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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Big feelings, and the big behaviour that comes from big feelings, are a sign of a distressed nervous system. Think of this like a burning building. The behaviour is the smoke. The fire is a distressed nervous system. It’s so tempting to respond directly to the behaviour (the smoke), but by doing this, we ignore the fire. Their behaviour and feelings in that moment are a call for support - for us to help that distressed brain and body find the way home. 

The most powerful language for any nervous system is another nervous system. They will catch our distress (as we will catch theirs) but they will also catch our calm. It can be tempting to move them to independence on this too quickly, but it just doesn’t work this way. Children can only learn to self-regulate with lots (and lots and lots) of experience co-regulating. 

This isn’t something that can be taught. It’s something that has to be experienced over and over. It’s like so many things - driving a car, playing the piano - we can talk all we want about ‘how’ but it’s not until we ‘do’ over and over that we get better at it. 

Self-regulation works the same way. It’s not until children have repeated experiences with an adult bringing them back to calm, that they develop the neural pathways to come back to calm on their own. 

An important part of this is making sure we are guiding that nervous system with tender, gentle hands and a steady heart. This is where our own self-regulation becomes important. Our nervous systems speak to each other every moment of every day. When our children or teens are distressed, we will start to feel that distress. It becomes a loop. We feel what they feel, they feel what we feel. Our own capacity to self-regulate is the circuit breaker. 

This can be so tough, but it can happen in microbreaks. A few strong steady breaths can calm our own nervous system, which we can then use to calm theirs. Breathe, and be with. It’s that simple, but so tough to do some days. When they come back to calm, then have those transformational chats - What happened? What can make it easier next time?

Who you are in the moment will always be more important than what you do.
How we are with them, when they are their everyday selves and when they aren’t so adorable, will build their view of three things: the world, its people, and themselves. This will then inform how they respond to the world and how they build their very important space in it. 

Will it be a loving, warm, open-hearted space with lots of doors for them to throw open to the people and experiences that are right for them? Or will it be a space with solid, too high walls that close out too many of the people and experiences that would nourish them.

They will learn from what we do with them and to them, for better or worse. We don’t teach them that the world is safe for them to reach into - we show them. We don’t teach them to be kind, respectful, and compassionate. We show them. We don’t teach them that they matter, and that other people matter, and that their voices and their opinions matter. We show them. We don’t teach them that they are little joy mongers who light up the world. We show them. 

But we have to be radically kind with ourselves too. None of this is about perfection. Parenting is hard, and days will be hard, and on too many of those days we’ll be hard too. That’s okay. We’ll say things we shouldn’t say and do things we shouldn’t do. We’re human too. Let’s not put pressure on our kiddos to be perfect by pretending that we are. As long as we repair the ruptures as soon as we can, and bathe them in love and the warmth of us as much as we can, they will be okay.

This also isn’t about not having boundaries. We need to be the guardians of their world and show them where the edges are. But in the guarding of those boundaries we can be strong and loving, strong and gentle. We can love them, and redirect their behaviour.

It’s when we own our stuff(ups) and when we let them see us fall and rise with strength, integrity, and compassion, and when we hold them gently through the mess of it all, that they learn about humility, and vulnerability, and the importance of holding bruised hearts with tender hands. It’s not about perfection, it’s about consistency, and honesty, and the way we respond to them the most.♥️

