Optimism isn’t just about ‘seeing the bright side’ of a situation or donning your rose-tinted glasses - it can be a powerful tool for mental health and well-being.
But what does optimism look like for children and youth? Optimistic kids “view negative events as essentially impersonal and impermanent. They can usually understand how outside forces contribute to their setbacks” says psychotherapist Rachel Cohen. For example, an optimistic child that fails a test is more likely to acknowledge that they should’ve studied more, and focus on doing that next time, as opposed to internalizing and personalizing the failure as an innate part of themselves.
Studies have shown that children who tend towards pessimistic perspectives and feeling helpless have a higher tendency towards depression. There is also a strong link between optimism and self-esteem and in teens, research suggests that optimism leads to better physical health, including improved heart health.
The good news is that optimism can be learned, by both adults and children. As professor of psychology Martin Seligman points out “While you can’t control your experiences, you can control your explanations.”
5 Things you can do to nurture a child’s optimism:
Praise effort and not just success. Use genuine and meaningful praise, for example ‘You’ve made this picture really colourful by using red, green, blue, pink, yellow AND purple!’ as opposed to ‘wow, your picture is great!’ Reinforce aspects of the learning process and genuine efforts at improvement rather than merely praising innate ability. (There is evidence that children praised for innate abilities tend to avoid areas where they can’t easily shine). For more tips on the art of praise, check out this resource.
Encourage children to take calculated risks - including risky play. Experiencing measured risk taking builds confidence and generates a sense of achievement. Let them discover that failure is part of the learning process and not an embarrassment to avoid. Evidence also shows that the benefits of optimism and risk-assessment work both ways: children who are more optimistic are better at calculating risk and making more constructive decisions.
Help children analyze the cause of a problem in a rational way and support them to determine a problem-solving strategy. Once you know the problem, you can work together to find a solution. Identify which factors offer opportunity for improvement - in any given situation, there will be things outside of your control; but there will also be variables that you can change. For example, a child who didn’t make the soccer team may be able to identify ways to maximize the chances of a different outcome next time, such as showing up for practice, offering to act as a substitute player, or trying out a new position. Teach children that consistent practice and hard work - as opposed to innate talent only - lead to positive outcomes.
Your outlook matters to your child - Parental optimism improves psychological well-being in children and youth. Seeing the bright side can be a challenge for all of us, so if you feel like you’re struggling with reflecting positively, check out this resource for some practical steps towards more optimism. As parents, our own well-being has a profound effect on our children, so if you're stuck for simple, practical ideas for self-care practices, take a look at this resource.
5 things you can do together to support an optimistic worldview:
3 good things - Start a tradition of sharing 3 good things that happened at the end of each day. In our daily lives, it's easy to get caught up in the challenges and struggles that come our way. But we don't often take time to pinpoint the things that lifted our spirits, meaning we can miss opportunities for happiness and connection. Your 3 good things can be anything that puts a smile on your face that day - from a ‘hello’ from a stranger to winning a class prize. This can make for a soothing and relaxing bedtime activity!
Explore the link between thoughts and feelings - Encourage children to generate alternative explanations for events. For example, ‘I fell off my scooter because I was going too fast’ as opposed to ‘I fell off my scooter because I can’t ride it and I’m useless’. Let them be creative with their exploration and try not to mediate too much. Once they have a list of possible explanations, ask them to imagine some of the consequences of following that thought - how could the situation have played out differently? Generating alternatives that still validate their feelings about the situation is a powerful tool for meaningful optimistic reflection.
One kind thing - Be a co-collaborator with your child! Together, think of one kind act that you can do for someone else, and carry it out. This could be anything from donating old clothes to helping a neighbour or volunteering. Kindness increases our sense of connection with other people and our community, but volunteering also increases our own sense of happiness over time, according to a recent study of over 70,000 participants!
‘Gamify’ your optimism! Make it a game to point out the positives in any given situation. This is a reality-based method to reframe and bring some much needed levity to challenging situations. Start by modelling this for children and inviting them to add to the list of positives. Award a point to each family member for any positive they can pinpoint. You could also consider implementing a simple ‘prize’ structure such as a sticker chart or a monthly goal.
Introduce time for Hygge - For older children and teens, author and Danish parenting expert Jessica Joelle Alexander recommends implementing the principles of Hygge as a regular part of your family time. In Nordic culture, Hygge is a psychological space where people get together and agree to remove their negativity, complaining, bragging, and divisiveness, and leave it at the door before coming into a collective space. Hygge is a team effort and an agreement between everyone to be present with the people you love - It is a collective decision that in this moment we are spending drama-free “we time” together.
Things that can happen during family Hygge could include: sharing uplifting stories and memories, enjoying and sharing food, singing or moving together and playing games. Hygge time offers ‘wefulness’ - mindfulness together, which leaves us feeling uplifted and recharged.
Sharing books and stories can be a powerful tool for teaching complex concepts to young children, and can act as a reference guide for older kids. Download our optimism booklist for some suggestions for various age groups.