With COVID-19, we are literally in unchartered waters. There is no one message that guides us as parents. No one expert we can rely on. So we are left to navigate towards a future that is still uncertain.
In light of these difficult times, the question we must ask is, how do we raise optimistic children?
The importance of optimism is drummed into us from an early age. But is optimism a prerequisite for lifelong happiness? Is it the answer to childhood depression and anxiety which are at disturbingly high rates?
Research from the University of North Carolina suggests that young children are natural-born optimists. They can be complex thinkers when it comes to making purely analytical judgements about the world—realizing, for example, that a doctor knows about the body and a mechanic knows about cars.
The research shows that people only need to do one positive act for a child to register them as nice, whereas they need to do several negative things before a child will accept that they’re mean. This effect is sufficiently strong that children will actively discount the information offered to them by experts if it’s negative in nature, turning instead to a more positively-inclined non-expert or stranger.
The research also suggests that the effect can be seen as early as three years of age. It peaks in middle childhood and only begins to wane in the year or two before adolescence.
This is more pronounced in Western societies, because we tend to focus on the importance of the individual. Adults are more likely to compliment children and tell them that they’re good at things. As a result, children are having positive worldviews constantly reinforced.
There are certainly advantages to seeing the world through rose-tinted glasses. Positivity makes children more willing to try new things and to retry things that they haven’t immediately succeeded at.
We know that we are going to fail many times when we’re learning about the world. So it helps to be positive! Children who demonstrate positivity are more likely to transition successfully through school and have stronger social connections.
On the reverse, blatant positivity can leave children ill-prepared and unprotected when confronted by the harsh realities of life. It can be tough for kids to accept that other people are actually better than them at certain things. If this fall from grace is too dramatic, it can lead to significant mental distress, including anxiety and depression.
Optimism is about believing that you’re able to respond positively to life’s challenges.
Research has shown that kids are more able to accept negative feedback if it’s not couched in personal terms. So the important thing is to make feedback less about personal and trait-based thinking and more about how kids can improve their skills and find new capabilities.
Healthy scepticism is an important component of an optimistic outlook. Parent–child dialogue is important to childhood success and wellbeing. It might be as simple as having the patience to talk with them about what they’re seeing and how they’re interpreting it.
For example, if a child fails a math test they may feel like a failure. However, if we encourage them to look at the evidence—that they’re good at spelling and reading and have lots of friends—they can understand that it’s not the disaster it first appears. You’re teaching them to see the reality or the accuracy of their thinking, because people often catastrophize and see things in a more negative light than the reality suggests.
Optimism is a learned behaviour, a set of skills that can be trained and cultivated. Role-modelling is also a very important aspect as well. If kids have seen parents or people close to them catastrophize frequently, then it can also rub off on them.
It’s really important for young kids to develop the ability to identify emotions in themselves and others: things like sad, happy, angry, and scared. Once they’ve identified the emotions, they can start recognising what they feel like and then you can start talking about strategies to manage and deal with those feelings. It might be walking away when they’re angry. It might be doing things they enjoy. It might be talking to their parent or a person they trust, or a period of relaxation, or facing their fears in a safe way.
There are several well-known stimulants for an optimistic outlook: meditation, physical activity, acts of generosity and expressions of gratitude are all proven enablers of positivity and mental wellbeing. One thing that links all these activities is that they all help kids exert a sense of control over themselves and their circumstances—basically, the building blocks of optimism.
The best thing we can do as parents is to start enacting optimistic thinking in our own lives. The principles of cognitive restructuring work the same for adults as for children. By helping your child become more optimistic, you might start seeing positive changes in yourself too.