“I’ll never be able to ride a bike! I’m just no good at anything!” your child says as he throws down the bike and drops to the ground in a sulk.
Every child feels disappointed or discouraged sometimes, but getting past those moments requires at least a glimmer of optimism.
Some kids have a harder time mustering optimism than others. Classic research by Martin Seligman and his colleagues identified a pessimistic style of responding to negative events that puts kids at risk for depression. This pessimistic style involves believing that negative events are caused by things that are personal, pervasive and permanent. In kids, this can sound like, “I’m bad at everything, and I always will be.”
When disappointing things happen, pessimistic kids blame their personal flaws, assume their whole life is ruined and think things will never improve. In contrast, optimistic kids tend to see negative events as caused by outside forces that don’t affect their whole lives and won’t last forever. In other words, pessimistic children see negative events as evidence that they’re doomed, while optimistic children see them as temporary setbacks.
To shift your child’s pessimistic style of thinking, you’ll need a gentle approach. Arguing or scolding won’t work. Your child will just stubbornly insist on the pessimistic perspective. Here are some practical ways to ease your child toward optimism.
- Respond with empathy. Start by acknowledging your child’s feelings. For instance, you could say, “You’re feeling frustrated because you’re having a hard time learning this” or “You’re feeling discouraged because you haven’t been able to do it yet” or “You’re feeling disappointed because you didn’t get the one you wanted.” Empathizing shows your child you understand.
- Take a break. Taking a short break could help your child step out of the negative thinking trap. A hug, a drink of water, a funny joke or just a few minutes doing something fun might be the emotional reset that your child needs. Stepping away from a problem temporarily can also help your child realize that not everything is terrible. Also, things will seem more manageable when your child is not tired or hungry.
- Challenge all-or-nothing thinking. Breaking down tasks or events can help your child see beyond the pessimistic view that she can’t do anything and nothing ever goes her way. For example, you could say, “You’re holding your balance on your bike for short bits, and you’re remembering to look forward. You just need a little bit more speed” or “You wish you could have stayed longer, but you got to ride the merry-go-round and eat popcorn and pet the sheep at the petting zoo.”
- Address the complaining habit. Some kids complain out of habit. Even when good things happen, they’re quick to point out how the events were less than perfect. You may want to make a family rule that everyone who complains has to follow up by making two positive statements about something they like.
- Remember happy endings. Pessimistic children get stuck believing, “It’s bad now, so it will always stay bad.” As a parent, you can help your child remember times when things improved or turned out better than they expected. You could say something like, “I remember when you didn’t know the sounds of any letters, but now you can read!” or “Last weekend you were so disappointed that your friend couldn’t come over, but then you had a great time working in the garden!” Remembering past happy endings can help your child muster hope.
This article is for general educational purposes only. It does not constitute and should not substitute for individual professional advice, psychotherapy, or the provision of psychological services.