you about something that upset her. You wouldn’t tell her to calm down, or try to fix her (she’s not broken), or talk to her about her behaviour. You would just be there. You would ‘drop an anchor’ and steady those rough seas around her until she feels okay enough again. Along the way you would be doing things that let her know your intent to support her. You’d do this with you facial expressions, your voice, your body, your posture. You’d feel her feels, and she’d feel you ‘getting her’. It’s about letting her know that you understand what she’s feeling, even if you don’t understand why (or agree with why). 

It’s the same for our children. As their important big people, they also need leadership. The time for this is after the storm has passed, when their brains and bodies feel safe and calm. Because of your relationship, connection and their felt sense of safety, you will have access to their ‘thinking brain’. This is the time for those meaningful conversations: 
- ‘What happened?’
- ‘What did I do that helped/ didn’t help?’
- ‘What can you do differently next time?’
- ‘You’re a great kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen, but here we are. What can you do to put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
As children grow, and especially by adolescence, we have the illusion of control but whether or not we have any real influence will be up to them. The temptation to control our children will always come from a place of love. Fear will likely have a heavy hand in there too. When they fall, we’ll feel it. Sometimes it will feel like an ache in our core. Sometimes it will feel like failure or guilt, or anger. We might wish we could have stopped them, pushed a little harder, warned a little bigger, stood a little closer. We’re parents and we’re human and it’s what this parenting thing does. It makes fear and anxiety billow around us like lost smoke, too easily.

Remember, they want you to be proud of them, and they want to do the right thing. When they feel your curiosity over judgement, and the safety of you over shame, it will be easier for them to open up to you. Nobody will guide them better than you because nobody will care more about where they land. They know this, but the magic happens when they also know that you are safe and that you will hold them, their needs, their opinions and feelings with strong, gentle, loving hands, no matter what.♥️
Anger is the ‘fight’ part of the fight or flight response. It has important work to do. Anger never exists on its own. It exists to hold other more vulnerable emotions in a way that feels safer. It’s sometimes feels easier, safer, more acceptable, stronger to feel the ‘big’ that comes with anger, than the vulnerability that comes with anxiety, sadness, loneliness. This isn’t deliberate. It’s just another way our bodies and brains try to keep us safe. 

The problem isn’t the anger. The problem is the behaviour that can come with the anger. Let there be no limits on thoughts and feelings, only behaviour. When children are angry, as long as they are safe and others are safe, we don’t need to fix their anger. They aren’t broken. Instead, drop the anchor: as much as you can - and this won’t always be easy - be a calm, steadying, loving presence to help bring their nervous systems back home to calm. 

Then, when they are truly calm, and with love and leadership, have the conversations that will grow them - 
- What happened? 
- What can you do differently next time?
- You’re a really great kid. I know you didn’t want this to happen but here we are. How can you make things right. Would you like some ideas? Do you need some help with that?
- What did I do that helped? What did I do that didn’t help? Is there something that might feel more helpful next time?

When their behaviour falls short of ‘adorable’, rather than asking ‘What consequences they need to do better?’ let the question be, ‘What support do they need to do better.’ Often, the biggest support will be a conversation with you, and that will be enough.♥️
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#parenting #positiveparenting #mindfulparenting #anxietyinkids

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