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Today I want to put Learned Optimism in a form that you can teach to your kids. For more detail on this, I recommend The Optimistic Child, by Martin Seligman. The information in today’s column is drawn from that excellent book.
Before you do this, take some time to explore your own internal dialogue. You are modeling optimism or pessimism for your kids all the time, and the best way for you to teach them optimism is to embody it yourself a lot of the time (perfection is not necessary). See my past columns on learned optimism - 'What You Say to Yourself Matters', and 'Know Your ABCs' -- and play with the suggestions here as well. Once you are comfortable with the principles, here’s what to do to begin teaching your kids:
The first step is to talk with your kids about their internal dialogue. We all talk to ourselves, but sometimes we’re not very aware that we’re doing this or what we are saying. Help your child explore what they say to themselves in different situations. Play with this, make it fun. And don’t dwell on it. A few minutes are fine. Then come back to it later.
You may spend a few weeks on just this. Once they get the idea and can tell you what they’re thinking to themselves, move on to the next step.
Next, begin to explore with them how what they say to themselves can affect how they feel. Ask them to tell you a difficult situation that could be painful for them, or think up one yourself to get things rolling - a scene with one child ignoring or teasing another, for example; or a teacher or parent scolding them.
Now draw a cartoon strip picture (or have them draw a picture) with 3 frames: Frame 1: a picture of the above event, 2) a picture of a boy or girl involved in #1 with an empty text balloon (to be filled in later), and 3) a picture of the same boy or girl, with an angry expression.
Ask your child to tell you what the boy or girl in the picture might say to themselves in picture #2 that could lead to them feeling angry.
Now draw (or have them draw) the same strip, but in the 3rd frame the boy or girl is sad. Ask your child to tell you what the boy or girl in the picture might say to themselves in picture #2 that could lead to them feeling sad.
Now draw (or have them draw) the same strip, but in the 3rd frame the boy or girl is feeling okay. Ask your child to tell you what the boy or girl in the picture might say to themselves in picture #2 that could lead to them feeling okay.
Now, pick a few other situations, and repeat the above with each one. Include at least one situation that would be likely to lead to feeling good as well. This will help them see how what they say to themselves can lead to them feeling bad even in a situation where they ought logically to feel good.
Doing the above will help them see and give them an experience of how what they say to themselves can lead them to feel different things. Once they see this, begin to play with these ideas over time. You may take many weeks of coming back to this exercise, using different examples from your child’s life. You get good at what you practice, so help them to practice these skills as different situations arise.
There is more that you can do, and I’ll have more to say about this as time goes on, but practicing what I’ve described here today should keep you busy for a while. Don’t rush, don’t nag, and don’t pressure. When your kids give you signals that they’ve had enough, back off for awhile. This is a skill that will serve them well throughout their lives. What’s important is that they learn to master it over time. There’s no rush.
Kids that learn the skills of learned optimism are more resilient, and are much less susceptible to helplessness and depression. These habits can form a benevolent cycle that your child can build on as they grow. Every challenge they overcome becomes a deposit in the bank of their resilience.
Help them to invest well.