Raising Less Pessimist Kids

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Pessimistic kids are a bore. They are a bore because when they say “I’m such a loser” you’re completely clueless about what to answer other than “no you’re not!” Worse, you know your answer won’t help one iota. They are a bore because when they ask “What’s the point?” you think you have the right words in your head but as they come out of your mouth, you can tell from looking at your child’s face that those words are completely meaningless.

Pessimistic kids are a bore and they’re frustrating. I know because I’ve had to raise one.

It seems relatively safe to say that every parent encounters, has encountered or will encounter a pessimistic streak in their children. Pessimistic kids give up when they should keep going. They dwell on the negative and overlook all their awesomeness. They stay down when they should get back up. Pessimistic kids are a bore because they break your heart.

In his book The Optimistic Child, Martin Seligman describes pessimism as “an entrenched habit of mind that has sweeping and disastrous consequences: depressed mood, resignation, underachievement and even unexpectedly poor physical health.” Seligman provides strong evidence to support the notion that there is a strong relationship between pessimism and negative outcomes.

Being a pessimistic kid is a boring thing to be because pessimists are crippled by powerlessness. But there is hope yet: children are not born pessimistic. In his book Learned Optimism, Seligman shows that pessimism (and thus optimism) is more a learned skill than an inherited skill. In other words, optimism is about what you do rather than what you are. Thus defined, optimism may not be an effortless affair but it can be learnt.

Defining optimism

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It is difficult to talk about optimism without mentioning two of the world’s most incurable optimists. The first is Viktor Frankl. After being freed from a concentration camp, Viktor would later write in his book Man’s Search for Meaning that the only thing that cannot be taken from a man is his ability to choose his attitude, no matter the circumstances. Viktor introduced the concept of tragic optimism which is defined as the ability to remain optimistic in spite of tragic experiences.

The second is Thomas Alva Edison. Edison is best known for his most famous invention: the light bulb. It is said that he only managed to perfect it after 1000 attempts. Legend has it that when a reporter asked him how it had felt to fail 999 times, he replied “I have not failed 999 times, I have simply found 999 ways how not to create a light bulb”.

Optimism is about expecting the best possible outcome. It is about seeing the bottle as half full, rather than half empty. Baudjuin once said that “No matter how hard you work for success, if your thought is saturated with the fear of failure, it will kill your efforts, neutralise your endeavours and make success impossible”. Optimism is about trusting that things will get better even as the sky falls.

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Raising an optimistic child

Raising an optimistic child is really about making your child less pessimistic. From their youngest age, the way children think about failure is critical in determining the person they grow up to become.

Martin Seligman has conducted multiple studies in which he discusses how children can be helped to reduce pessimistic mindsets. The program he proposes in The Optimistic Child has been replicated with largely positive results.

Seligman teaches that, to learn and grow, children must encounter obstacles because it is through failure that they learn to bolster their self-esteem. He argues that children need to experience sorrow, anxiety and anger because negative emotions are part of life. Rather than soften the blows, children should be taught to develop healthy responses that make it easier for them to achieve mastery.

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Teaching children to be less pessimistic means many things.

• It means teaching them to be more reflexive.
• It means teaching them about the power of extraordinary persistence.
• It means teaching them to take responsibility for their actions.
• It means teaching them to believe that things will get better
• It means teaching them that they can make things better.

So what can you do?

1) Analyse your child’s explanatory style

Seligman and his colleagues describe explanatory styles as the patterns of how people explain events to themselves and to others: “An optimistic explanatory style stops helplessness, whereas a pessimistic explanatory style spreads helplessness”. While optimists see negative events as temporary, specific and impersonal, pessimists see them as permanent, pervasive and personal.

What can you do? It is important for children to know that they have control over their destiny. Talk to your child about his/her perception of difficult situations. Explain to him/her that he/she is responsible for outcomes; help him/her get into the habit of looking for the root of the problem. For example, if he/she has poor reading skills, explain why it is only through reading that he/she can improve and help him/her introduce a reading schedule.

2) Analyse your explanatory style

Parents are children’s greatest role models. Analyse your own explanatory style. Do you use an optimistic or pessimistic explanatory style? Children often reproduce what they hear.

What can you do? Curb your pessimistic tendencies. The world is filled with optimistic stories; share them.

3) Avoid false praise

According to Seligman, the more a child perceives praise as false, the more likely he/she is to be depressed. He argues that it is only through repeated failure that a child can experience ultimate success. Other studies such as those conducted by Mueller & Dweck, those conducted by Meyer and those conducted by Grusec have also shown that praising children without thought can have adverse consequences:

• It can affect their mindset and reduce their interest in taking on challenges.
• It can lead them to associate praise with failure.
• It can lead them to develop immunity to praise.

What can you do? Praise genuine effort, and if you must praise, be sincere.

4) Teach your kids to refute self-defeating views

Whether you think you can, or think you can’t – you’re right

Henry Ford.

The things children say to themselves – silently or out loud – have power over what they become. What you say to your children – silently or out loud – has power over what they become.

What can you do? Teach your child the power of positive affirmations but remember that how you phrase affirmations plays a role in ensuring their success or failure. I’ve written a post if you’d like to find out more about making positive affirmations work with kids.

If your children are highly pessimistic, show them just how pessimistic they are by keeping track of their negative comments for a period of time. Come up with a secret code (such as touching your nose) for every time they make pessimistic comments, and ask them to make an alternative – not optimistic – comment on the same situation

4) Teach your kids to be grateful

A number of researchers have found that gratitude is associated with more frequent positive emotions. Yet another study has found that gratitude and wellbeing are connected. Teaching kids to adopt a habit of gratitude decreases pessimism.

What can you do? Make gratitude a ritual in your home. Pick a specific moment each day – for example during meals – where each family member nominates one thing they’re grateful for.

5) Help your child develop explanatory flexibility

In the same way that unrealistic positive affirmations do not work, blindly optimistic self-explanatory styles are also ineffective. Explanatory flexibility is the ability to be flexible in the manner in which you assign causes to negative life events. It is the ability to develop multiple solutions. It is the ability to abandon optimistic views in the light of information that contradicts these views. A study conducted at the Kent State University observed a drop in pessimism among subjects who repeatedly provided alternative (not more optimistic) explanations for events.

What can you do? Ask your kids to repeatedly write down alternative solutions to a situation they are experiencing.

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