Building Optimism


Things go wrong. Disasters happen. We fail. We mess up. No matter our age or talent, we all face adversity from time to time. Learning to respond with optimism and self-mastery can be the difference between a productive, joy-filled life and one mired with hopelessness. A persistent pessimistic mind-set is also a risk factor for depression later in life*.

When adversity strikes, your child’s internal dialogue or self-talk becomes especially influential. The messages he says to himself determine how he will interpret an event, the feelings it will evoke, and ultimately how he will respond. Some people have negative self-messages that they speak to themselves when things go wrong. These defeatist messages disable a person causing feelings of hopelessness and despair which lead them to give up trying. For example, a bad mark on a history assignment coupled with the belief that “I’m hopeless at history. I totally stink at school. I’ll never do well no matter how hard I try” will lead your child to feel helpless and despondent. Unfortunately, a pessimistic internal dialogue usually goes unchallenged as we don’t generally disagree with ourselves!

In contrast, an optimistic mind-set is empowering. In the face a poor grade the optimistic child might think: “I really messed up on that assignment. Leaving it to the last minute was a mistake. Next time I’ll be better organised.”  This person takes responsibility and is realistic about his performance, but he is hopeful about his ability to do better. Optimism is more than simple ‘positive thinking’; it is a constructive, realistic mind-set that enables a person to approach adversity as an opportunity to grow. It promotes empowerment and resilience.

Parents and teachers can play a role in forming an optimistic mind-set in children by helping them to recognise the pessimistic self-talk and teaching children how to challenge it. Pessimistic thoughts have three characteristics:

• They are persistent in time (eg, “I always fail maths”, or “I’m never picked for the A team”)
• They are pervasive in space (eg, “I’m stupid in everything”, “I’m a total loser.”)
• They disproportionately self-blame (eg, “I failed because I’m no good at school” (self-blame) verses “I failed because it was a hard exam”).

When your child faces an adversity and is feeling helpless and despondent, ask him:  “What did you say to yourself when that happened?” Look for persistent, pervasive or disproportionate self-blame in his answer. Ask him to think of evidence that contradicts that view (eg, “I did well on that Egypt assignment last year… maybe I’m not so bad at history”).  Ask him to think of other alternative interpretations (eg, “My friend was rude to me not because she hates me, but because she is in a bad mood”).  Most of all, model an optimistic mind-set yourself: demonstrate the power of optimism through your own attitudes and beliefs.

Year of St Paul – if there is one thing we of which we can be certain, St Paul was a man of indomitable optimism. He faced and triumphed over numerous, incapacitating adversities, like being imprisoned (twice), shipwrecked (three times!) and having the Christian communities he established run amuck. Yet he persisted.  Read the story of St Paul from a children’s bible. Ask your child what Paul might be thinking and feeling at different parts of the story. What might have happened if St Paul had had more pessimistic beliefs? Use his example of optimism to demonstrate how we can be empowered.

“I have fought the good fight. I have finished the race. I have kept the faith.”
2 Tim 4:7

*For further reading on optimism and children, see ‘The Optimistic Child’ by Martin Seligman.

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Francine Pirola

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