The thoughts we think about ourselves and our circumstances play a huge role in our mental health. When we explain things to ourselves in an optimistic explanatory style we are happier, more energized, and experience greater success in every area of life. However, when we think about ourselves and our circumstances pessimistically we lose hope, become helpless, and can easily develop depression. It is important to teach kids optimism to improve their mental health and help them be more successful in life.
Negative Thoughts Lead to Depression
The way that we explain our circumstances to ourselves determines how helpless or energized we become. When we experience repeated feelings of helplessness we become highly at risk for becoming depressed. This is true for both adults and children. When we believe thoughts that cause us to feel helpless, we become discouraged, hopeless, and depressed. When we believe thoughts that cause us to feel hopeful, we become energized and are more likely to achieve success.
(To hear more about how pessimism leads to depression listen to episode 13 of the Working Mom’s Balance Podcast here.)
What is Explanatory Style
The thoughts and beliefs we have when we explain our circumstances to ourselves is known as our explanatory style. You can have an optimistic explanatory style or a pessimistic explanatory style.
An optimistic explanatory style looks at adversity and thinks thoughts that are temporary (won’t last forever), specific (only affects this situation), and impersonal (not all my fault). These thoughts help them feel hopeful, motivated, and energized to persevere through the trial. Perseverance and resilience then lead to greater success.
A pessimistic explanatory style, on the other hand, assigns thoughts about adverse circumstances that are personal (all my fault), pervasive (affects everything), and permanent (will always be this way). These thoughts cause them to feel hopeless and discouraged. They give up, fail, and can easily become depressed.
The difference between pessimistic and optimistc explanations
For instance, an optimistic child who gets a bad grade on a test might think thoughts such as, “Wow, I did not do well on this test (specific). I wasn’t feeling well the day we took it and the study guide the teacher provided did not seem to match the questions on the test (impersonal). For the next test, I’ll talk to my teacher about making sure the study guide is more helpful (temporary).”
A pessimistic child who gets a bad grade on a test might think thoughts such as, “Wow, I did horrible on this test. I’m so stupid (pervasive). I’ll never learn this stuff (permanent). Everyone’s going to make fun of me because I’m such an idiot (personal).”
Our Thoughts About Our Circumstances Cause Our Feelings
The thoughts our kids believe about themselves and their circumstances cause them to feel a certain way. Those feelings then lead them to take actions that stem from the way they feel. When they’re constantly beating themselves up with pessimistic thinking they feel terrible, they give up, and then they feel even worse. It becomes a vicious cycle that can spiral into feelings of depression.
An optimistic explanatory style has been proven to help people be more successful at school, in their work, at sports, in politics, and it can even help us live healthier and longer lives. A pessimistic explanatory style has been shown to be one of the main causes of depression. Pessimistic people tend to achieve less, fail more, and they experience more negative life events.
We Have the Power to Control Our Thoughts
Fortunately, we have the ability to choose the way we think. We can change the way that we explain our circumstances to ourselves to develop a more optimistic explanatory style.
Our explanatory style develops during childhood. Researchers think that our explanatory style, whether optimistic or pessimistic, stems from several factors including our mother’s explanatory style, the criticism we receive from adults, and the crises we experience during childhood.
Usually, children are most optimistic prior to puberty and then their explanatory style takes shape around the time they reach puberty and, if left alone, will remain stable throughout their lifetime. Researchers have found that when we teach kids the skills to improve their habits of thinking to develop a more optimistic explanatory style these skills can have a lasting impact on their future health and success. Anyone can learn these skills and change their explanatory style, but starting with prepubescent children can make a huge difference in changing the trajectory of their lives to help them achieve more success and happiness.
How to Help Your Child Develop an Optimistic Explanatory Style
One of the most helpful skills we can teach our children is how to develop a more optimistic explanatory style. Just like we teach our kids about honesty, hard work, and responsibility, teaching optimism is another skill we can use to raise our kids well. And, bonus, when we teach our kids the skills to improve their explanatory style, we learn as well and can improve our own explanatory style.
Illustrate how our thoughts cause our feelings
The first thing we want to help our kids understand is that feelings don’t just happen to us. Our feelings are always a direct result of the thoughts and beliefs that we have. When we feel sad, angry, afraid, or embarrassed, there is always a thought that preceded these feelings. If we can learn to recognize those thoughts, we can change the thought and as a result, change the way we feel.
