by Sharon Carlton
If you could immunize your children so they would never have to experience the pain of depression, wouldn’t you line up for the shots? Preventing emotional distress is not quite as quick and easy as receiving a needle. However, it is possible to arm our kids with the resources and tools they will need to fight off the psychological bugs that threaten their happiness.
Depression was rarely reported before the 1960’s, but since then, it has become the common cold of mental illness. Most shocking are the numbers of children and teens who suffer from feelings of helplessness, hopelessness and sadness. Dr. Martin Seligman, a world-renowned research psychologist has coined the phrase “psychological immunization”, as it relates to teaching children the cognitive and social skills they need to resist depression. His extensive studies have proven that optimism safeguards children against developing depression, builds lifelong resilience and self-reliance, boosts school performance and social capabilities, and even improves physical health. In short, optimism just may be the secret to happiness.
Optimism is much more than positive thinking. Crucial to its development is knowing this: we can choose what to believe about the situations we experience. Adversity, stress or “bad things” don’t automatically cause “bad feelings”. Before the feeling comes our perception – what we choose to tell ourselves about what happened. Therefore, it’s actually “bad thoughts” that cause “bad feelings”. That’s the key, because we can learn to change our thoughts to make them work for us.
First, we can teach our kids to “catch their thoughts” – recognize what they say to themselves when things are tough. When Suzie receives a poor math grade, she tells herself, “I’m stupid”. Evaluating that automatic thought and generating a more accurate explanation would lead Suzie to say, “I failed the test because I’ve been ditching the homework and I didn’t study”. “I’m stupid” not only leads to depressed feelings, it leaves no room for hope, change or improvement. The alternative allows Suzie to focus on how she can do better next time.
We can look even more specifically at the way our children think about situations by examining their explanatory style. There are three dimensions to look at:
1. Permanent vs. Temporary: When pessimistic Joey strikes out at his baseball game, he says “I always strike out, I’ll never get a hit”. He explains his failure as if it’s a permanent fact. Optimistic Johnny strikes out too, but he tells himself it’s a temporary situation: “Okay that’s over, next time I’m really going to focus on watching the ball”.
2. Pervasive vs. Specific: When Allison wakes up with a new pimple, she pessimistically lets it grow even larger: “This zit is disgusting. My face is a complete mess. I’m so ugly”. Melissa lets the pimple be just a pimple: “I’ll put some cover-up on it, and today I’m going to wear my favorite sweater that I know I look great in.”
3. Personal vs. Impersonal: Pessimistic kids give themselves too much blame for unpleasant situations. When Jeremy’s friend, David didn’t show up at their planned meeting place, he jumped to the “because of me” thoughts: “He doesn’t like me anymore. It’s because I’m boring and not popular”. More realistically, Jeremy should also look at some “because of someone or something else” thoughts. “Maybe David’s parents said he couldn’t come.” “I wonder if David thought I meant the other playground?”
If your children can recognize when their thoughts turn pessimistic, they can learn to challenge those thoughts, to be detectives looking for all the possible explanations. You want them to choose realistic thoughts, not just cheery positive thinking. When kids can challenge the pessimistic thoughts, and redirect their focus with an optimistic attitude, they can cope with anything that life sends their way. You cannot prevent the adversity in their lives, but you can teach them the tools to bounce back and carry on.