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Optimism in children

We inherit around 50% of our tendency towards optimism or pessimism from our parents,possibly more from our mothers with whom we tend to spend more time in childhood. Seligman posts the theory that single, highly significant, events can alter a child's explanatory style. The death of a mother when the child is under 11 increases the risk of depression in later life. Such a catastrophic event is both permanent and pervasive, affecting many aspects of the child's personality and emotions. In such cases, 'all setbacks are soon catastrophised into permanent and pervasive losses,' he says.

Other childhood issues tending to create a pessimistic outlook include physical and sexual abuse, or strife between parents. He recommends that although we cannot change our children's genes, we can take care over how we criticise our children. So that they develop a more positive outlook.


The best way to criticise your child is to use an optimistic explanatory style. So, for example, saying 'If you did your homework you'd pass your maths exam' is much more optimistic than saying 'You're never going to pass any of those exams'.

By using criticism that offers a specific strategy for change (do your homework) and which is non-pervasive (it's just the maths where your problem lies) the child develops optimism. Criticism should also be accurate; exaggerating faults only induces unnecessary levels of guilt and shame. 

These skills, known as learned optimism, help pessimists to learn new ways of explaining events, helping them become more optimistic and better equipped to deal with adversity while appreciate the good things in life.

Set up in Pennsylvania by Dr Karen Reivich and Dr Jane Gillham, the Penn Resiliency Program (PRP) is a school-based intervention, designed to build resilience, promote adaptive coping skills, and teach effective problem-solving in children. A major goal of the study is to promote optimistic thinking to help children and adolescents. The program has been found to be effective in helping buffer children against the effects of stress, including more serious levels of stress such as anxiety and depression.  

In his book The Optimistic Child Martin Seligman devotes a whole chapter to techniques that can change your child?s explanatory style. 

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