Parents don’t quickly forget that heart-wrenching scene: the sight and sound of their child sobbing over a deep disappointment.
We’ve all been there. Perhaps our child was snubbed by a cherished friend, or beside themselves over an assignment returned with a disappointing grade. The joys of childhood are interrupted by plenty to cry about.
We can’t protect our kids from all the blows that will come their way. But it’s imperative that we teach our kids how to think about them constructively.
Martin Seligman, professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania and one-time president of the American Psychological Association, stresses that the primary school years are a crucial window for teaching children thinking skills that help them resist depression and rebound strongly from life’s hard knocks.
"At school age, children begin to think about the causal skein of the world," explains Seligman. "They develop theories about what, if anything, they can do to turn failure into success. These are the underpinnings of their basic optimism or their basic pessimism."
In his book The Optimistic Child, Seligman provides parents with a comprehensive tool kit to help them teach children ages 8 to 12 healthy ways of thinking about their misfortunes. These same principles are a key component of the Penn Resilience Program – an emotional fitness program that has been taught to over 150,000 school children in the U.S., Australia and England over the last two decades.
Make no mistake: The Optimistic Child is a secular resource. But it’s essential strategies are based on solid research in depression-proofing both adults and children, and are helpful for teaching kids how to actually do what Philippians 4:8 exhorts: fix their thoughts on what is true, noble and right.
The roots of defeat and depression
In the wake of an adverse life event, a child’s first conclusion about what the setback means for them is often inaccurate and overly pessimistic. Often too, before the child even realises they’ve latched on to faulty thinking, they’re already overwhelmed by the discouraging feelings their faulty thinking produced.
Teaching a child resilience and optimism – the ability to bounce back from setbacks – is all about teaching the child to slow down their thought process and interpret their problems accurately, says Seligman. "You want her to think about the problem from different angles, instead of believing the first thoughts that come to her mind."
"When a child does badly," writes Seligman, "she asks herself ‘Why?’ There are always three aspects to the answer she comes up with: who is to blame, how long will it last, how much of her life will be undermined?"
According to Seligman, children who struggle to recover from setbacks and are most at risk for depression typically self-identify causes for their problems that are:
permanent (whereas positive-thinking, resilient children identify temporary or changeable causes)
global (undermining many aspects of their life) rather than specific (affecting one or a few aspects of their life)
exclusively their fault and attributable to permanent and global personal weaknesses (rather than appropriately sharing blame with others or with circumstances, and pointing to specific, changeable factors).
On the whole, they tend to believe the underlying causes of their problems will last forever, will undermine everything, and are often traceable to deficits in their character – a perspective that makes problems seem insurmountable, or nearly so.
"Pessimistic explanations of failure undermine trying," explains Seligman. "They produce hopelessness and passivity in the face of failure, whereas optimistic explanations are the underpinnings of seeing failures as challenges, reacting with activity, and harbouring hope."
Consider these examples to help make these concepts clearer.
Permanent versus temporary explanations
The babysitter yelled at me because she doesn’t like me. [A pessimistic, long-lasting cause]
The babysitter yelled at me because she’s frustrated with me right now. [A temporary mood is the cause]
Tell-tale signs of negative permanent thinking are words like always or never.
Signs of healthy thinking are explanations that point to changeable or time-limited factors and use words like today, recently or sometimes.
Global versus specific explanations
I was grounded because I can’t do anything right. I’m not going to ask about that paper route now. I’d just mess that up too. [A pessimistic, global cause]
I was grounded because I forgot to take out the garbage can again. [A specific cause with no connection to other situations]
Tell-tale signs of signs of negative global thinking are a tendency to use words like nothing, everything, everyone, nobody as in:
Nothing ever goes right;
Nobody likes me.
Signs of healthy thinking are explanations tied to specific causes the child can change or do something about:
Taking out the garbage can will avoid this unpleasantness in the future;
Alan and Derek don’t like me implies there are others out there who will.
Blaming self and character versus sharing blame and blaming behaviour
I broke the coffee carafe. I’m such a klutz. I made Mum angry and now she and Dad are fighting again. I’m always making things worse. [Shouldering all the blame and pointing to personal traits]
I broke the coffee carafe. I didn’t see Shaggy come running in and I tripped over him. I wish it hadn’t started Mum and Dad fighting again. Next time I’ll keep the carafe on the countertop instead of walking around with it in my hand. [Appropriately splitting blame between personal behaviour and the behaviour of others]
To complete the picture for you before moving on, children at risk for depression tend to adopt exactly the opposite perspective when good events happen. They attribute their good fortune to temporary and specific causes rather than permanent and global causes.
