Learned optimism has a history that is worth understanding. In the 1970’s, Martin Seligman developed a theory of learned helplessness. This is a state where humans learn through repeated negative experiences that there is nothing they can do to help a situation. For example, when a child constantly does badly in spelling they begin to believe that nothing they do will help. That is, they begin to feel helpless. Learned helplessness has been shown to relate to psychological problems such as depression, anxiety, lower self-esteem and lower motivation.
However, Seligman and his colleagues noticed that not all people who have these experiences, like the child with the spelling issue above, become helpless. Eventually, he demonstrated that something also goes on with a person’s thoughts. When people are in situations that affect them positively or negatively, they try to explain the cause of the situation to themselves. According to Seligman, we can explain these causes in an optimistic (positive) or pessimistic (negative) way. If we continually explain the cause of events in a positive way we learn to be optimistic.
Now stay with me as it is a little tricky to fully understand learned optimism. There are two very important aspects to the process. Our explanation for events have permanent/temporary and pervasive/limited aspects. For example, when good events happen, an optimist will explain a positive event as permanent (it always happens like this) and pervasive (affects everything that I do). However, when faced with a setback, the optimist sees the cause of the event as temporary (this is not usual) and limited (just a blip on the radar).
Some examples of children explaining events
Positive event: A child gets a perfect score on a spelling test at school.
Optimistic explanation: “I am always a good speller” (permanent)
“I do well at all school tests” (pervasive)
Setback: A child wants to be on the soccer team but doesn’t get picked.
Optimistic explanation: “I can keep practising and try again” (temporary)
“I do well at other things like athletics” (limited to this event)
Some examples regarding helping children with learning optimism
In general, children learn to be optimistic approximately between the ages of seven and ten. If we teach children to be more optimistic in explaining the cause of events at this time in particular it can help prevent the development of mental health issues such as depression and anxiety. However, even at a later time children and adolescents can learn to change the way they explain events to themselves. The most important thing to remember is to concentrate on effort and not the child as a person. So what are some of the things that parents can do to develop optimism in their children:
- Give you child experiences of success. Allow them to do things by themselves while you support them. Meeting challenges that are within their abilities and non-threatening are very worthwhile. For example, give them things to be responsible for, such as setting the table or cleaning up the toys, and make sure that you congratulate them on their effort.
- When your child has a success talk to them about their effort, and what they did to make the success, and let them know that this is a strength that they have. For example, “You worked very hard on that project and never gave up when it was hard for you”.
- Be aware that false praise does not help a child build their strengths and a child knows if they tried or didn’t try. If you tell them that everything they do is great, without foundation, can actually weaken their ability to persist in the face of challenge. It is ok to acknowledge when things don’t go to plan and children know this anyway.
- Build on their successes by suggesting how the effort they put into a previous success will help them in the future (pervasive). That is, how they persisted now can help them meet other challenges in the future.
- Don’t give your child negative labels such as “You’re always complaining” or “She can’t climb like her other friends”. Remember, children develop at different times and what might just have been a developmental phase could become a permanent behaviour.
- Finally, always see a setback as a learning experience for your child and model optimistic explanations and behaviour for them.
What are the benefits of optimism?
Being an optimist has many benefits. Optimists tend to have better health, both physically and mentally, and they tend to persist in the face of challenge. They also tend to lead fuller lives, live longer, do more exercise, and have less stress as they deal with it more readily. They also have less substance abuse, less violent behaviour, use safe sexual practices, and have better relationships. They tend to cope better and use social support when things are difficult. Optimistic children tend to have a more positive attitude to school and also adjust better to high school.
Dr Peter Boman is a Senior Lecturer in Child and Adolescent Development at Queensland University of Technology.
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This article was published in Issue 3 of our print magazine, April/May 2014.