As we enter the 12-month mark of the pandemic, we have an absolute crisis of childhood mental health emerging across the United States. Many children are struggling right now. Symptoms of anxiety and depression are on the rise.
Although there are many factors that contribute to depression and anxiety, one of the most powerful prevention tools for these issues is developing cognitive strategies that promote a more optimistic viewpoint.
Optimism is a powerful tool to prevent depression. Scientific studies suggest that children who are taught to use a more optimistic perspective have lower rates of depression and are less likely to develop depression over time. These children are also more resilient. Coaching our children to be more optimistic can be an important tool to promote positive mental health. Especially now, as we move into the second year of the pandemic, we know that the stressors of our current lives are not going to fade anytime soon. This is a good time to take stock of our own perspectives on the world and look to find the good in it.
Encouraging our children to be more optimistic can help them be more resilient now, but also can help protect against mental health challenges in the long term.
And conveniently, this is something we can do from the 4 walls of our homes.
To promote optimism in our children, and prevent depression, we need to coach our children to adopt a different way to think about the world around them. These strategies can be taught informally, day-in-and-day-out. We can model them ourselves, and help our children use the same approaches.
These strategies won’t turn a pessimist into an optimist overnight – but over time, greater use of these strategies has been shown to improve optimism and protect against depression.
Follow these 3 strategies to help your child or teen become more optimistic.
Strategy 1: Generate alternative explanations.
In our daily lives, we make quick assumptions about what we think is happening in a situation. Based on this assumption, we jump on an emotional highway, going from zero to 100 in our emotions within a few quick seconds. Often, these quick assumptions are wrong and lead children down a path of negative emotions. Compounded across weeks, months, and years, these assumptions lead to a pessimistic viewpoint that places your child at risk for depression.
To help your child become more optimistic, you need to help them to begin by having them identify their quick, reactive assumptions – and by helping them to generate other possible explanations.
Imagine your child’s best friend texts them and schedules a video game playdate for 1 p.m. on Saturday. Your child’s best friend never shows up online.
Your child’s quick worst case scenario assumption is likely to be something like, “She doesn’t want to be my best friend anymore.” As soon as your child makes this assumption, they are going to experience big, time feelings of sadness. And as a parent, we know that their assumption and reaction don’t meet the situation.
We want to help our children recognize when the make quick assumptions – and instead of letting jumping on the emotional highway, we want them to take a breath and identify alternative possibilities.
If you press your child to generate some more possibilities, they will be able to come up with some more explanations. Maybe the friend forgot she had a soccer game. Maybe her Wi-Fi cut out. Maybe she lost track of time. Maybe she didn’t meet online because she was driving over for an in-person playdate.
By generating these alternative explanations, your child doesn’t immediately jump into the emotional fast lane to sadness. This is because we are disrupting the automatic assumption that the worst possible explanation is the true explanation.
Helping your child learn to identify lots of possible explanations for events eliminates immediate pessimistic assumptions of the situation. You’ll also have the added benefit of increasing your child’s empathy and emotional intelligence, as they learn to identify their own feelings as well as take other people’s perspectives.
Strategy 2: Develop a solution to each explanation.
Once your child has become skilled at identifying alternative explanations, you want to help them generate solutions for each possible explanation.
Say for instance, your child’s best friend really didn’t want to be friends anymore. What could your child do about it? What is an appropriate emotional response? Your child could talk to the friend about it. They could work on making new friends. They are certainly allowed to feel sad for a while.
What if your child’s friend simply forgot about their soccer game and that is why they missed the playdate? Your child could talk to their friend and tell them they were disappointed they missed their playdate. Maybe they could reschedule. There is no real need to have a big emotional reaction to this explanation.
What if your child’s friend was on their way for an in-person play date as a surprise? Your child could go out and play with them – and feel really happy to see their friend.
By working with your child to identify the solution and likely emotional reaction to each explanation, your child will be more measured about their evaluation of the situation. Their emotions are also more likely to end up more neutral.
Strategy 3: Identify the most likely explanation.
Once your child has become good at identifying the possible explanations for situations and appropriate reactions, you want to help them identify the most likely explanation.
In most cases, the worst possible scenario is not the likely explanation. And neither is the best possible scenario. It turns out, that most things are just downright in the middle – an emotionally neutral explanation. Processing this with your children helps them devalue the immediate negative assumptions that they make. It also prevents them from going so far in the opposite direction (an unrealistic optimist). Instead, your child learns to be rational about evaluating the world around them.
In the video game play date example, it’s unlikely that the best friend wants to break up their friendship. It’s also unlikely she is showing up spontaneously for a real-live playdate. The most likely explanation is that she is just not available at the moment.
By doing so, your child is likely to reject the most pessimistic evaluation of a situation, and transition to a more neutral or optimistic assessment. As they become more skilled at this, your child will reject automatic pessimistic thoughts, and begin to identify the most likely explanations for all sorts of events: bad grades on tests, why somebody bumped into them in the line, why a friend is ignoring them. Over time, this ability allows your child to regulate their emotional responses and appropriately respond to the situation.
Putting it all together
Optimism alone won’t keep a child from becoming depressed. We need to couple this optimism training with encouraging our children to work hard to accomplish their goals, developing their problem-solving skills, and encouraging social skills. By using these three strategies to promote optimism, we can help our kids stop making immediate negative assumptions about their day-to-day lives. Over time, by encouraging optimism in our kids, we are helping lay a foundation of good mental health across their lifetime.