As another year starts, there’s a fair amount of gloom around the world. How can we protect ourselves and our children from pessimism and negative thinking during 2023?
Positivity matters. It gives us confidence that things will work out and a belief that we can make a difference. It gives us energy and creativity. It allows us to be flexible and resilient. Let’s face it, we need optimistic people and optimistic thinking right now!
So the question is can we create optimism - in ourselves and our children? And the answer is yes, up to a point ….
There’s some debate about how much optimism is innate and built into our DNA and how much is learned. Some kids do seem more naturally Eeyore than Tigger from early on. And Little Eeyores can be quite hard work. They often come across as unhappy which is a huge trigger for their loving parents!
Dr Martin Seligman at the Positive Psychology Centre at the University of Pennsylvania explains that optimistic thinking can be learned and this makes a dramatic difference to our children’s long-term happiness and outcomes.
It’s based on a simple cycle in which our thoughts fuel our emotions which drive our actions. When we take a positive view, we feel good and get on with things. When we focus on the downsides or give them undue significance, we feel bad and become demotivated and lose confidence. Pessimistic thoughts can easily become self-fulfilling. What’s the point in trying something that isn’t going to work? Not much …. And when we don’t try, or challenge ourselves, then there’s little chance things will get better or we will feel we’re making a difference. This makes us feel more powerless and more pessimistic, and so it continues.
But when we actively change the way we think – about ourselves and about events – we can boost our mood – about ourselves and about events – and that changes what we do and makes it more likely we will keep pushing than give up.
So it turns out that what happens to us is less important than how we interpret what happens to us.
Let’s explore how we can boost optimistic thinking at home in 2023!
Most things start with us! Take a day or two to consider some of your thoughts and what you tend to say about everyday situations. You may find a bit more negativity has slipped into the way you think and talk than you realised. How you view the world is affecting your child’s emerging view of the world. Is it a good place, where good things can happen and be done? You bet!
Notice too how you react to mistakes - that’s your mistakes as well as the kids’ mistakes! Our response to our mistakes makes all the difference to what happens next – and to our enthusiasm to try again. We don’t want our kids panicking about making mistakes as it really fuels the ‘it might go wrong’ narrative of negative thinking. Some families decide to re-name mistakes with a lighter touch – you could say glitch, hitch, or blip. It may sound trivial, but words matter.
This may sound counter-intuitive. It seems to make sense that we leap into action and try to eradicate any down-talk from our children. So our child says “I can’t do it, there’s no point, it won’t work, nothing ever goes right, no one likes me” and we say “yes you can, yes there is, yes it does, yes they do”. This ‘toxic positivity’ is well-meaning but it’s hard for children to take on board. It makes them feel wrong and different to us and this disconnection makes them more fearful.
Accepting negative thoughts or talk is not the same as agreeing with it! We don’t say “yes, it’s awful, you’re not going to get it” and instead we say “mmm, that’s not a great way to feel” and use that connection to encourage them to take a broader view.
Pessimistic or negative thinking has a place. We’re deeply wired to be on the hunt for problems and threats and mistakes to keep us alert and safe. It’s only when pessimism gets out of hand that it becomes a problem. So we do need to take action on negativity when it starts to take over or become our default mode of thinking.
Martin Seligman points out 4 types of pessimism that can become particularly detrimental:
When you catch yourself or your child going down one of the P paths, express empathy and see if you can tidy up the negative thought to be more in-the-moment, more specific to a single event, less personal and more solution-focussed.
So your child says “it never works out, everything always goes wrong, I’m useless and I can’t do it” we say “this task is tricky, you seem to find Maths much easier than French. I remember when you worked out how to do fractions, it took you quite a while! I wonder if there is anything you learned then that could help you now?”.
Depending on the age of your children, you can introduce them to the Thought – Feeling – Action cycle, and help them understand they have the power to query and change their thoughts and views about things – and themselves. You could discuss the 4 x Ps and agree to point them out to each other in a gentle way. You could say “I hear you, it sounds a bit P-heavy though, can you de-P it?” and yes, this probably sounds a bit odd when you say it out loud! Although a bit of scatological humour usually works well with kids ….
In ‘Hardwiring Happiness’, Rick Hanson points out that our brains naturally put greater emphasis on the negative. Good news doesn’t linger in our memory in the same way that negative news does. If we want to benefit from the positives – in our lives or in the world in general - we need to put some welly into it.
As well as limiting access to rolling negative news, we can actively look for the upsides all around us, and make a habit of pointing out the best bits in each other – that’s our Descriptive Praise! Watch out for Little Eeyore’s showing a positive attitude – it may be fleeting, so you don’t want to miss it. See it and say something so they learn that they can do it. You might want to establish a habit of a Good News Moment each evening or morning where each family member reports something positive.
And when something good happens, take time to linger in the moment. Encourage your children to talk about it in detail – describe how it looked and sounded, and how it felt, and what it meant to them. This helps the positive and happy moments sink further into our memories.
As we head into 2023, let’s keep boosting our optimism levels because we need it. Even a little bit can go a long way and make a real difference to our lives and the world around us.