#parenting #mindfulparenting
Anxiety and courage always exist together. It can be no other way. Anxiety is a call to courage. It means you're about to do something brave, so when there is one the other will be there too. Their courage might feel so small and be whisper quiet, but it will always be there and always ready to show up when they need it to.
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But courage doesn’t always feel like courage, and it won't always show itself as a readiness. Instead, it might show as a rising - from fear, from uncertainty, from anger. None of these mean an absence of courage. They are the making of space, and the opportunity for courage to rise.
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When the noise from anxiety is loud and obtuse, we’ll have to gently add our voices to usher their courage into the light. We can do this speaking of it and to it, and by shifting the focus from their anxiety to their brave. The one we focus on is ultimately what will become powerful. It will be the one we energise. Anxiety will already have their focus, so we’ll need to make sure their courage has ours.
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But we have to speak to their fear as well, in a way that makes space for it to be held and soothed, with strength. Their fear has an important job to do - to recruit the support of someone who can help them feel safe. Only when their fear has been heard will it rest and make way for their brave.
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What does this look like? Tell them their stories of brave, but acknowledge the fear that made it tough. Stories help them process their emotional experiences in a safe way. It brings word to the feelings and helps those big feelings make sense and find containment. ‘You were really worried about that exam weren’t you. You couldn’t get to sleep the night before. It was tough going to school but you got up, you got dressed, you ... and you did it. Then you ...’
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In the moment, speak to their brave by first acknowledging their need to flee (or fight), then tell them what you know to be true - ‘This feels scary for you doesn’t it. I know you want to run. It makes so much sense that you would want to do that. I also know you can do hard things. My darling, I know it with everything in me.’
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#positiveparenting #parenting #childanxiety #anxietyinchildren #mindfulpare
Separation anxiety has an important job to do - it’s designed to keep children safe by driving them to stay close to their important adults. Gosh it can feel brutal sometimes though.

Whenever there is separation from an attachment person there will be anxiety unless there are two things: attachment with another trusted, loving adult; and a felt sense of you holding on, even when you aren't beside them. Putting these in place will help soften anxiety.

As long as children are are in the loving care of a trusted adult, there's no need to avoid separation. We'll need to remind ourselves of this so we can hold on to ourselves when our own anxiety is rising in response to theirs. 

If separation is the problem, connection has to be the solution. The connection can be with any loving adult, but it's more than an adult being present. It needs an adult who, through their strong, warm, loving presence, shows the child their abundant intention to care for that child, and their joy in doing so. This can be helped along by showing that you trust the adult to love that child big in our absence. 'I know [important adult] loves you and is going to take such good care of you.'

To help your young one feel held on to by you, even in absence, let them know you'll be thinking of them and can't wait to see them. Bolster this by giving them something of yours to hold while you're gone - a scarf, a note - anything that will be felt as 'you'.

They know you are the one who makes sure their world is safe, so they’ll be looking to you for signs of safety: 'Do you think we'll be okay if we aren't together?' First, validate: 'You really want to stay with me, don't you. I wish I could stay with you too! It's hard being away from your special people isn't it.' Then, be their brave. Let it be big enough to wrap around them so they can rest in the safety and strength of it: 'I know you can do this, love. We can do hard things can't we.'

Part of growing up brave is learning that the presence of anxiety doesn't always mean something is wrong. Sometimes it means they are on the edge of brave - and being away from you for a while counts as brave.
Even the most loving, emotionally available adult might feel frustration, anger, helplessness or distress in response to a child’s big feelings. This is how it’s meant to work. 

Their distress (fight/flight) will raise distress in us. The purpose is to move us to protect or support or them, but of course it doesn’t always work this way. When their big feelings recruit ours it can drive us more to fight (anger, blame), or to flee (avoid, ignore, separate them from us) which can steal our capacity to support them. It will happen to all of us from time to time. 

Kids and teens can’t learn to manage big feelings on their own until they’ve done it plenty of times with a calm, loving adult. This is where co-regulation comes in. It helps build the vital neural pathways between big feelings and calm. They can’t build those pathways on their own. 

It’s like driving a car. We can tell them how to drive as much as we like, but ‘talking about’ won’t mean they’re ready to hit the road by themselves. Instead we sit with them in the front seat for hours, driving ‘with’ until they can do it on their own. Feelings are the same. We feel ‘with’, over and over, until they can do it on their own. 

What can help is pausing for a moment to see the behaviour for what it is - a call for support. It’s NOT bad behaviour or bad parenting. It’s not that.

Our own feelings can give us a clue to what our children are feeling. It’s a normal, healthy, adaptive way for them to share an emotional load they weren’t meant to carry on their own. Self-regulation makes space for us to hold those feelings with them until those big feelings ease. 

Self-regulation can happen in micro moments. First, see the feelings or behaviour for what it is - a call for support. Then breathe. This will calm your nervous system, so you can calm theirs. In the same way we will catch their distress, they will also catch ours - but they can also catch our calm. Breathe, validate, and be ‘with’. And you don’t need to do more than that.

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