umbrella project

This month we are taking on a skill that will help us look on the bright side!  That skill is Realistic Optimism.
How will realistic optimism help my child?
We often hear sayings about looking on the bright side of life. Turns out that looking on the bright side can actually improve your child’s mental and physical health. Mix that with helping them have a realistic look at the obstacles they may face, and you have a strategy for success. Achieving goals can be challenging and a negative outlook can defeat children before they even get started. Learning to be realistically optimistic will help your child link their dreams to the steps they will need to take to achieve them and help them take on life with a positive attitude.

OPTIMISM TIP #1: Help your child anticipate and plan for obstacles.

Obstacles become less daunting when we have thought them through and have strategies to deal with them. When your child approaches challenging situations this month, help them think through some of the obstacles they may face and potential strategies they can use to deal with them.   There are so many ways to prepare for obstacles in life while building confidence for the next time we may face a similar challenge. When possible, make the preparation something that will encourage a positive mood. Help your child feel empowered and optimistic by anticipating and preparing for challenges.

OPTIMISM TIP #2: Do something you enjoy before problem-solving. 

It’s easy for children to obsess over the unpleasant things that happen to them. When we try to problem-solve right after one of these events, it can be difficult to build optimism. Our brain naturally wants to match our memories and thoughts with the current mood we are in. Right after something unpleasant happens, it’s much more likely that our brain will turn to pessimistic thoughts.  If you notice this happening with your child, help them learn to put something they enjoy in between the unpleasant event and problem solving when possible. This strategy helps to bring them back to a more positive mood which will, in turn, lead to more optimistic problem-solving. It will also improve the creativity of the solutions they come up with.  Just remember to come back to the problem after the enjoyable activity. This shouldn’t end in problem avoidance. It should instead teach your child that they can build optimism and better problem-solving skills by intentionally improving their mood before they tackle difficult challenges.

OPTIMISM TIP #3: Consider the way you explain your own life to your child. 

We know that children are most likely to pick up their primary parent’s explanatory style. What does that mean? That means that if you are an optimist, your kids will likely be too. if you tend to put a negative frame on your life events, your children will also learn to interpret the world this way.  This explanatory style is changeable with some easy shifts in the words you use. To build your child’s optimism and their ability to see a path through tough times, think about these two key shifts in the way you explain the world:

  1.  Temporary vs. Permanent
    When bad events feel permanent, it can hinder your child from believing they can change their circumstances. In contrast, when difficult events happen, as they will in every life, show your child that most of these are temporary and can be overcome with time. Start by avoiding “always” and “never” in your explanations. “This kind of thing always happens to me” feels pretty permanent. The more temporary your child sees challenging times to be, the more they will be optimistic for the future.
  2. Specific vs. general/pervasive
    It’s easy to see patterns in life and group them all together but this style of explanation can leave us feeling pessimistic about our chances to make change. Try to be specific about the issues you face. For example, if someone at the office is unkind to you, try to keep the issue to that person i.e.. “John was unkind to me” instead of “people are unkind to me” or “men are always like this”. Think about this when you describe yourself too. Everyone is lazy sometimes, but when we generalize a feeling to our whole character we become less optimistic for change. For example, after a lazy day with nothing crossed off the to-do list you were hoping to accomplish try saying “I was feeling lazy today” instead of “I am lazy”. The later is more specific to the situation at hand and leaves room for tomorrow to be different while the former seems unchangeable. When we see our issues as pervasive to all areas of our lives it’s hard to be hopeful for something better. The more specific we can get, the more the situation will seem like something we can overcome.

Remember, to build optimism look at your own explanations of the world and aim for temporary and specific explanations over permanent and pervasive ones. Your child will follow in your footsteps.

OPTIMISM TIP #4: Teach your child to reframe challenge. 

Learning to see the positives in our challenges is a technique called positive reframing. The skill is critical in helping children build optimism, even when life gets rainy. The goal isn’t to find excuses for procrastination, mean behaviour or to change reality. It is to help them find the true bright spots in their difficulties, neutralize their negative feelings and beliefs, and prepare them to move.  How can we teach this valuable skill? As we all come to realize when we become parents, we can’t force our children to see the world a certain way. Just putting a positive frame on their difficulties for them can backfire and make them feel like we don’t understand what they are going through. Instead of giving your own positive perspective, try these two techniques to get your children thinking about their own reframe.

  1.  Help your child make new observations or think about the accuracy of their limiting beliefs by
    asking good questions. This can help them to tell a new story about what happened to them. Here
    are some options:
    ● What was positive in the situation?
    ● What growth can I get from this situation? How did this event make me better?
    ● How can I turn this disaster into a win?
    ● What is the best way to act in this kind of situation?
    ● What went right?
    ● What umbrella skill can I work on building from this experience?
  2. Neutralize the negative feelings with a little humour.  Before working through some of the questions for positive reframing, use a little humour to help them get into a positive state of mind. It will be much easier for them to see their situation in a new light.

See this blog for a more detailed look at coaching children through the challenges of building a
realistic optimism: