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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Behaviour is never from ‘bad’. It’s from ‘big’. Big hungry, big tired, big disconnection, big missing, big ‘too much right now’. The reason our responses might not work can often be because we’ve misread the story, or we’ve missed an important piece of it. Their story might be about now, today, yesterday, or any of the yesterdays before now. 

Our job isn’t to fix them. They aren’t broken. Our job is to understand them. Only then can we steer our response in the right direction. Otherwise we’re throwing darts at the wrong target - behaviour, instead of the need behind the behaviour. 

Watch, listen, breathe and be with. Feel what they feel. This will help them feel you with them. We all feel safer and calmer when we feel our people beside us - not judging or hurrying or questioning. What don’t you know, that they need you to know?♥️
We all have first up needs. The difference between adults and children is that we can delay the meeting of these needs for a bit longer than children - but we still need them met. 

The first most important question the brain needs answered is, ‘Is my body safe?’ - Am I free from threat, hunger, exhaustion, pain? This is usually an easier one to take care of or to recognise when it might need some attention. 

The next most important question is, ‘Is my heart safe?’ - Am I loved, noticed, valued, claimed, wanted, welcome? This can be an easy one to overlook, especially in the chaos of the morning. Of course we love them and want them - and sometimes we’ll get distracted, annoyed, frustrated, irritated. None of this changes how much we love and want them - not even for a second. We can feel two things at once - madly in love with them and annoyed/ distracted/ frustrated. Sometimes though, this can leave their ‘Is my heart safe?’ needs a little hungry. They have less capacity than us to delay the meeting of these needs. When these needs are hungry, we’ll be more likely to see big feelings or big behaviour. 

The more you can fill their love tanks at the start of the day, the more they’ll be able to handle the bumps. This doesn’t have to be big. It just has to be enough. It might look like having a cuddle, reading a story, having a chat, sitting with them while they have breakfast or while they pat the dog, touching their back when they walk past, telling them you love them.

All brains need to feel loved and wanted, and as though they aren’t a nuisance, but sometimes they’ll need to feel it more. The more their felt sense of relational safety is met, the more they’ll be able to then focus on ‘thinking brain’ things, such as planning, making good decisions, co-operating, behaving. 

(And if this today was a bumpy one, that’s okay. Those days are going to happen. If most of the time their love tanks are full, they’ll handle when it drops a little. Just top it up when you can. And don’t forget to top yours up too. Be kind to yourself. You deserve it as much as they do.)♥️
Things will always go wrong - a bad decision, a good decision with a bad outcome, a dilemma, wanting something that comes with risk. 

Often, the ‘right thing’ lives somewhere in the very blurry bounds of the grey. Sometimes it will be about what’s right for them. Sometimes what’s right for others. Sometimes it will be about taking a risk, and sometimes the ‘right’ thing just feels wrong right now, or wrong for them. Even as adults, we will often get things wrong. This isn’t because we’re bad, or because we don’t know the right thing from the wrong thing, but because few things are black and white. 

The problem with punishment and harsh consequences is that we remove ourselves as an option for them to turn to next time things end messy, or as a guide before the mess happens. 

Feeling safe in our important relationships is a primary need for all of us humans. That means making sure our relationships are free from judgement, humiliation, shame, separation. If our response to their ‘wrong things’ is to bring all of these things to the table we share with them with them, of course they’ll do anything to avoid it. This isn’t about lying or secrecy. It’s about maintaining relational ‘safety’, or closeness.

Kids want to do the right thing. They want us to love and accept them. But they’re going to get things wrong sometimes. When they do, our response will teach them either that we are safe for them to come to no matter what, or that we aren’t. 

So what do we do when things go wrong? Embrace them, reject the behaviour:

‘I love that you’ve been honest with me. That means everything to me. I know you didn’t expect things to end up like this, but here we are. Let’s talk about what’s happened and what can be different next time.’

Or, ‘Something must have made this (wrong thing) feel like the right thing to do, otherwise you wouldn’t have done it. We all do that sometimes. What do you think it was that was for you?’

Or, ‘I know you know lying isn’t okay. What made you feel like you couldn’t tell me the truth? How can we build the trust again. Let’s talk about how to do that.’

You will always be their greatest guide, but you can only be that if they let you.♥️
Whenever there is a call to courage, there will be anxiety - every time. That’s what makes it brave. This is why challenging things, brave things, important things will often drive anxiety. 

At these times - when they are safe, but doing something hard - the feelings that come with anxiety will be enough to drive avoidance. When it is avoidance of a threat, that’s important. That’s anxiety doing it’s job. But when the avoidance is in response to things that are important, brave, meaningful, that avoidance only serves to confirm the deficiency story. This is when we want to support them to take tiny steps towards that brave thing. It doesn’t have to happen all at once.l and it doesn’t matter how long it takes. Brave is about being able to handle the discomfort of anxiety enough to do the important, challenging thing. It’s built in tiny steps, one after the other. 

We don’t have to get rid of their anxiety and neither do they. They can feel anxious, and do brave. At these times (safe, but scary) they need us to take a posture of validation and confidence. ‘I believe you, and I believe in you.’ ‘I know this feels big, and I know you can handle it.’ 

What we’re saying is we know they can handle the discomfort of anxiety. They don’t have to handle it well, and they don’t have to handle it for too long. Handling it is handling it, and that’s the substance of ‘brave’. 

Being brave isn’t about doing the brave thing, but about being able to handle the discomfort of the anxiety that comes with that. And if they’ve done that today, at all, or for a moment longer than yesterday, then they’ve been brave today. It doesn’t matter how messy it was or how small it was. Let them see their brave through your eyes.‘That was big for you wasn’t it. And you did it. You felt anxious, and you stayed with it. That’s what being brave is all about.’♥️
A relationally unsafe (emotionally unsafe) environment can cause as much breakage as as a physically unsafe one. 

The brain’s priority will always be safety, so if a person or environment doesn’t feel emotionally safe, we might see big behaviour, avoidance, or reduced learning. In this case, it isn’t the child that’s broken. It’s the environment.

But here’s the thing, just because a child doesn’t feel safe, doesn’t mean the person or environment isn’t safe. What it means is that there aren’t enough signals of safety - yet, and there’s a little more work to do to build this. ‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, it’s about what the brain perceives. Children might have the safest, warmest, most loving adult in front of them, but that doesn’t mean they’ll feel safe. This is when we have to look at how we might extend bigger cues of warmth, welcome, inclusiveness, and what we can do (or what roles or responsibilities can we give them) to help them feel valued and needed. This might take time, and that’s okay. Children aren’t meant to feel safe with every adult in front of them, so sometimes what they need most is our patience and understanding as we continue to build this. 

This is the way it works for all of us, everywhere. None of us will be able to give our best or do our best if we don’t feel welcome, liked, valued, and free from hostility, humiliation or judgement. 

This is especially important for our schools. A brain that doesn’t feel safe can’t learn. For schools to be places of learning, they first have to be places of relationship. Before we focus too sharply on learning support and behaviour management, we first have to focus on felt sense of safety support. The most powerful way to do this is through relationship. Teachers who do this are magic-makers. They show a phenomenal capacity to expand a child’s capacity to learn, calm big behaviour, and open up a child’s world. But relationships take time, and felt safety takes time. The time it takes for this to happen is all part of the process. It’s not a waste of time, it’s the most important use of it.♥️

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