As parents, there are many things we want for our kids—abundance in health, true happiness, and a bright future—just to name a few. We also want our children to have a strong sense of optimism about the lives that lie ahead of them, now more than ever. Not only does research show that the power of positivity can have serious life-long benefits, but a sunshiny disposition can also help kids with decision-making and overcoming challenges.
So, how do you raise children to look at the glass as half full, rather than half empty? We’ve asked Dr. Kenneth Ginsburg, M.D., M.S., Ed, author, and Co-Director of the newly established Center for Parent and Teen Communication at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, to share his top ten tips for raising optimistic kids.
1. Be A Model Optimist—Show You Take Action!
Your children look up to you and your view of everyday happenings, both big and small. If you’re constantly taking a “glass-half-empty” view as a parent, that’s what your children will see and that’s what they’ll mimic. Think about the difference between saying “I’m never going to find my keys! I’ve probably lost them!” versus “I can’t find my keys, but let me just take a moment to think about where I may have last put them.” Or “We’re never going to get out of this traffic jam!” versus “Let’s check the map and see if there may be an alternative route we can take to avoid some of this traffic.” This is not just about being optimistic. It demonstrates that taking control is an important step in maintaining optimism. Kids are master imitators. Model how your hopeful approach to life leads you to take the kind of action steps that allow you to take control of unplanned circumstances.
2. Prevent A Negative Mindset
It’s hard to model optimism if you find yourself feeling negative. To prevent getting into a negative mindset that diminishes your sense that you can change or move forward positively in a situation, here are some questions to ask yourself and when appropriate, your child.
– Is this thing that is bothering you in any way dangerous to you? If not, it’s a paper tiger, not a real tiger. (Don’t forget that we as humans are designed to run from dangerous carnivores!)
– How will you feel about this thing that is bothering you in a week or a month? If it won’t be bothering you, is it really a problem? Tell yourself this too shall pass.
– When something good happens to you, are you afraid it’s only temporary? Remind yourself although maybe you got lucky, you probably earned it!
– What can I do to overcome defeating thoughts? Answer: Give them an optimistic spin by adding the word “yet” at the end of a self-defeating comment and shift your mindset. “I’m not good at math,” becomes, “I’m not good at math yet.”
3. Teach Your Child To Look On The Bright Side
As hard as it can be at times, help your child understand that most situations (and most people!) have good and bad aspects. Encourage your child to make it a habit to look for positives—even in negative situations. For example, if you and your child are stuck in a long line at a grocery store, tell her this is a great time to catch up with her about how she’s enjoying a new class. Or if your child has to miss school because he’s got a cold, remind him he can sleep late, read his favorite comic book, and you’ll let him drink plenty of ginger ale. Help them to look for the silver lining. If the situation is seemingly unfixable, at least help your child understand there’s always something to be learned from making a mistake.
4. Let Them Take Risks (And Fail Sometimes!)
Children earn their confidence by demonstrating their abilities and experiencing competence. Feeling they have some power over their environment is reassuring to them. Confidence helps lead to an optimistic outlook. They’re more likely to keep an optimistic outlook if they don’t feel passive or powerless. But if they feel frustrated, challenged or fail, that’s okay, too! It’s important for kids to learn to deal with challenges and learn it’s okay to fail. You’re there for them to help them learn from their mistakes. If they have an unrealistic self-confidence, they may take reckless risks. Folks at the Greater Good Science Center say, “Kids who are protected from failure and adversity are less likely to develop optimism. Why? When kids make mistakes and learn from them, they also learn that they can overcome the challenges that likely lie ahead.” That said, make sure the risks they’re taking are developmentally appropriate. You don’t want your child repeatedly feeling overwhelmed or failing as that can lead to insecurity.
5. Be An Affectionate Parent
Show your child you love them. Make some special time for them every day. Don’t be afraid to hug or cuddle. Choose to show how much you care about them with the supportive and loving words you choose. Researchers at the Penn Resilience Project found children raised by affectionate and caring parents tend to be more hopeful. Your affection lets your child build trust in the world being a generally good, safe place. That helps nurture optimism.
6. Give Genuine Praise
As adults, we like to be praised. Children are no different. They thrive on being told what a good job they’ve done. But Martin Seligman, PhD, author of The Optimistic Child, who has studied optimism for decades, says constantly telling a child that everything they do is great can actually backfire. Giving your child an unrealistic self-focus could actually make them vulnerable to depression. Children at a fairly young age learn to recognize false praise. So, let them know when they’ve done something well, but if they haven’t done such a great job, acknowledge that, too.
7. Prepare For Success In The Future
Hooray! Your child has achieved success in something they’ve done. Take a look at the area in which they succeeded. Ask what it was that set your child up to achieve their success. What traits did it require? What skills do they have that contributed to their success? Notice if your child has a natural interest in a particular area. As you talk with your child about goals they may have, use what you’ve seen, learned, and know about your child already. Acknowledge what’s led to previous successes to help them use that information towards future goals while encouraging their optimism along the way. A child who has positive experiences reinforced is more likely to know they can make good things happen in their life.
8. Listen To Your Child’s Problems
If your child opens up and shares their problems with you, listen to them! Sometimes that’s the best thing you can do. Be supportive. Take them seriously. Don’t judge them as they share. Show them you understand what they’re saying as they cope with disappointments or heartbreak. Listening to them lets them feel further loved, understood, and safe. It makes them feel more comfortable about reaching out when they need help. It’s all part of a caring relationship—an important element in nurturing hope and optimism.
9. Protect Children From Stress And Prepare Them To Manage Stress
While it’s important to tell the truth and make sure children understand the world is not a perfect place, that doesn’t mean you have to make them watch the evening news everyday. It’s okay to shield them from the harsher realities of life when possible. But, the reality is that sometimes life can bring stressful situations. You don’t want your children turning to quick, easy, but dangerous fixes. Model and teach positive coping strategies, so children learn that there are good, healthy ways to move forward even when life is stressful.
10. Let Your Child Play Games
It is important children are given plenty of time to play games without parental “interference.” Let your kids decide what they want to play and how they want to play. Encourage them to use their own imagination. Playing a game they’ve created and directed themselves helps build confidence in the choices they make, as well as their own abilities. Building confidence helps build optimism.
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