The Optimistic Child by Martin Seligman [Book Summary – Review]

Every parent aspires for their children to experience happiness and fulfill their potential. However, what if their emotions and thoughts become obstacles to their growth? In these chapters, you’ll learn about the adverse impacts of pessimistic thinking and know the influence of its opposite: optimism.

Loaded with psychological insight and realistic guidance, these chapters search into the manners you can cultivate optimism in your child. Doing that can pave the path for a lifetime characterized by success and resilience.

In these chapters, you’ll learn

  • the reason everything you’ve heard about self-esteem is inaccurate;
  • how one can alter their child’s perspective; and
  • the things children can do to fix their challenges.

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Chapter 1 – Optimistic individuals create more positive meanings when things don’t go well.

Common wisdom sees an optimist as a glass-half-full kind of individual, on the other hand, a pessimist views it as half-empty. However, optimism is not about this alone. Being optimistic or pessimistic influences all aspects of life, even mental well-being too.

Pessimistic individuals tend to concentrate on the most negative interpretation when faced with hardship. Say for instance, if they don’t pass an exam, a pessimist might think, “I didn’t pass this exam because I’m dumb, and I will never succeed.” Conversely, an optimist in the exact situation might think, “I failed because I didn’t prepare well. I’ll put in more effort next time, and I’ll improve.”

When a pessimistic individual envisions worst-case situations for the future, it is called Catastrophic thinking. However, pessimism isn’t just about a negative reaction to failure; it can have a great impact on one’s overall life. Thinking about worst-case circumstances forms a perception of a bleak future. It brings about a sense of helplessness in changing one’s circumstances, and a feeling that your circumstances cannot be altered. These types of emotions can immediately bring about symptoms of depression, like low mood and lack of motivation. Notably, pessimistic tendencies in childhood are associated with a higher likelihood of academic underachievement and depression later in life.

The state of feeling powerless to change one’s situation is called learned helplessness. Being in this state, the individual sees that their endeavors as futile and tends to give up without even trying to change. While researching depression, the author of this book Martin Seligman together with his team identified extreme feelings of helplessness as a fundamental cause of depression. Their studies revealed that optimists display greater resilience against such feelings. When confronted with challenges, optimists persist in their efforts and are less easily discouraged. This might be the reason why they have a lower susceptibility to depression compared to pessimists.

Fortunately, Seligman has found that it is possible to “unlearn” helplessness with the appropriate tools. Similar to immunizing children against physical illnesses, there is a method to immunize children, against pessimism. This protects them from low achievement and risks of depression.

This immunization involves imparting cognitive skills that nurture lifelong optimism, a topic we will look at in the following chapters.

Chapter 2 – Our kids are experiencing higher levels of depression than ever before.

How can you assist your kid to be more optimistic? A lot of parents and teachers believe that fostering self-esteem is the key to this goal. The idea is that if we foster kids to have a positive perspective of themselves, optimism and a lowered risk of depression will follow naturally. However, the connection between depression, optimism, and self-esteem, is complicated.

Schools and parents have focused on enhancing children’s self-esteem since the 1960s. This involves activities such as having children list reasons why they are special or creating posters proclaiming self-love. Even at sports events like baseball games, parents usually cheer from the sidelines, praising their children’s efforts, even when the performance is poor. Enhancing the children’s self-worth is of utmost importance. Therefore, why, despite these efforts, are many children still sad?

Depression rates have been on the rise in the Western world since the 1950s, and individuals are having to deal with depression at progressively younger ages. A study conducted in the year 1993 revealed that about a third of American-aged 13-year-olds exhibited signs of depression.

Why isn’t the self-esteem movement yielding positive outcomes? Why do our kids seem to be experiencing a decline in well-being instead of getting better? The issue stems from a basic misconception about the true nature of self-esteem. 

Usually, there’s an emphasis on the idea that self-esteem is solely connected to how children perceive themselves. However, emotions are just one part of self-esteem. The more crucial element involves the actions of the child.

In reality, a significant portion of self-esteem is derived from your behavior and not your feelings. It emanates from the acquisition of skills, perseverance in the face of challenges, overcoming obstacles, and effectively addressing boredom and frustration. Essentially, self-esteem emerges as an outcome of successful actions.

Merely promoting a positive emotional state in children, teachers and parents is directly enhancing their self-esteem, this isn’t a possible approach. This confused method is accountable for the recent surge in depression. Our society has shifted from an accomplishing society to a feel good one, one empty slogan and an impractical priority on happiness over accomplishment.