Identify examples of pessimistic thoughts
Take some time to sit with your child and discuss a recent time when they were feeling an uncomfortable emotion (sad, angry, frustrated, embarrassed). Help them think through the situation and try to remember the thoughts that they were thinking about their circumstances. You will likely identify thoughts that were permanent, pervasive, and/or personal. Talk through the thoughts with your child to help them understand how their specific thoughts contributed to the way that they felt.
Come up with examples of optimistic responses
Next, try to come up with a time when they were facing a difficulty but they did not feel as strong of an uncomfortable emotional reaction. This might be a bit more challenging, so you may need to give them examples. The goal here again is to look for the thoughts that the child was thinking at the time about the adversity. See if you can work together to identify thoughts that were impersonal, temporary, and specific so they can see how an optimistic explanation helped them feel better about their situation.
For these last two steps, the goal has not been to fix the thought. We just want to practice paying attention to our thoughts and identifying what thoughts serve us and what thoughts do not. You might want to spend a couple days going through an example or two each evening to practice this skill. At dinner or bedtime you can ask the child to identify an adverse situation they faced during the day and then talk through the thoughts they were thinking at the time and how those thoughts made them feel.
Learn how to dispute negative thoughts
Once your child has gotten some good practice at identifying their thoughts, you can now move into the next stage where we actually learn how to change our thoughts. This is called disputation. Have your child tell you about a difficult circumstance they faced, help them identify the thoughts and feelings they initially had about the circumstance, and then walk them through the process of disputing the pessimistic thoughts with a more optimistic explanation.
To help your child dispute their pessimistic thoughts have them think through the following questions:
Questions to help defeat pessimistic thoughts
- What is the evidence? – “I’m the dumbest kid in the world.” Does your child have any good grades in other subjects that can provide evidence to disprove this belief? The best way to dispute our negative thoughts is to show that it is factually inaccurate.
- Are there any alternative explanations? – “Ginny didn’t answer the phone when I called so she must hate me and doesn’t want to be my friend anymore.” Have your child identify 5 other reasons why Ginny might not have answered the phone (she was playing outside without her phone, she’s grounded and lost her phone privileges, she’s tired and didn’t want to talk to anyone).
- What are the implications? If the thought is actually true, what does that imply? – “I failed this test. I’m horrible at math and I’m never going to learn this stuff.” The thought that he failed the test might be true but does failing one test means that they are horrible at math or that they can never learn and improve? No way.
- Does this thought serve me? – “I suck at sports, no one is ever going to want me to play on their team.” I personally have always “sucked” at sports and I didn’t have any interest in playing sports enough to improve. Dwelling about how bad I am at sports never served me. Instead, I choose to recognize what I am good at and remember that there are many other ways to have fun in life than sports. This helps me to reframe getting picked last in gym class as not that big of a deal.
(Episode 14 of the Working Mom’s Balance Podcast provides additional examples and explanations for how to dispute pessimistic thoughts and teach kids optimism.)
Practice disputing and develop skills to “argue with themselves”
Spend a few days going through daily examples of difficult circumstances each evening to help your kids begin to shift their thinking about how they explain things to themselves. It will take lots of practice, this is not a one time lesson, you’ll need to work with them over and over again to reinforce these skills. Teach them how to “argue” with themselves to dispute their negative thoughts and replace them with more positive ones. This is how we learn optimism and improve mental health in the process.
Final thoughts on how to teach kids optimism
A pessimistic explanatory style is one of the major causes of depression throughout life. By teaching our kids how to be optimistic while they are young we are setting them up to have a lower risk of depression for life. Mental health challenges are rapidly growing among both young people and adults. You can use the above steps to improve your own explanatory style as well, because, as we know, kids learn best through watching our example.
Resources for More Ideas on How to Teach Kids Optimism
Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life by Martin Seligman – this book will explain the research behind why optimism is so helpful and provides more in-depth instructions on how to teach kids optimism (and grownups too)
Working Mom’s Balance Podcast Episode 13 – Managing Your Thoughts to Improve Mental Health (Optimistic Explanatory Style Part 1)
Working Mom’s Balance Podcast Episode 14 – Why and How to Be More Optimistic (Optimistic Explanatory Style Part 2)