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Teaching Optimism

Teaching Optimism

How to Model a Positive Approach to Daily Life For Kids

The world will always present lots of potentially negative experiences, but many of our unhappy moments are relatively minor temporary circumstances where the effect on us depends on how we react to them. In other words, how we feel and what we do about setbacks has more to do with the story we tell ourselves about it in our minds, than with the actual event. As a parent, I strive to empower my kids with resilience. An optimistic outlook has been proven to strengthen the immune system, fuel confidence, and contribute to social and economic success. If my kids can bounce back from an upset and take steps to help themselves recover, I’ll have done my job. 

I’ve noticed, and you probably have too, that children do what we do and not what we say. To stamp a proactive positive approach to life in their busy brains, we can’t lecture them. We have to first get inside our own brains, pick apart the subtle ways we tell ourselves negative things, and challenge those automatic thoughts. Then we can deliberately cultivate a new set of mental habits. After we get into a habitually strong positive mental stance, our behavior changes. Without even realizing it, the inherently empowered way we look at things will create thousands of positive movie clips in their memories, a pattern they’ll adopt for their own problem solving approach in the future.

When I first made this parenting task my top priority, however, I found it was far more challenging that I imagined. I thought my outlook on life was all positive outwardly, and mostly positive inwardly, yet I had to practice daily behavior changes that were difficult for me, and it took a long time for my efforts to show any results. It has also been the most rewarding practice I’ve undertaken. I took stock of the symptoms my negative approach was causing, looked for help from every quarter, and started stuffing my emotional toolbox. I blended my positive thinking methods, tools, and insights from dozens of real life examples and mentors, and hundreds of books blogs and articles. None of these ideas are new (I do believe nothing is new under the sun, just remixed and rebranded) but they are focused on a specific goal, honed and blended to achieve it, and presented as a simple, actionable, digestible plan. Seize the moment. It might feel like a long road when you start, but every step counts, and you only have to take one a day to make steady progress on giving kids around you the most important gift you possibly can. 

1 Check for Signs of a Negative Framework

First let’s cover the symptoms. A child suffering from a negative outlook will let you know in a number of ways. They may show one or many of the following signs: diminished interest in school, less effort on homework, lower level of pleasure in activities, lower general energy level, and less interest in interactions with family and friends. When you ask them why they’re not putting their heart into things, they’re likely to respond pessimistically; “I won’t get it done in time anyway” “Ms. _ never likes my reports” “I always get picked last” “I can’t do anything right” “You never let me me do anything”. Kids who have a habit of thinking this way are at risk for depression and all the difficulties that come with it.

When I heard things like this from my daughter I felt sad shocked and powerless. Even though I knew better than to actually talk that way in front of her, she was saying some of the same things that went through my head when bad things happened to me. I struggled with those self-defeating thoughts inside myself, and I recognized how they got in my way. Somehow I thought since I didn’t make defeatist pessimistic statements out loud, she wouldn’t have those thoughts, but I was wrong. It made me realize that I had to take action, and strengthen my own response to life’s upsets so I could coach and model an authentically resilient spirit.

It always looked to me like most of the human race is wired to be somewhat pessimistic; of late, creative geniuses in the field of psychology have proved it in several studies. Fortunately they’ve also taken the time to prove another of my long held beliefs; that optimism is a beneficial survival trait that helps us thrive and succeed, and that moderate pessimists can learn to be more optimistic.

2 Find The Origin of Your Pessimism

Most of us have a worried part of our thoughts that talks constantly. Mine is so quiet I can barely hear it, and it speaks so fast that whole sentences are out before I’ve even really taken in what it’s talking about. It says things like “That will never work – they won’t go for that – I’ll never finish in time – she’ll never remember – I never finish anything – that always happens just when things are getting better – I always do this to myself – he never listens to me – nothing I do matters”. The first crucial step in diminishing the power of that voice is to recognize it, slow it down, and really hear what it’s saying. Make yourself a detective. Emotions are your clues, especially the strong negative feelings; fear, anger, sadness, despair, and hopelessness. These uncomfortable feelings act just like physical pain – they give us information about how our emotional and mental system is working. Wherever we notice pain we need to look closer and ask ourselves questions.

When you listen to your worry voice, you’ll probably realize you know all these comments; they’re familiar, and the reason they come up so quickly is because they’ve come up millions of times before. The power of these habitual thoughts is astonishing, but with persistence we can train ourselves to grab them as they zoom up and sit them down for a little interview. Fortunately their power lies in the fact that we don’t typically question or examine them, and that power vanishes under scrutiny. 