Authentic optimism and great self-esteem involve more than just encouraging a child to constantly feel special or happy. In the next chapters, we will delve into how optimism truly functions.

Chapter 3 – Children with a pessimistic outlook tend to think that negative circumstances have long-lasting and widespread causes.

What would you say optimism is? A lot of individuals might suggest it involves embracing positive affirmations or envisioning happy results. However, such views are inaccurate; optimism doesn’t revolve around these things. Rather, it is basically about how you think about the causes of the circumstances.

This is one’s explanatory style, encompassing various dimensions used to describe the reasons a situation, whether positive or negative has happened. One crucial dimension involves the perception of causes as either long-term or short-lived. 

A pessimistic kind tends to view factors leading to bad situations as permanent and unalterable. Consequently, she thinks, bad events will continue occurring in the future. For instance, a pessimistic child might react to scolding by stating, “My Mother is the meanest!” This links the child’s sadness to the mother’s behavior – seen as unchangeable.

In contrast, an optimistic child might say, “My mom is in the worst mood.” The key distinction lies in the temporariness of mood. Consequently, the optimistic child finds it simpler to be hopeful for the future, enhancing resilience against depression.

To assess your child’s optimism, observe the language they employ. If they describe their setbacks using terms like “always” and “never,” it could indicate a permanent explanatory style and potential pessimism. Conversely, the use of terms such as “recently” and “sometimes” suggests an optimistic outlook.

Pervasiveness is the second dimension. Pessimistic children tend to perceive causes as pervasive, expecting the repercussions of failure to impact various aspects of their lives, not only in certain areas where they experienced failure. For instance, a pessimistic child who fails an essay-writing competition might conclude that he “sucks at everything.”

On the other hand, children with an optimistic mindset attribute failure to specific factors, recognizing that performing poorly in one aspect doesn’t necessarily imply overall failure. For example, an optimistic child may feel disappointed about not winning an essay competition; however, he would attribute the failure specifically to his writing skills, not deeming himself unsuccessful in every aspect.

This optimistic child, who doesn’t think that other areas of his life are impacted by this setback, can proceed to enjoy time with friends later in the day. On the other hand, the pessimistic child may spend his remaining day isolated in his room, experiencing depression and withdrawal. Pessimism, in this case, made him give up not only on writing but on everything.

Chapter 4 – Optimistic kids healthily think about self-blame.

How do you respond when something is wrong? More significantly, whom do you attribute blame to? For children vulnerable to depression, the answer is often self-blame.

Self-blame is their personalized reply – putting blame when things are not right. Sadly, this brings about depression, low self-esteem, and chronic guilt. Conversely, kids who regularly assign the blame to external factors or other individuals tend to exhibit higher self-esteem, as well as lower levels of shame and guilt. An optimistic child, wisely, strikes a balance between holding themselves accountable and exploring external causes for failure.

It is crucial, however, not to instill in children the habit of constantly attributing blame to external factors for their challenges. The truth is, that we all make mistakes, and at times, we may mishandle situations or treat people poorly. Advising children to entirely avoid shouldering any blame is neither practical nor ethically sound.

However, the optimistic child distinguishes herself by taking precise responsibility—an essential differentiation. This entails acknowledging accountability for what went wrong without blaming herself until she feels excessive guilt.

Consider, for instance, two friends, Andrea and Lucy. Andrea annoys Lucy after informing Lucy that she is no longer interested in being her friend and sees she has deeply hurt Lucy’s feelings. Reflecting on her actions, Andrea admits that she is responsible for causing Lucy’s emotional distress. Notably, she refrains from excessively blaming herself, avoiding the perception of being a bad friend, and does not perceive the situation as a reflection of her overall character.

Optimistic children embrace behavioral self-blame as another method of taking responsibility for their actions. This type of blame is specific and short-lived. For example, an optimistic child, grounded for beating his sister, will attribute the punishment directly to his behavior, stating, “I was grounded because I beat my sister.”

In contrast, when faced with a similar situation, a pessimistic child tends to engage in general self-blame, which is both pervasive and long-term. Such thoughts may appear as “I was grounded because I’m a bad child.”

To foster a healthy sense of self-blame, it is crucial to critique a child’s behavior instead of their character. Using the example of being grounded for hitting a sister, a parent should emphasize that the punishment is a consequence of the specific action—hitting the sister—and not as a result of being punished for being “bad.”

Chapter 5 – Modeling can foster an optimistic perspective in you and your child.

Here’s some encouraging news: through effective approaches, anybody can acquire the ability to think more optimistically. To achieve this, mastering four fundamental cognitive skills is essential. As soon as you’ve learned these skills, you can impart them to your children through a combination of teaching and modeling – meaning,  demonstrating the behaviors you wish your child to adopt.

