Most of us have been around people who bring us down with their negativity and pessimism and (let’s admit it) we all sometimes have days in which we, too, seem to focus on the glass being half-empty. As you might imagine, our tendency to see the glass as half-full or half-empty starts developing early in life. Fortunately, research has shown that parents, teachers, and other close adults can foster optimism in children. This is very important because research also has shown that individuals who are optimistic and able to see the positive side of situations are more likely to be successful, happy, and healthy and less likely to be anxious and depressed.
So what can parents do to foster optimism and help children make lemonade out of lemons? First, children sometimes need “training” to focus on the positive things that happen in their lives. In order to increase the positive thoughts they have, encourage them to identify and talk about good, happy, or amusing things that happen to them each day. This may be something as special as getting a good grade on a test or as simple as laughing at a funny joke. The key is to help them notice the good things that happen each day. Dinnertime and/or bedtime are often good times for having these types of discussions with children.
Since children usually want to be just like their parents, parents need to focus on the positives as well. Rather than calling attention to all the things children are doing wrong or need to improve, they will benefit much more from parents noticing when they are doing things “right.” Psychologists suggest that parents should “catch their child being good.” For instance, thank your child when he puts his clothes away without asking (even if he is supposed to do it) and appreciate when siblings share nicely with each other (rather than just keeping your fingers crossed that another argument doesn’t ensue). A good rule of thumb for parents is to offer children at least 3 positive comments for every negative one. Children who feel appreciated for their efforts and see themselves as successful will feel better about themselves and will see the world in a more positive light.
Another key tool for promoting optimism in children is to help them challenge negative thoughts. Negative thoughts and expectations often lead individuals to give up, whereas optimism motivates people to stick with a problem and to find solutions. “The Little Engine That Could” who told himself, “I think I can, I think I can, I think I can” is a prime example of the type of positive self-talk that leads to optimism and increased feelings of self-worth.
In all, the “recipe” for helping children turn lemons into lemonade is really pretty simple…optimism grows out of everyday habits like talking about good things that happen, appreciating children for the good things they do, and helping them challenge negative thoughts. Given the tremendous benefits of optimism, we have plenty of reasons to focus on the positive! For more information about building optimism in children, read Martin Seligman’s book, The Optimistic Child.
Kelly H. Theis, Ph.D
Licensed Clinical Psychologist