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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I’m so excited for this! I’m coming back to Perth in February for another parent talk on 'Strengthening Children and Teens Against Anxiety'. Here’s the when and the where:

⏰ 6:30-8:30pm | 📆 Wed 22 Feb 2023
📍 Peter Moyes Anglican Community School, #mindarie

For tickets or more info google:

Parenting Connection WA Karen Young anxiety Mindarie Perth

💜 Thanks to @ngalaraisinghappiness for hosting this event.

#supportingwaparents #parentingwa
Let them know …

Anxiety shows up to check that you’re okay, not to tell you that you’re not. It’s your brain’s way of saying, ‘Not sure - there might be some trouble here, but there might not be, but just in case you should be ready for it if it comes, which it might not – but just in case you’d better be ready to run or fight – but it might be totally fine.’ Brains can be so confusing sometimes! 

You have a brain that is strong, healthy and hardworking. It’s magnificent and it’s doing a brilliant job of doing exactly what brains are meant to do – keep you alive. 

Your brain is fabulous, but it needs you to be the boss. Here’s how. When you feel anxious, ask yourself two questions:

- ‘Do I feel like this because I’m in danger or because there’s something brave or important I need to do?’

- Then, ‘Is this a time for me to be safe (sometimes it might be) or is this a time for me to be brave?

And remember, you will always have ‘brave’ in you, and anxiety doesn’t change that a bit.♥️

#positiveparenting #mindfulparenting #parenting #childanxiety #heywarrior #heywarriorbook
The temptation to fix their big feelings can be seismic. Often this is connected to needing to ease our own discomfort at their discomfort, which is so very normal.

Big feelings in them are meant to raise (sometimes big) feelings in us. This is all a healthy part of the attachment system. It happens to mobilise us to respond to their distress, or to protect them if their distress is in response to danger.

Emotion is energy in motion. We don’t want to bury it, stop it, smother it, and we don’t need to fix it. What we need to do is make a safe passage for it to move through them. 

Think of emotion like a river. Our job is to hold the ground strong and steady at the banks so the river can move safely, without bursting the banks.

However hard that river is racing, they need to know we can be with the river (the emotion), be with them, and handle it. This might feel or look like you aren’t doing anything, but actually it’s everything.

The safety that comes from you being the strong, steady presence that can lovingly contain their big feelings will let the emotional energy move through them and bring the brain back to calm.

Eventually, when they have lots of experience of us doing this with them, they will learn to do it for themselves, but that will take time and experience. The experience happens every time you hold them steady through their feelings. 

This doesn’t mean ignoring big behaviour. For them, this can feel too much like bursting through the banks, which won’t feel safe. Sometimes you might need to recall the boundary and let them know where the edges are, while at the same time letting them see that you can handle the big of the feeling. Its about loving and leading all at once. ‘It’s okay to be angry. It’s not okay to use those words at me.’

Ultimately, big feelings are a call for support. Sometimes support looks like breathing and being with. Sometimes it looks like showing them you can hold the boundary, even when they feel like they’re about to burst through it. And if they’re using spicy words to get us to back off, it might look like respecting their need for space but staying in reaching distance, ‘Ok, I’m right here whenever you need.’♥️
We all need certain things to feel safe enough to put ourselves into the world. Kids with anxiety have magic in them, every one of them, but until they have a felt sense of safety, it will often stay hidden.

‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, but about what they feel. At school, they might have the safest, most loving teacher in the safest, most loving school. This doesn’t mean they will feel enough relational safety straight away that will make it easier for them to do hard things. They can still do those hard things, but those things are going to feel bigger for a while. This is where they’ll need us and their other anchor adult to be patient, gentle, and persistent.

Children aren’t meant to feel safe with and take the lead from every adult. It’s not the adult’s role that makes the difference, but their relationship with the child.

Children are no different to us. Just because an adult tells them they’ll be okay, it doesn’t mean they’ll feel it or believe it. What they need is to be given time to actually experience the person as being safe, supportive and ready to catch them.

Relationship is key. The need for safety through relationship isn’t an ‘anxiety thing’. It’s a ‘human thing’. When we feel closer to the people around us, we can rise above the mountains in our way. When we feel someone really caring about us, we’re more likely to open up to their influence
and learn from them.

But we have to be patient. Even for teachers with big hearts and who undertand the importance of attachment relationships, it can take time.

Any adult at school can play an important part in helping a child feel safe – as long as that adult is loving, warm, and willing to do the work to connect with that child. It might be the librarian, the counsellor, the office person, a teacher aide. It doesn’t matter who, as long as it is someone who can be available for that child at dropoff or when feelings get big during the day and do little check-ins along the way.

A teacher, or any important adult can make a lasting difference by asking, ‘How do I build my relationship with this child so s/he trusts me when I say, ‘I’ve got you, and I know you can do this.’♥️

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