3 Ask Five Questions

“What am I feeling?” Ask what you’re feeling, because it may not be as obvious as it seems at first. Big anger often masks irrational fear. Despair is sometimes anger and resentment that’s been stifled. Most of us have felt shamed or punished for expressing negative emotions at some point, so it may be hard to accept feelings we label as jealous, insecure, indecisive, selfish – but do it anyway. Name and accept your feelings and they immediately become less overwhelming.

“What was I thinking immediately before I started feeling that way?” Experiments show that our thoughts bring on our emotions and shape their duration and intensity. If you replay the moment, you might notice the feelings began (or got a lot stronger) after the automatic thoughts kicked in. A cliche example from the world of courtship is the first phone call after numbers are exchanged. The idea of calling that person seems pleasurable and exciting, until we start thinking too much. “Did I only imagine they liked me? Should I call right away? What if they’re not that into me and I seem too eager? What will I say?” Only then do we feel nervousness – or maybe anxiety, insecurity, or worse, maybe even a sense of dread strong enough to keep us from doing anything at all. If you can remember exactly what you were thinking before the feelings rose up you can evaluate and challenge those influential semiconscious judgments.

“Are those thoughts true?” The automatic worry thoughts are almost always lies. An astonishing number of these chronic negative thoughts are in permanent pervasive terms. Logically we know that ANY sentence that includes an unqualified “always” or “never” is false (unless we’re saying the sun always circles Earth or something similarly constant) which makes it relatively easy to recognize these automatic negative thoughts as inaccurate.

“Are there other ways explain what happened?” Gather evidence and alternate theories. Imagine as many different explanations as you can for whatever scenario you’re facing. With a little thought you can generate several alternatives, and suddenly the pressure is off. The singular catastrophic judgement that came up first is now just one of many possible explanations, and all the new possibilities make a lot more sense than the early statement.

“What has changed because of this event?” I forget things sometimes, and I can be harshly self-critical when it happens. These days if I feel wretched about something I forgot, I ask myself what has factually changed because of my error. Often it turns out to be not much at all, compared to how bad I make myself feel when I make extreme judgements in my mind.

“What can I do to improve the outcome when this comes up again?” Repetitive negative thoughts stand in the way of problem solving, and they interrupt the chain of logic that lets us respond with effective action to the circumstances. There is a certain amount of value to worrying when it motivates us to change our behavior for the better, but beyond that it just gets in the way. The best response is to analyze the situation, decide what should be done to prevent the problem or create a better result on future occurrences, do it, and then drop it.

4 Be Your Own “Good Parent”

Your practice now is to positively coach yourself through each upsetting moment life presents you with. Here’s one extremely simplified example to demonstrate the basic pattern: think of what you would say to your child if they forgot to bring their math book home. In “bad parent” mode, one might say “You always forget the things you need for your homework! Start paying attention, or you’ll ruin your grades! When are you ever going to learn to think ahead? I’ll never understand how you can be so careless!” We can easily understand how harmful this response is to a developing child: it says that the error is permanent (always forget), that it’s pervasive (ruin your grades), that the child can exert control over the behavior and is choosing not to (when are you ever going to learn), and that the error is because of a character flaw that’s unusual (never understand how you could).

A more accurate approach to the incident would be to acknowledge the basic facts: everyone forgets things sometimes, and we can develop good habits to help us. Once we realize we need to improve our memory for life’s practical details, we can change things for the better and it becomes easier over time with practice. We’re all human, and even after years of effort, we don’t expect to be perfect – but we do learn to remember most things, most of the time. The talk might sound like this:

“Good Parent” Examples

“I forgot my math book! I can’t do my homework!”

1: Acknowledge the event and the natural outcome (if you know – otherwise ask questions without accusation)

“Oh, I see. Sounds like you’ll need to finish it during recess at school tomorrow.”

“I don’t want to stay in for recess! I hate this! I always forget my stuff, and I hate stupid math. I’m so dumb!”

2: Acknowledge the feelings and let them know the feelings are okay, either by simply saying so, or by acknowledging you’ve felt similar feelings. Let them know others have faced the same challenges.

“I can see you’re upset about missing recess. I know how you feel, I hate it when I forget things, too. But we all forget things sometimes.”

