Helping Youth to See 'the Sunny Side of Life'
By Kris Imherr
Parents and other adults can help children gainand keepa positive outlook on life.
When describing optimism, Christopher Peterson, Ph.D., researcher and psychology professor at the University of Michigan, says the dictionary definition works fine: "It's expecting that good things will happen."
Moreover, he adds, optimism is not only the expectation that good things will be forthcoming but that "you can do the sorts of things that make them happen."
In recent decades, psychologists have been exploring the possibility that optimism can be taught both to adults and children, including those inclined to see cloudy skies rather than the sun in their lives.
Parents and significant adults can help youth see the sunny side of life in a number of ways:
Begin with loveand temper your expectations.
Co-author with Sam Goldstein of Raising Resilient Children: Fostering Strength, Hope, and Optimism in Your Child (McGraw-Hill, 2002), Dr. Brooks says such love entails accepting children for who they are. "We all have notions ofbefore our children are even bornimages of what we'd like them to be, and most kids are not going to live up to that," he says.
If a parent sets expectations too high, Dr. Brooks says, "kids will feel you're disappointed in them; they'll become more frustrated, and [your] love will become conditional love: 'I will love you, but only if you succeed.'"
Parents can arrive at realistic assessments by becoming knowledgeable about their childrenamassing facts about their kids' physical health, mental outlook, habits, likes, dislikes, abilities, and inabilities.
To that end, Dr. Brooks strongly advocates that parents spend "special times" with their children, both one-on-one and as a family. Beyond that, parents should collect information from books, doctors, teachers, and other sources regarding children's temperaments, learning styles, and more.
A parent who lacks knowledge about his child runs the risk of hanging on to idealized expectations, which can lead to disappointments and friction with that child.
Jump for their joys.
"The trick," says Dr. Christopher Peterson, co-author with Dr. Martin E. P. Seligman of Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification (Oxford University Press, 2004), "is just to channel those" interests.
So, if your child says he wants to be an ice skater, "that's great," Dr. Peterson says. "But you can't just say it's good. You've got to buy the kid ice skates, and arrange for lessons, and drive to the rink."
With older children, says Dallas psychologist David O'Brien, who frequently works with teens, parents need to make sure they're "on the same page" as their child with regard to the ultimate goal of a pursuit or activity. If the same goal is shared by all, then parents and child need only negotiate the tactics used to reach it, Dr. O'Brien says.
Children who avidly follow their interests and are encouraged by supportive parents bring fun into their lives. And their sense of intrinsic worth, a core trait of optimistic people, is reinforced.
Help them develop problem-solving and decision-making skillsthe power tools of optimism.
Dr. Brooks agrees, noting: "Children are more optimistic when they feel they have some control over what is transpiring in their lives."
This means adults must help youth develop effective problem-solving skills at an early age, he says. Rather than "telling them what to do, we have to involve them in considering different options and the possible consequences of each option."
A lot of this boils down to decision-making; and at an early agepreschoolparents can pare the process, says Dr. Brooks, by simply giving choices. "Do you want to brush your teeth before or after you take your bath?"
When decisions go wrong, optimistic children view mistakes and failure as experiences from which to learn, rather than feel defeated, Dr. Brooks says. So parents should model effective handling of their own missteps as well as prepare their offspring for slip-ups "by saying, 'If this doesn't work, we can think of another solution.'"
Take a different tack with teens.
In addition, Dr. Peterson has observed that "a part of the youth culture...is to be cynical...I think there are kids who think it's cool to be negative and cynical and mean and [to] have minimal expectations."
Besides, it is easier, Dr. O'Brien says, "to sit there and carp at the outside world as being unfair...and not take any risks yourself."
To get teens to take control, he says, he makes suggestions. But rather than setting himself up as an expert, he comes in as "co-planner, co-conspirator, co-problem solver" and does some "self-effacing stuff," throwing out a wacky idea, then saying, "Oh, that was pretty stupid. Let's try something else."
For instance, in the case of a teen boy being called names by another, Dr. O'Brien says, a totally unplanned-for response may break the name-caller's pattern. So Dr. O'Brien may suggest to the picked-on boy such comebacks as "Nice shirt!" or "Cute hair!"
He knows that the teased boy he's suggesting them to will reject them out of hand. Still, Dr. O'Brien says, the absurdness of such suggestions will get the boy laughing, and "it kind of frees up [his] brain to think of other things, and that's the point." The decreased tension, Dr. O'Brien says, "gets [teens] to start working on their own."
Spread the cheer.
And Dr. Brooks concludes that children will be more hopeful and optimistic if they feel they are making a positive difference in the world: "I believe one of the best ways to teach compassion and caring is to say to kids, 'We need your help,' and provide them with opportunities to help others."
That's "a very powerful message," he says. "You feel that you're needed, that because you're on this earth, this earth is a better place."
Increasingly, experts are concluding that children and adults alike who practice such doable and down-to-earth optimistic-outlook skills as these engage in psychology's equivalent of preventive medicine: They're giving themselves regular doses of better mental health.
Kris Imherr, a freelance writer in Dallas, Tex., also wrote the March-April Family Talk column, "Fostering Dental Healthand Bright Smilesin Children."
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