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Can You ‘Raise” an Optimist? (Clue: Yes! Here’s How)

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Practical approaches to help kids respond to challenges with optimism – the ultimate tool in bouncing back from adversity.

“Being challenged in life is inevitable, being defeated is optional.” Roger Crawford

Everyone faces struggles in life, from small mishaps to huge misfortune. Even when facing the same challenge, why is it that some children seem to be less affected and bounce back quickly, while others are massively affected and struggle to get past the issue?

One explanation is provided by Martin Seligman, a positive psychologist who researched optimism and pessimism. He found that optimists bounce back more quickly than pessimists. Let’s take a look at how optimism and pessimism might show up for children.

In our hypothetical school, two students just heard the news that they didn’t make the swim team this year. Both Anna and Jenny are extremely disappointed by this bad news, but their responses are noticeably different.

Jenny’s immediate response was to think to herself: “I never make any teams I try out for. I’m not a good enough swimmer. Never mind the swim team, I’m clearly no good at sports at all. There no point in trying out for any more teams. I might as well give up now.”

In contrast, Anna’s thought process was as follows: “This is disappointing. I do feel bad but I know that feeling won’t last forever. In fact, I’ll probably feel much better about it by this time next week. Even though I didn’t make the swim team, I’m on the school netball team and I’m pretty good at other sports, so it’s only making the swim team which is sad right now. I think if I practice my front crawl and speed up a little, I might have more chance of making the team next time around.”

So we’re looking at the same challenge, but two very different reactions from Anna and Jenny. According to positive psychologist Martin Seligman, optimism boils down to the stories you tell yourself in response to problems. For Anna, our optimist in this story, this is good news. Not only do optimists bounce back from challenges more quickly, they also get better grades at school on average. Research shows us that optimists are also healthier generally and are less likely to drop out of college. Being an optimist has many benefits. But what about Jenny, who explained the event to herself in a pessimistic way? We know that some people are naturally more optimistic than others. However, the good news is optimism can be learned.

When your little ones are facing a challenge, pay attention to how they describe it to you, mamas. Optimists like Anna use three key elements (TIE) to explain misfortune.

  1. Temporary: Anna demonstrated this element when she said, “…it won’t last forever.” An optimist will view their difficulties as temporary, knowing that there is a light at the end of every tunnel.
  2. Isolated: Anna gave us a pretty detailed idea of how this challenge was only focused on not making the swim team. She said, “Even though I didn’t make the swim team, I’m on the school netball team and I’m pretty good at other sports, so it’s only making the swim team which is sad right now.” Viewing the event in this way helps Anna to put the challenge in perspective, especially as she talks about her other achievements.
  3. Effort: this element is about what you can do to change the situation. Sometimes it’s not possible to change a situation, so you might focus more on how you can change your feelings about that situation. Anna recognised that if she practiced her front crawl and increased her speed, she might have a better chance of making the team.

As a mama, there are two practical approaches you can take to help your children respond to challenges with optimism. First of all, there is great power in modelling optimistic talk yourself, no matter how big or small the setback you’re facing. Children are like sponges and they learn so much from the way you do things.

Secondly, listen carefully when your children talk about difficult events. If you hear a pessimistic explanation, think about how you can supportively challenge this statement and encourage your children to describe the issue as temporary and isolated, with the possible effort they can take to make a change.

Good luck with raising your little optimist! It’s such a valuable skill to learn that will help them in the present and also later in life.

This article first published in 2017 and was updated in 2021

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