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Improving Our Kids’ Resilience: What Scientific Research Reveals

How to improve kids’ sense of well-being and ability to cope when things get tough

Published on: January 26, 2021

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Last year was a very challenging year and everyone is hoping that 2021 will mark a return to some form of normality. The trials of 2020 dealt us lots of practice in dealing with the unexpected.

Science says that we are not powerless in the face of uncertainty. Even when confronting the most difficult situations, it is still possible to transform our sense of helplessness into something more positive. Viktor Frankl is a great example of the ability to shift one’s mindset from helplessness to hope.

Viktor was an Austrian Holocaust survivor. He would later write in his book, “Man’s Search for Meaning,” that the only thing that cannot be taken from us is our ability to choose our attitude, no matter the circumstances. It is to him that we owe the concept of tragic optimism, which means our ability to remain optimistic even in the face of tragic situations.

So how does this idea work for our kids? Behavioral science research indicates that the more your child displays an optimistic outlook on life, the lower their chances of depression, physical illness and psychological issues. Optimistic children are also more likely to be resilient, to be better problem-solvers and to have a higher sense of well-being. The best news is that optimism is not an inherited skill — it can be practiced and learned.

Here are four ways to help your child develop a greater sense of optimism:

1. Help your child develop a more positive outlook on life

The problem with always “seeing the glass as half empty” is that this view of life can become somewhat permanent and can spread to almost all areas of your child’s life. A pessimistic disposition tends to make your children view negative events as permanent, and therefore gives them the impression that they are powerless to change them.

Helping kids reflect on current events is an easy way to help your children question their way of seeing things and showing them that they have control over how they react to the situations they encounter. Researchers from Kent State University found that asking people to explain events using alternative (not necessarily more optimistic) phrases led to a drop in pessimism. In other words, being able to come up with multiple explanations to a specific negative event makes it easier to deal with that event.

2. Show your child what optimism looks like

Martin Seligman, a researcher who has focused much of his work on optimism and pessimism, says that how your child reacts to the events in her life has an impact on whether she will develop an optimistic or pessimistic outlook on life. But we also know that children learn how to react to life’s events by looking at how their parents and caregivers react to them.

If you display an attitude of helplessness (e.g., “It will never get better,” “This always happens to me,” “I knew it wouldn’t work” or “It’s impossible”), you model pessimistic behavior.

By portraying more optimistic behavior (e.g., “Things will get better soon,” “I’ll go listen to music to feel better” or “I’ll try again tomorrow”), you show your child that negative situations are temporary and can be overcome.

3. Help your child practice gratitude

There are many positive effects from a mindset of gratitude. A child who practices gratitude is less prone to pessimism, has a greater sense of well-being and also experiences more positive emotions. But to make gratitude work for your child and for your entire family, it is important to adopt a “gratitude routine” in your home. This could mean, for example, asking each member of your family to say one thing for which they are grateful at a specific time everyday — at mealtime, bedtime or right after school.

4. Obstacles help your children thrive

Obstacles help children grow. Their failure or success when they encounter these obstacles has an impact on their self-esteem and helps them develop qualities such as motivation and resilience.

It is important for your child to experience failure, and all the negative emotions associated with failure, to grow. That said, too much failure is bad for anyone. Your child needs to feel capable of success, and she therefore needs to encounter events she can succeed in. If she constantly encounters failure, she is likely to develop what Seligman refers to as learned helplessness, meaning that she could start to see herself as incapable of success.

Setting reasonable expectations is the easiest way to ensure that your children can benefit from obstacles. This means that the obstacles should present a challenge to help them learn and grow, but that they must take into account what they are actually capable of doing, rather than what you think their age-mates are capable of doing.

A positive outlook

Everyone feels down from time to time, and it is perfectly normal for your children to occasionally display pessimistic traits. That said, the more you encourage them to develop a positive outlook to the events in their lives and show them that they have power over how they react to those events, the more they will develop a positive and optimistic disposition.

Jeffrey Robinson headshotIf you care, show up:

It’s not enough to say we care. We have to show up. If you’ve committed to doing more to end racism in the U.S., join ParentMap on Feb. 24 for a free ParentEd Talk, “Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism,” featuring founder and activist Jeffery Robinson.

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