What’s the point of trying? How to Turn Pessimistic Kids Into Optimistic Thinkers


By: Dr. Michele Borba

"Why should I bother? You know they won't choose me." "What's the point? I'll never make the team." "Why are you making me go? You know I won't have fun."

Kids with pessimistic attitudes are among the most frustrating breeds. They give up easily, believe anything they do won't make a difference, and assume they won't succeed. Sadly, they rarely see the good, wonderful things of life. They dwell instead on the negative, bad parts, and often find only the inadequacies in themselves: "I'm so dumb, why study?" "Nobody's going to like me, why bother?" Beware: the trend is increasing: a child today is ten times more likely to be seriously depressed compared to a child born in the first third of this century. So what's a parent to do?

First, do know I empathize if you have one of these little critters. I know this is troubling stuff, and at times even heartbreaking. After all, one of the hardest parts of being a parent is when your child isn't happy. But there is one point you must keep in mind: Kids are not born pessimistic. Research shows a large part of this attitude is learned along the way. So take heart: research at Penn State University concludes that parents can help their kids become more optimistic. Doing so will dramatically increases the likelihood of your son or daughter's long-term happiness. So roll up your sleeves, and let's get started.

Here are tips from my book, Don't Give Me That Attitude! to help you succeed.

  1. Eliminate the negatives you can.
    Start by doing what you can do: cut the sources that might be exacerbating your kid's pessimism. Possibilities? Why not reduce the terrifying news on CNN; stop talking about the bad stuff on the front page; listen to your own negative talk and curb it; monitor the cynical musical lyrics your kid is hearing? Where once those tragic and terrifying world events seemed so far, far away or only printed words in the newspaper, they are now 24/7 on our TVs and Internet screens. So be more vigilante and turn off what you can control. Enough!

  2. Look for the positive.
    Next, consciously stress a more optimistic outlook in your home so your child sees the good parts of life instead of just the downside. Here are a few things you can do to accentuate the positive:

    • Start nightly "good news reports": each family member can report something good that happened that day to him or her.

    • Share optimistic stories. The world is filled with examples of individuals who suffered enormous obstacles, but don't cave into pessimistic thinking. Instead they remained optimistic, and kept at their dreams until they succeeded. So look for examples to share with your kids.

    • Institute goodness reviews with your child each night of all the good parts about her day. Your child will go to sleep remembering the positives about life. If you do it often enough, it will become a routine that your child will do on her own.


  3. Confront pessimistic thinking.
    Don't let your child get trapped into "Stinkin' Thinkin'. Help him tune into his pessimistic thoughts and learn to confront them. Here are a few tips:

    • Point out cynicism. Create a code--such as pulling on your ear or touching your elbow--that only you and your kid are aware. The code means he's uttered a cynical comment.

    • Tune into it. Encourage your kid to listen to his own cynical comments. Suggest an older kid wear a watch or bracelet. The watch reminds her to tune into how often she is pessimistic.

    • Count negative thoughts. Help your kid count their pessimistic comments for a set time period: "For the next few minutes listen how many times you say downbeat things." A young kid can count comments on his fingers. An older kid can use coins moving one from his left to right pocket.


  4. Balance pessimistic talk.
    One way to thwart your kid's pessimistic thinking is by providing a more balanced perspective. If you use the strategy enough, your child will use it to help counter pessimistic talk. Here's a few possibilities:

    • Your child won't go to her friend's birthday thinking no one likes her. Offer a more balanced view: "If Sunny didn't like you, you'd never have been invited."

    • Your kid blows her math test exclaiming that she's stupid. You say: "Nobody can be good at everything. You're good in history and art. Meanwhile, let's figure out how to improve your math."


  5. Deal with mistakes optimistically.
    Pessimists often give up at the first sign of difficulty, not recognizing that mistakes are a fact of life. Tips to help kids keep a more optimistic outlook to setbacks are:

    • Stress that it's okay to make mistakes. Give kids permission to fail so they can risk.

    • Admit your mistakes. It helps kids recognizes mistake making happens to everyone.

    • Call it another name. Optimists call mistakes by other names: glitch, bug, etc., so rename it!


  6. Encourage positive speculation.
    Help your child think through possible outcomes of any situation so he'll be more likely to have a realistic appraisal before making any decision and less likely to utter a pessimistic one.

    • Ask "what if?" kinds of questions to help your kid think about potential consequences.

    • List pros and cons of any choice to help your child weigh the positive and negative outcomes.

    • Name the worst thing that could happen if he followed through so he can weigh if it's all that bad.


  7. Acknowledge a positive attitude.
    Do be on the alert for those times your child does utter optimism. If you're not looking for the behavior, you may well miss those moments when your child is trying a new approach. "Kara, I know how difficult your spelling tests have been. But saying you think you'll do better was being so optimistic. I'm sure you'll do better because you've been studying so hard."

Face it, this is a troubling time to be growing up, and cynical kids tune into the bad times often seeing only the downward side of any situation. The world really is a wonderful and hopeful place. We just need to take the time and point out all the goodness in it to our kids. After all, this is their world, and the habits they learn now will last them a lifetime. Let's make sure that one of those habits is the optimistic thinking and recognizing the wonder and beauty in life.

Michele Borba, Ed.D., is an internationally renowned educator, motivational speaker, and award-winning author. She is the recipient of the National Educator award and serves on the honorary advisor board of Parents magazine and appears frequent guest on talk shows such as the Today show, The View, Fox & Friends, MSNBC, and NPR and in print including: Newsweek, Redbook, U.S. News & World Report. Michele is the author of Parents Do Make a Difference, Building Moral Intelligence, and No More Misbehavin' (Jossey-Bass). For more parenting tips and information about her work, visit Michele at www.behaviormakeovers.com.

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