An old joke tells the story of a young boy who wakes up on Christmas morning and, instead of presents under the tree, finds a pile of “horse apples”. Excitedly, he begins shoveling in, telling his puzzled parents, “There must be a pony out there somewhere!”
There are many tools we can give our children to help them succeed in life: a solid education, healthy food, a safe environment, a sense of self-esteem, thinking skills, and so on.
An important skill we can teach them is to maintain a positive attitude. With a positive attitude, the sky is the limit. Optimism helps them realize that they can overcome obstacles to achieve anything they want.
Such a state of mind is also beneficial physically and mentally. If they don’t let hardship stop them, they will experience less stress and depression throughout their lives and enjoy better overall health.
Harvard researcher Shawn Achor teaches the principle that “just believing that change is possible makes change possible.”
That doesn’t mean they never feel sad, frustrated, or even discouraged, but it can keep them from feeling hopeless when they encounter the challenges life throws at them.
The Florida Family Partnership promotes five tips for developing more positive attitudes in children
First, be a good role model. Children imitate the behavior of their parents. If they see you bouncing back from setbacks, they’ll learn to do the same. The more optimistic a parent is, the better a child understands the principles of positive thinking.
Second, help them see how to get around obstacles. When something doesn’t go as planned, encourage them to think of other ways to approach the problem or achieve their goal. Support their own problem-solving ability.
Third, let them know that negative feedback is okay when it’s appropriate. Having a positive attitude doesn’t mean burying legitimate feelings, it’s acknowledging them and then finding a way to move on.
Fourth, teach constructive reframing. If a child says he is bad at sports, suggest that he just needs more practice and that while excelling in sports is important to him, he will eventually master the necessary skills. Demonstrate how you can reframe the negative situation by saying, “If we dwell on the fact that your arm hurts, it will make us unhappy. Why don’t we think about all the cool things we can do with the cast? This reframing technique helps foster resilience in a child.
Finally, encourage positive self-talk. Words have power, so offer some affirmations they can repeat until they become second nature:
• “I am worthy of good things.”
• “I can achieve anything I set my mind to.”
• “There is a way around this challenge.”
• “Things will work out in the long run.”
Some might say that children lack the cognitive maturity to grasp the concept of positive thinking. However, Dr. Christi Bamford, a developmental psychologist and assistant professor at the University of Jacksonville, conducted a study involving 90 children between the ages of five and 10. The study showed that children as young as five years old can understand the principles of positive thinking: a positive thought makes you feel better and a negative thought makes you feel worse.
And not only do children benefit from short-term positive attitudes, but there are long-term benefits as well. Positive attitudes build resilience in young people.
Resilience is the ability to “bounce back” during or after difficult times and feel as good as before.
It is also the ability to continue to thrive by adapting to difficult circumstances that you cannot change. In fact, when you are resilient, you can often learn from difficult situations.
The development of resilience is important in preventing initial substance use/abuse in young people because several traits found in resilient children, such as high self-esteem, empathy, seeking help and self-awareness are also factors that deter children from using harmful substances such as tobacco, marijuana and alcohol. Research shows that resilience is linked to lower levels of initial substance use, fewer alcohol problems, and better working memory.
The old adage, “what you think, you become” seems to have worked. So work on the positivity with the children you care about, and they will become more than they think.
Hugh Gray is the executive director of Westview Behavioral Health Services and can be reached at 803-276-5690.