In explaining to herself why the babysitter laughed at her joke, for example, the pessimistic child is more likely to put it down to the babysitter’s good mood than she is to conclude It’s because I’m fun to be around. Or she’ll think I won the talent show because I can play that one song really well, rather than concluding, I’m becoming a skilled pianist.
How to help your child
1. Be careful what you model – If you recognise some of these pessimistic patterns in your own thinking, it really is essential that you make a concerted effort to model more constructive, hope-filled problem-solving for your children. Don’t be afraid to talk through your thinking process out loud, perhaps prefacing a specific example with a script like this:
I used to think about my problems in ways that left me very discouraged and didn’t help me come up with good solutions. Now I ask myself:
- Is it really always or forever – or just right now?
- Does it really impact everything – or just some things?
- Was it all because of you, or some other cause too?
- When I remembered to think about this [specific situation] in this way, I realised __.
2. Be careful how you discipline your child – It’s not healthy for a child to habitually blame their character or abilities, so you shouldn’t go there either. Always correct your child using positive messages that point to temporary, specific issues, emphasizing the behaviour they need to change.
Don’t say: Stop doing that. Why are you so irritating?
Instead say: Stop doing that. Taking food from your sister’s plate annoys her. I don’t understand what’s gotten into you today.
It’s okay to add affirming statements about character though, if they’re true. The example above could end on an even more positive note with I don’t understand what’s gotten into you today. You’re usually so considerate.
3. Make a habit of talking with your child about their setbacks – Your goal is to explore and gently correct the conclusions they drew from the experience. Ask When __ happened, what did you say to yourself? Why do you think it happened?
- Urge your child to look for temporary, changeable causes for their problems, rather than permanent ones. Seligman suggests using a script like this:
"Sometimes we may believe that the problem is going to last forever and that we can’t do anything to make it better. Such ‘permanent’ thoughts make us feel and down and ready to give up without even trying. In contrast, if we believe that the situation is temporary and changeable, then we will feel energised and strive to find a way to change it."
- Don’t let your child blame their character or abilities for their troubles. Always direct their attention to the specific behaviour that caused the problem.
4. Brainstorm about problems using a pie illustration – Seligman suggests teaching kids to look at a problem as a pie cut into slices, with each slice representing one potential cause of the problem.
Here’s an example:
Matt and his older brother, Jayden, are in trouble for arguing in their bedroom and spilling pop on the carpet. Matt writes on one slice of the pie his initial thought about what caused the incident:
- Jayden thinks I’m an annoying dweeb. He even said so. It makes me feel bad. [Pessimistic thinking, permanent causes]
But this then becomes only one possible way of looking at the problem; there are other slices of the pie to fill in. Matt’s mum encourages him to think hard about other possible causes. She urges him to focus on the behaviour (who did what) that precipitated the event and to look for temporary, changeable causes.
On reflection, Matt fills in three more possible causes:
I came in the room when Jayden wanted to be alone, and he got mad at me. He didn’t say he needed to be alone, so I guess it’s not my fault for not being able to read his mind.
Jayden might have been thinking how annoying it is to have to share a room with his brother. I think about that a lot too.
Jayden might still be mad that he has to babysit me on Friday night instead of going to the movies with his friends.
Matt is beginning to see beyond the personal insult that he took to heart and detect other potential sources of his brother’s anger. He now has possible causes he can do something about. He identifies two things he can do.
I’ll ask if I can sleep over at Kyle’s place on Friday night. Then my brother will be free to go to the movies. He’ll see I’m not always annoying. I can be helpful too.
It’s hard to share a room. I’ll ask if we can hang out in Mum and Dad’s room when we really need to be alone.
5. Be alert for signs that your child is catastrophising. If your child is in the habit of predicting the worst possible implications for their setback, encourage them to think about at least three possible outcomes, not just the worst one. Get them to think about:
- What’s the worst that could happen?
- What’s the best that could happen?
- What’s most likely to happen?
Don’t just stop at speculation. Encourage your child to formulate several plans of action:
- What could you do to head off the worst?
- What could you do to bring on the best?
- What’s a good way to respond to the most likely outcome(s)?