“But you don’t miss recess and I forget stuff all the time and it makes me so mad.”

3: Question the judgments being made, not harshly, but curiously, in a mood of helpful scientific enquiry.

“Well, we know for sure you’re not dumb. Do you really forget all the time? You remembered to put your dishes in the sink after dinner.”

“No, I guess I remember a lot of things, like dishes and homework on most days.”

4: Explore circumstances, explanations, and alternate theories that contributed to the situation.

“Did anything happen today that might have helped you forget your book?”

“Ummm, we had PE out in the field right at end of the day. I was talking to Rachel and I forgot to go back to the class for my book.”

5: Plan how the situation could be prevented or improved in the future. 

“What could you change that would help you remember your books on Tuesdays when you have PE?”

“I could put them in my bag before I leave class for PE.”

“Good start! What else?”

“I could highlight Tuesdays on my agenda so I would remember to pack them.”

“That’s a great idea! So let’s highlight your agenda now, and you can make a habit of packing your books before PE from now on.”

When something upsets you, talk to yourself with the same kindness, gentleness, and understanding you would offer a sensitive young child. Explore the five questions, acknowledge your feelings, and let your emotional detective work reveal that you’re still okay, that you can work towards a better outcome next time, and that you can be kind to yourself and let go of whatever negative thoughts are coming up. There are a ton of resources out there that can help with this process, and once you get the hang of sincerely accepting yourself this way you’ll find that it does feel amazingly good. 

Let the “Good Parent” Behavior Become the Standard

If we are to be a role model for an optimistic, empowered perspective on life, we have to authentically personify it, especially in our most intimate relationship; the one between us and ourselves. I’ve spotted myself saying things to me in my head that I would never say out loud, and wouldn’t even say in the presence of my children, much less to them. Only when I adopted positive “parenting” behaviors toward myself internally did I begin to make progress in modeling positivity for others. When I take charge of the dialogue inside and allow my internal “good parent” to lead the conversation, every setback becomes an opportunity for self-improvement. I even use an adapted version of my “good parent” in random daily encounters and it’s amazing. When people hear their feelings validated and accepted you can instantly sense the relief they feel. Meanwhile they’re encouraged to think in factual problem solving terms about their difficulties, and you can almost see the problem shrink as they describe it.

It may feel a little silly at first, but with practice it will become more natural. Eventually a time will come when the first quick thoughts that come up when you face a challenge will be empowering positive thoughts that prepare you to solve problems. By this time you will have noticed a shift in the young people around you as well. They too, will respond to challenges with  “I can do this.” “How can I make this work for me?” “What will I do differently next time?” “I can practice this so I can get better results!”

Tips

Read a lot: I recommend Learned Optimism and The Optimistic Child by Martin P. Seligman, Giving the Love That Heals by Harville Hendrix, and The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Families by Stephen R. Covey and many more than I can name. Search for those titles and you’ll find many related books that offer excellent food for positive thought. If you don’t have time to read, get some audio titles and listen while you do other things.

Keep a journal; start by writing down current symptoms and consequences of negativity. Write a few goals for how you’d like to see positive change manifest in both you and the kids in your life.

Track your progress; even the most minimal notes can be an inspiring record of change

Warnings

Don’t forget to celebrate your achievements! This work is very hard, so give yourself credit for even trying.

“Good parent” is in quotations here because it’s a dangerous term; there are as many ways to parent as there are children, and no two are alike, so to many it would seem impossible to define. For our purposes, “good parent” is a temporary award bestowed on one who is: present at the moment of a painful experience, provides meaningful comfort, and uncritically supports the child in learning something valuable from the incident. In at least one way being your own “good parent” is easy – after all, you’re always present when something unfortunate happens to you!

Don’t hesitate to get professional help; I would never suggest that any article or book alone could provide enough help to get someone through this process. The aim here is to examine closely the changed thoughts and interactions that helped us make positive progress in our daily lives. We believe in a holistic approach and depended on many resources including grandmas, counselors, medical doctors, and all kinds of activities to shift our family toward the bright side of life – and it’s definitely a work in progress.

Paprika Clark

I’m a lifelong student of language, art, and human nature: an ENFP Aries Fire Dragon Sex Positive Intersectional Feminist Independent. Join me as I feel my way through this. If you have any questions, send them my way - as far as I'm concerned, every day is an Ask Me Anything.


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