Nevertheless, conveying information to a child is one thing, but embodying those principles is another.

Thought-catching is the first skill you should incorporate into your toolkit – the ability to identify negative thoughts that arise when you’re feeling down. How do you go about this? Consider a mother, let’s call her Lydia, who finds mornings challenging. At the beginning of the day, she often raises her voice at her kids, a decision she later regrets. Through the practice of thought catching, Lydia becomes adept at recognizing that immediately after she shouts, the thought that she’s a bad mother tends to set in her mind.

As soon as Lydia has realized her negative thought pattern, she engages in the practice of evaluation. By closely examining her negative thoughts, she assesses their accuracy through a two-step process. She creates two different lists: the first list contains all the reasons she might be seen as a bad mother, and the other list highlights the reasons she is, a good mother. Eventually, the list of positive qualities as a mother is more than the list of negative qualities. With this evidence, Lydia becomes less convinced that she is a bad mother.

Subsequently, Lydia attempts to generate more precise explanations for her morning rages, employing these insights to challenge her negative thoughts. She knows she is not a morning person and acknowledges the need to work on managing her mood during this time of day. This intervention ruins her chain of negative thoughts, helping her recognize the illogical nature of concluding that she is a bad mother solely based on her not being a morning person.

Now, Lydia is not the only person that tends to assume negative things. In situations where things go awry, individuals with a pessimistic mindset typically gravitate towards envisioning the most unfavorable possibilities. However, the ultimate skill in acquiring optimism, known as decatastrophizing, revolves around concentrating on the most probable outcome instead.

For instance, Lydia’s friend Eileen condemns her for canceling their plans. Lydia, in her real self, immediately starts catastrophizing, envisioning that Eileen may want to terminate their friendship. However, as she learns to assess the possibility of these disastrous scenarios unfolding, she starts to realize that all this excessive worrying is unwarranted.

Chapter 6 – You can provide your kid with a structure for resolving problems.

Teaching your kid to deal with their negative thoughts is a step toward fostering optimism. However, for the well-being of your children, optimism alone is insufficient. As soon as they accurately assess their problems, they may recognize real challenges that require addressing.

In such cases, mere optimism may not resolve the issues. Rather, the optimistic child needs to acquire problem-solving skills. A lot of the difficulties children encounter, especially those prone to pessimism, may revolve around social skills – they may not have social relationships. But, you can assist them in this area too.

Teaching your child to slow down is the first key step to having good problem-solving skills.

A lot of children tend to react impulsively, leading to actions they may end up regretting. Rather, emphasize to your child that effective problem-solving involves pausing and contemplating for at least a minute before responding. For example, if someone accidentally bumps into your kid in the school cafeteria, causing a lunch spill, their instinctive response might be to retaliate physically. However, you can teach them the importance of not hastily acting in such situations.

After successfully slowing down, the child can proceed to the second step. This involves perspective-taking – contemplating the reason why the other person reacted in a certain way and what might have been their thoughts at that moment. Often, we can infer people’s mindsets by observing their facial expressions for cues. In the cafeteria scenario, the child could examine the expression of the person who bumped into them. If the expression appears angry, it suggests intentional action, but if it looks embarrassed or sad, it likely was accidental.

The third step in effective problem-solving is goal-setting, which occurs outside the heat of the moment. For instance, if your child has annoyed a friend, goal-setting involves expressing what she wishes to happen, determining a goal, and then listing potential actions to achieve that goal. For example, if she aims to mend the friendship, actions on the list might include “performing a kind gesture” or “committing to avoid behaviors that annoy the friend.”

Although optimism may not be the answer to the difficulties and problems of life, it can empower both you and your child to tackle difficulties with hope, resilience, and a positive attitude.

The Optimistic Child: Proven Program to Safeguard Children from Depression & Build Lifelong Resilience by Martin Seligman Book Review

Being optimistic goes beyond mere positive slogans or wishful thinking. Rather, it involves taking genuine accountability for your actions and persisting through challenges. To instill optimism in your children, teach them to view difficulties as short-term and specific instead of permanent and overwhelming.

Empower your child to navigate the world.

The sensation of perfecting a skill or task plays a crucial role in fostering optimism and self-esteem. Initiating this feeling in young children can be as straightforward as incorporating it into everyday activities like shopping. During your next store visit, allow your child to independently choose and pay for three items, placing them in their little bag. Such small tasks will instill in your child the belief that they possess the capability to shape their world and effect change.

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Savaş Ateş

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