Optimistic Kids

by on September 2, 2011

in Uncategorized

The Optimistic Child

Q:  My 9 year old son seems to be pessimistic and hard on himself most of the time. I recently heard a psychologist who said adults can be taught “positive psychology”. What is that and does it work for kids too?

A: One of the founders of the science of positive psychology is Dr. Martin Seligman a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of a bestselling book “Learned Optimism”. Seligman and a growing number of other mental health experts believe it is possible to safeguard children against depression and pessimism by teaching them at an early age on how their thoughts ultimately impact their feelings.

In his more recent book, “The Optimistic Child”, he describes why children tend to be hard on themselves and how to reverse that habit into a more optimistic approach.

Positive psychology is a relatively new field in mental health. In the mid fifties Dr. Norman Vincent Peale wrote a book “The Power of Positive Thinking” Many dismissed that classic publication as superficial and overly positive. However, more recent advances in the study of human behavior, confirm that Dr Peale was ahead of his time.

 A landmark project, done at Harvard, showed that successful students were successful, because they were happy. Many students tend to put off happiness and convince themselves that once they are successful they will be happy. The reverse was true: by being happy students were more likely to be successful. (For more information see the book “The Happiness Advantage” by Shawn Achor, a Harvard researcher)

Neuroscientists, with the help of functional brain scans, are now able to study parts of the brain associated with hope and optimism. The frontal cortex, a large area behind the forehead, is an area which is critical areas such as goal setting, future planning and language. This area communicates with an area deeper in the brain, the subcortical area where the amygdala is located. The amygdale is central to the processing of emotion.

In an experiment where students were told they are smart, clever and intelligent and then given a cognitive test, students who made mistakes had a different brain activity in the amygdala area than pessimistic students when studied with a functional MRI.(See The Science of Optimism; why humans are wired for hope. Time Magazine cover story June 6, 2011)

According to Dr Seligman the ideal time to teach a child what he calls “learned optimism” is between ages eight to twelve. It may work up until age 15. He teaches an ABC model where A refers to adversity, B to beliefs and C to consequences.

For example adversity may be a situation where the child will say “Nothing ever works out for me. I am bad at all sports. I will never be good at anything” Or “I don’t have any friends. Nobody seems to ever like me”

Consequences, the C in the ABC model, refer to an outcome. In negative and pessimistic minds it often seems to be permanent and fatal—the worst possible scenario such as, for the rest of my life, I will never be good at sport or have any friends.

How the child interprets the potential negative situation (the belief) is important. Often parents forget that they are role models and when they use catastrophic language with words such as “always” or “never” they set the stage for automatic pessimistic beliefs in the family. If a child sees an anxious or overwhelmed parent, they may in turn be affected neurologically by a process known as mirror neurons (An example of mirror neurons at work is where yawning can become contagious; when we see someone else yawn we become more likely to yawn ourselves)

The bottom line according to Dr Seligman is that between ages 8 and 12 a parent has the responsibility to set good examples to a child by being aware of how they handle their own adversities and beliefs about outcome. Although some families may be genetically prone to pessimism and depression, they still have control over their emotions and feelings. They can be re-trained to handle adversity more optimistically with better consequences.

Key questions a parent can ask a child when he is overly critical of himself are:

–What is the evidence that this belief is true or not true?

—What is an alternative way to view the situation?

—What is the worst that can happen? Is it likely?

—What is the best that can happen? Is it likely?

—What is the most likely outcome?

—What is my plan of attack, particularly for the most likely outcome?

The Psychology Foundation of Canada has a superb resource to train parents and schools in how to help children who experience stress. See www.kidshavestresstoo.org for more information.




Dr Peter Nieman is the host of www.healthykids.ca and www.lifebyexample.ca He is the father of 4 children and has completed 77 marathons. He is a member of the Canadian Pediatric Society and recently completed 6 years of serving on the Healthy Active Living Committee of the CPS.



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