How to help kids be more optimistic
RACHEL DOHERTY
Social worker, teacher and the founder of Tweens2teen
Part of a positive mindset is optimism. Where children and teenagers are missing it, parents can have a tough job building it up.

You know you have a teenager in the house when everything is “hopeless”. There’s a depressing cloud of pessimism that seems to hover over your child and bring everyone else’s mood down too. Getting kids out of that rut can be hard work. Dealing with that negativity requires patience and your own endless supply of optimism.

The dictionary defines optimism as “a hopefulness and confidence about the future”. It’s an ability to look forward and expect good things to happen. It’s one thing to know what optimism is, but getting kids to be optimistic isn’t an easy task.

“Optimism is the foundation of courage.”

NICHOLAS M. BUTLER

The difference between optimism and hope

Oftentimes optimism and hope mean the same thing, but hope is a precursor for optimism. It’s what we need to start looking on the bright side of things. Hope’s definition is “a feeling of expectation”. A sense that things are going to work out. For young people that can be a hard quality to cultivate.

Teenagers seem wired to think negatively and expect things not to go their way. They can get so stuck in this way of thinking they develop “a feeling of disappointment” and start to lower their expectations.

Navigating life as an adults requires us to be able to push through challenges and make the most of opportunities. If we want kids to have a good adult life, we have to equip them with the skills to get over disappointments. They need to regenerate hope when things get tough.

And to do that they need to be clear what they want out of life. As kids move through the teenage years, it’s important to start getting them thinking about what a good life will look like to them. What could they do in life to feel happy and bring joy to others?

There are four parts of life that when they come together can give us this “good life”:

  • Health and fitness. Keeping active and looking after the body are essential for not only physical health but the mental one too.
  • Relationships. Most of life takes place in relationship, with loved ones, friends and colleagues. In the teenager years kids start pruning old relationships and working out what sort of new ones they want. They work out what a good friend looks like, and what’s a dud.
  • Work. Adult life is all about work. Paid and unpaid. Most teenagers cotton on to this as their study commitments ramp up and the desire for cash pushes them into a part-time job. Teenagers need to figure out what sort of work will add meaning and value to there lives, even if it’s just for the short-term.
  • Adventure. Life isn’t hopeful if it feels like a drudge. We all need good things to look forward to. Things that bring us joy and refresh our spirit. We need to help kids make room in their plans to explore this big world, to test the laws of physics and make the most of life.

Optimism isn’t something that magically happens. It develops in the great washing machine of life as they mix these four things together and find a level of hope and happiness they can live with.

“Optimism is the faith that leads to achievement. Nothing can be done without hope and confidence.” – Helen Keller

Building optimism in kids

We may not be able to make kids optimistic, but we can build what they have of it up.

Optimism is like a muscle. You have to keep using it or it fades away. It needs a shot of hope now and then too. To keep it chugging along.

Optimism is just part of the positive mindset I wrote about in a recent article. But it’s a key part of it. In that article I gave you five tactics for helping kids develop a positive mindset, that also apply to optimism. But there are three things young people need to believe if they’re going to be optimistic. They need to:

1. See themselves as a learner

Too many kids picture themselves as a Lego kit. With a set amount of pieces and a right way to put it together. It’s what Carol Dweck would call a fixed mindset. But who says the pieces in the box have to go together in a set way? Or that you can’t add new pieces?

Optimism relies on a sense of determination. Of being able to work out what to do when things are a muddle. Our children need to see themselves as capable of learning new skills and working out new ways of doing things.

A learner looks for opportunities and can source new information and ideas. They have good thinking skills to sort out the great ideas from the bad ones. They can add new knowledge to what they already know and propose theories worth testing. Learners look ahead and don’t get caught up in the past.

2. See life as a journey

Optimists have a sense of where they’re heading, even if they don’t have a clear destination. Their steps to that destination are every bit as valuable as the end point.

Kids don’t have the same perspective on life as adults do, but they can learn to see today as part of a bigger story, not the story itself. They can cast aside one disappointment and focus on what lies ahead with a fresh sense of purpose.

If we want our kids to be optimistic, they need to start seeing the bigger picture as they move through the teenage years. They need to understand that there are many paths they can follow and that everyone’s picture of the good life is unique. Optimistic kids are able to own their picture and relish it.

3. See time as irrelevant

Conformity needs challenging, and it starts with parents. The pressure for kids to keep up with their peers, meet milestones and even surpass them is suffocating. Kids need the freedom to progress at a rate that works for them. We need to advocate for them when they need more time or need more support.

There is no reward for growing up too fast. When you’re parenting teens or tweens it can feel like every moment counts. The difference between 16 and 17 is a deep chasm. But if you look back on your own life now, you know that if you’d taken 12 months longer to graduate, or repeated a year, none of that would matter. Don’t let kids get caught up in the moment at the expense of their longer-term development.

Optimistic kids build natural buffers for anxiety and depression. They’re more likely to cope with disappointments and persevere through the tough times. Their mindset will help them cling to a dream, and see failures as temporary rather than fatal.

As a parent, the best way to create optimistic kids is to model it and talk it up. To allow them room to make mistakes and figure things out for themselves. Optimism takes time to develop and can only come from within. It’s our job to be the example and to lead the cheer squad.

What are you thoughts on cultivating optimism in kids? What’s worked for you?

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