optimism, optimistic kids, martin seligman, personal, pervasive, permanent, depression, children, anxiety, flourishing mental health

Optimism immunises kids against depression

“You know mum, one person can make a big difference.”

Wise words from an 8 year old.

This was one of the first things our son said to me after school recently; seemingly prompted by the fundraising efforts of a fellow student who he tells me saved 50 Black Spider Monkeys. How and when, I have no idea. He doesn’t either. But whoever she is, I say “thank-you”.

She not only helped the endangered monkeys, she’s given our son (and hopefully a whole bunch of other kids) a point of view which is priceless.
The understanding that when there’s a problem, the action they take matters. The notion that even though something is upsetting or seems, in kid terms, ‘bad’, that there’s a flip side; giving them a wonderful perspective of hopefulness about the future.

In that moment she imparted to the whole school assembly a sense of optimism.

But priceless? Isn’t that a little over the top? Isn’t being optimistic simply about seeing the glass as half-full and looking for silver linings?

Partly, for sure. But it runs much deeper. Optimism is fundamentally about how we all think about the good and the bad events that happen in our lives. It’s what we say to ourselves, not out loud, but in our heads, about the causes of those events.

Much of the way our children think about the things that happen to them is influenced by what we say and how we, as parents, react to the things that happen to us.
I know right? What we say makes such a difference to how our kids think. But we don’t always know exactly what to say, that’s the same for all of us. And our kids don’t know that sometimes we’re just one step ahead, or feel heartbroken and almost helpless when they’re having a really hard time of it.

But if we can tune into how they explain why good and bad things happen to them, there’s so much we can do to help them. We can get a bearing on how optimistic they are, and importantly, we can seize opportunities to teach them helpful new ways of explaining the things that happen.

How optimistically our children think matters. Decades of quality scientific research have shown that compared with pessimists, optimists are healthier, do better in school, work and in sport (than their talents might otherwise suggest), and get depressed much less often.

Martin Seligman, one of the founding fathers of positive psychology, writes about developing optimistic thinking in children as a way of immunising them against depression, with the researching showing that optimistic thinking skills can cut their risk of depression in half.

When it comes to raising optimistic kids, we can help them develop healthy thinking habits using the 3 P’s; personalisation, pervasiveness and permanence.
A pessimist might explain the struggle to make friends at school as personal (I’m boring and unlikable), pervasive (I’m not going to have friends anywhere I go) and permanent (I’m never going to make friends).

Whereas a sunny little optimist could explain the cause of the same situation in a very different way; impersonal (they haven’t got to know how much fun I am to hang out with yet), specific (recognising that this is an issue at school, but that they have other friends from other parts of their life) and changeable (It won’t always be like this, I’ll make friends soon).
There are also going to be countless variations that lie in between these two very different explanations.

So what can we do as parents? Plenty!

Begin by modelling optimistic thinking patterns (out loud) of negative events in your life as being impersonal, specific and temporary where you can. Find and point out the silver lining in events often.

Teaching the 3P’s of Optimistic Thinking

When things go pear shaped for your children, wherever possible help them to recognise that what happened was not entirely their doing (impersonal), prompt them to see that the setback is only fleeting by helping them to remember past successes (temporary), and remind them of success in other aspects of their life (this challenge is situation specific).

Encourage your children to take risks, try new things and be okay with making mistakes so they have lots of opportunities to overcome them. Zootopia’s Officer Judy Hopps is an awesome role model for overcoming challenge and ‘Try Everything’ from the movie’s soundtrack is not only fun to sing and dance to, but can be a great source of inspiration.

“More hugs please” is something our kids hear from me every day! Little did I know that as well as showing them how much I love them, it’s giving them a sense of security and trust, hope and optimism. Plus a belief that the world is a good place, which brings me to my last point; mindfulness about what our children see and hear on the news is essential. We don’t want to negate all of our efforts!

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