How to teach children to be optimists: listen, don't label

Quick quiz: Half full or half empty?
Quick quiz: Half full or half empty?Getty Images stock / Today

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By Parents

Is your child a pessimist or an optimist?

It might matter more than you thought: a new study from the American Academy of Pediatrics shows having a bad attitude can have serious health consequences for kids.

The positive: In a study of more than 5,000 Australian teens ages 12 to 14, those with the highest optimism cut their risk for depressive symptoms in half. The not-so-positive: Those same highly optimistic teens were only moderately protected from heavy substance abuse and antisocial behaviors.

So, how do you make a child see the world through a "glass half-full" rather than "glass half-empty" lens?  

According to Dr. Leslie Walker, Chief of Adolescent Medicine at Seattle Children's Hospital, it's doable. Personality traits are inborn but optimism is like Play-Doh: it can be shaped and molded.

Walker says that above all, parents need to model a positive outlook.  "Patterning after their parents is how kids figure out how to live," she says. "If parents are optimistic about what's going in their lives, you can expect the kids to follow."

Some other optimism-building tips from Walker, who is the mom of an 18-year-old daughter:

Really listen. The key to developing trust in kids is to let them speak and listen without judgment. "Kids have strong feelings but often have no words to express it," says Walker.  They also tell you things as a part of their thinking process, she says: "They will say, 'I hate math' but what they are really saying is 'How can I learn to do math better?'" It's the parent's job to get to the bottom of what they are trying to say.

Don't label. Kids tend to live up – or down – to a parent's expectations. So every time you say, "Jack's our shy one," that phrase becomes a more permanent identity. Negative labels can be harmful to a kid's self-concept, and ultimately parents are perpetuating the behavior they don't like in the first place.

Reframe, don’t dismiss.  Teens want to be taken seriously, and in order to do that, parents have to acknowledge their reality. For example, if your child says they hate school, it's not realistic to say, "Don't worry, everything will be ok." Ask more questions about what's bothering them, and help them come up with examples of what they like about school.

Look for the bright side.  It's crucial, says Walker, to show kids there is good and bad in every situation and encourage them to look for silver linings.   Walker's own daughter experienced some discrimination in middle school and informed her mother, "The world is a terrible place." Walker's response: "Yes, there are some bad things. But you should always be looking out for the wonderful things. They happen every day."

"Optimism and hope are very close and it's something we as parents don't spend a lot of time looking at, and we need to," Walker says. "It's key to why a kid gets up in the morning and tries again."

Are your kids optimists and pessimists? How do you encourage them to look on the bright side of life (besides showing them this classic Monty Python clip)?