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How to teach a child to be optimistic

We hear the cliches all the time: Look on the bright side! Think positive! Don’t worry, be happy! And depending on our mood, we may respond, “Go jump in a lake”… or words to that effect.

But, surprise: All that positivity has a big payoff, in health, academic, social and life benefits for you and your child. A 30-year study by Martin Seligman, Ph.D., author of the great book The Optimistic Child, showed that optimism in children helps ward off depression and stress (Seligman’s study found a clear link between pessimism and depression), improves their performance in school and athletics and improves their physical health. Best of all, while optimism is an inborn trait in some, it can also be taught and encouraged, which is why I urge parents to start early in providing a positive role model and teaching their children optimistic approaches to life.

First, let me make clear that I’m not advocating a simple-minded “Don’t worry, be happy” mantra. Turning your frown upside down may give you better-looking wrinkles, but the real benefits come from making internal changes, constructing a positive but realistic world view that helps children become resilient, self-reliant and self-confident. Optimism is also an important EQ (emotional intelligence) skill that will serve your child well in school, where they’ll tackle tasks with an I-can-do-that attitude.

So how do you teach a child to be optimistic? I’m positively delighted you asked!

1. Start with yourself

Children raised by depressed or negative parents view the world through a lens of negativity. If you think you have a tendency that way, start with small steps toward lightening your attitude, so that you can provide a positive role model for your child.

2. Take baby steps

An optimistic attitude doesn’t come over you all at once, like Harry Potter’s cloak of invisibility. If you’re more naturally inclined toward pessimism, both you and your child should start small, with bite-size acts of positivity. Decide to walk an extra half-mile today. Read a chapter or two in a book you love. Laugh together about a negative event that took place at school, at work or in the parking lot of the grocery store. (Life’s too short to waste your energy on negativity!) You’d be surprised how quickly this becomes second nature.

3. Listen to yourself speak

People often don’t even realize how negative they sound. Try to catch yourself before you speak, and reframe your statements in a different way. Instead of, “Ugh, I’ve got a big meeting today and I’m dreading it,” how about, “I’m a little nervous about this meeting, but I’m going to do my best and hope that good things come out of it.” You don”t have to be chirpy, just look at it from a new angle. This is called “self-talk,” and it’s a very important therapeutic tool that anyone, including kids, can use in their own lives.

4. Teach your kids the art of self-talk

Kids are subject to a lot of pressure and stress from homework, tests, grades, performance on the playing field, even friendships. Using self-talk techniques can help them tackle these situations more proactively. “I’ve done this before, and I can do it again.” “This math test is going to be a challenge, but I’m going to study hard for it.” “I’ll be nice to Andrew, then the rest is up to him.” These kinds of statements teach kids to become self-reliant and… this is very important… to feel they have some control over the events of their lives.

5. Praise your child’s efforts, not just the accomplishments

It’s easy to give and receive praise for success; the trick is to keep your child feeling optimistic even when things don’t turn out the way they’d hoped. First, demonstrate empathy if they’re feeling disappointed or sad (you never want to dismiss their feelings with a comment like “Oh, that doesn’t matter” or “Don’t feel that way”). Then, help them analyze what went wrong, and what they can do differently next time. Emphasize that they are competent: “You can do this!” This will help them build confidence, face future obstacles and learn that they can change the outcome.

6. Go on a scavenger hunt

As you and your child go through the day, seek out the positive events. These can be very small: flowers growing in the backyard, seeing a neighbor you like, petting a dog. But when you add them up, they create a bank of positive feeling.

7. Keep a journal together

Ask questions like, “What was one good thing that you did today? What’s the best thing that happened at school today? What’s one thing you’re really proud of?” Get your child in the habit of thinking positively about the things they’ve done.

8. If something bad happens, look at the bigger picture

When I was part of a group working with very young children after 9/11, one of the things we said to them was, “Yes, there are bad people in the world, but there are many more good people.” We had them make a list of everyone they knew who was a good person. When they looked at that list, they saw how many people cared about them. Help put things into context for them: Yes, bad things happen. But not everything in the world is bad. Look for the positive role models.

These eight methods should help you and your child create a more positive world view, one that will have long-lasting benefits. So the next time someone tells you, “Don’t worry, be happy,” you can respond, “I’m not worried. I’m optimistic.”

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