September 12, 2002, Category: Book Reviews

The Optimistic Child

Optimistic ChildOptimism is a key to avoiding depression and building self esteem. It drives learning, happiness, and the courage to walk away from trouble. This book is full of studies, techniques, and ideas to help our children find happiness and reach their potentials.Depression can be linked to many social disorders. In recent acts of high school violence, an attempt to pinpoint a demographic failed. Violence came from poor kids, rich kids, A students, and F students. There was only one common thread for violence: depression. In addition to violence, depression is linked to alcoholism, drug use, poor grades, misbehavior, and suicide. Depression has been labeled the epidemic of our time.

Learned helplessness is an underlying catalyst to depression. One way parents teach learned helplessness to their children is by solving their problems. When a parent continually solves a child’s problem, the child learns that he cannot do things on his own. In an attempt to help, encourage, and push our children towards success, we inadvertently begin to teach our children they are not capable of solving their own problems. This, coupled with repeated failure (which may be in the form of not getting it perfect for the parent), is a breeding ground for depression.

Dr. Martin E.P. Selligman suggests the formula for vaccinating our children against the dangers of depression is ground in optimism. The research conducted by Dr. Selligman offers not only insight into predicting who is at risk for depression, but also a program for reducing current and future depression. This program involves teaching our children to examine thinking patterns, encouraging parents to structure activities where children can succeed, and strive to reduce pessimism while increasing optimism. There are several characteristics of a pessimistic child, which greatly increases the chances of future battles with depression.

A pessimistic child struggles with “sometimes” versus “always.” An optimistic child might look at a bad situation as temporary, “Mom is angry with me.” A pessimistic child sees the situation as more permanent, “Mom is always angry with me.” Other negative phrases might be, “I’m always making mistakes, I never get it right, nobody likes me…”

Another technique of the pessimistic child is to globalize problems. An optimist specifically defines negative events (“I’m not good at basketball) while a pessimist defines more globally (I’m no good at sports). Specific failures carry added weight because they are applied generally. The situation reverses when describing a good event. The optimist globalizes (I’m good at sports) and the pessimist is specific (I’m good at basketball).

Finally, the pessimist internalizes bad events in a general way. “Dad is mad at me because I’m always breaking his things” compared to the optimist’s “Dad is mad at me because I ruined his stereo.” It’s the difference between “I’m a bad kid” and “I did something bad.”

The methods we use to criticize our children help shape the manner in which they describe positive and negative events. “You must therefore be thoughtful when you criticize your child, or yourself in front of your child, for you are shaping his explanatory style about self blame. The first rule is accuracy. Exaggerated blame produces guilt and shame beyond what is necessary to galvanize the child to change. But no blame at all erodes responsibility and nullifies the will to change.” (The optimistic Child, p. 63). Calling our child “lazy” rather than not trying hard today lays the foundation for a pessimistic thinking style.

To measure your child’s current level of pessimism/optimism, Selligman offers a questionnaire (p. 69). By answering basic questions about various events, you can learn how your child currently explains positive and negative events. This will indicate the chances of both current and future depression. A questionnaire is also included (p. 84) to give you an idea of your child’s current level of depression.

The good news is that of all mental disorders, depression is one of the easiest to treat and cure. Even better, is there are proven ways that parents can inoculate children against depression. A basic technique includes teaching children the ABC’s.

Seligman explains how to analyze and cope with difficult events using his “ABC” model. Depression results because when faced with a bad event, we can experience discouragement, frustration, and despondence. The event is not the underlying cause of our depression, but rather the beliefs we have concerning the event. For instance, the ABC model suggests that [A] adversity, creates [B] beliefs, which have [C] consequences. For instance, Your spouse has been distant and distracted lately [A]. You think she doesn’t love me anymore [B]. You become sad and withdrawn [C].

Now, if you consider the ABC model and factor in the typical behavior of a pessimist (to globalize, internalize, and over generalize), it becomes clear how the [B] step can turn a mild setback into a major depression. By helping children find alternate methods to their beliefs (as in the example above, perhaps my spouse is stressed at work), we begin to alter pessimistic thinking styles, increase self-esteem, and reduce depression. Children are shown external situations and analyze the belief stage. Then, by looking at their own explanatory style (permanent, temporary, pervasive, specific, personal, and impersonal), they begin to examine their own adverse events by finding alternate explanations.

When the ABC skills are acquired; DE is introduced. Disputation [D] involves analyzing the [B] step, and energization [E] has the child look at the overall effects of the exercise.

The book is excellent and has numerous exercises, role-play scenarios, teaching aids, and research data to aid in the understanding and teaching our children optimism. It not only presents a case against depression (as being the epidemic of our time), but also provides proven method to reduce depression.

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