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Teaching optimism to children

Some children tend to be naturally optimistic and persistent in the face of obstacles. Others are more sensitive to setbacks and prone to taking things badly. However, optimism is a learnable skill. Even adults with habitually very pessimistic ways of thinking can learn to think more optimistically. Children can learn optimism unconsciously by observing people around them, such as parents. However, they can also be taught optimism explicitly, like any other skill. The `Penn Resiliency Program`, which has been shown to successfully reduce the incidence of depression and anxiety in children, teaches optimism by helping children to examine and change the way they think about the things that happen to them. There are several steps to this process:

  1. Helping children to realise that their feelings and responses to events are not caused just by the events themselves, but also by the way they think about these events (their `self-talk`).
  2. Helping children to practice identifying their self-talk in situations from their own lives.
  3. Helping children to identify their explanatory style and then challenging the accuracy of their beliefs.
  4. Helping children to generate alternative, more optimistic explanations for the same events.

The program also helps children to keep negative events in perspective through a process of examining their `what-next beliefs`. This involves:

  1. Helping children to develop the problem-solving skills they need to deal with the most likely outcome.
  2. The program also teaches assertiveness, goal setting and negotiation training.

The program also teaches assertiveness, goal setting and negotiation training.

Apart from formal programs like the Penn Resiliency Program, optimism can also be taught in less formal ways by teachers, parents, and others who have contact with children:

Challenge pessimistic thinking

Notice when children make pessimistic pronouncements and challenge their assumptions. Learn about Martin Seligman`s optimistic and pessimistic explanatory styles (above), so that you can offer alternative explanations to challenge negative ones. For example if a child who has done poorly in a subject at school declares that they are "just no good" at that subject, you can offer alternative ways of looking at the situation: perhaps they didn`t pay attention in class, or spend enough time on their homework.

Provide encouragement

Help children to develop persistence and optimism in the face of setbacks by providing encouragement and support along the way. Children do not always have the persistence they need in order to succeed `built-in`. However, if they are consistently provided with encouragement and support from adults, they will eventually internalise this support and develop the capacity to persevere on their own.

Role model optimistic thinking

Children learn from observing others. If you express optimism, perseverance, and resilience in the face of day-to-day obstacles, your children will learn by example. If you notice that you tend towards pessimism, start working on your own thinking. It will pay off for your children!

Use stories that promote persistence and optimism

Children learn through stories. When children are confronted with a difficult situation in their lives, you can tell stories from your own life that emphasise how you got through a hard time or succeeded despite an initial failure. Books and films which have an optimistic message can also be helpful.

Emphasise strengths and acknowledge successes

Consistently acknowledge children`s efforts and successes. When children do not succeed, emphasise the positive aspects of the situation, for example how proud you are of the effort they put in. Do not, however, reward poor efforts with praise.

Teach problem solving

When children feel overwhelmed or anxious about a situation, help them to learn problem solving skills by asking them to think about a number of alternatives for dealing with the problem. Do not step in to solve the problem for them. See the problem-solving page for more information.

Set high, but realistic standards

It is important that the standards set for children are high, but achievable. High standards encourage children to reach their potential and strive to go beyond themselves. Of course, setting impossible standards will only dishearten children, so expectations need to be realistic.