How to raise optimistic kids in pessimistic times

Last updated: 03-06-2021

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How to raise optimistic kids in pessimistic times

Today’s children are living in fear-based times—terrorism, lockdown drills, climate change, TSA screenings, and pandemics are the new normal. We try to shield them, but these kids are digital natives with instant access to viewing disturbing news, and it can take a toll. One out of three children aged six to eleven fears that Earth won’t exist when they grow up. Girls worry more. 

I talked with a group of middle school students at an elite Dallas school to hear their views about the world and scary news. A seventh-grade boy began: “It’s not one thing, but a lot of bad stuff that keeps happening, and it makes us think that the world is mean and scary.” 

An eighth grader chimed in: “There’s bunches of worries: climate change, viruses, bullying, domestic violence, racism, and shootings.” 

 “We’re more negative because bad news is so accessible,” another boy explained. “Parents try to hide scary stuff, but it comes straight to our cell phones.” 

The kids continued sharing dismal stories, and then one quiet boy spoke up. “My friends and I were just saying that parents are too scared to let their kids play outside. It’s sad. We kind of lost our childhoods.” They all agreed. Pessimism about their world was the common theme. 

I left them realizing that kids desperately need optimism. Educators agree, and I’ve made a practice over the past several years of searching out those teachers who are doing a great job of instilling optimism in their students. That’s how I found myself in Mrs. Sandler’s second-grade classroom on Long Island, New York, one snowy February day a few months later. 

She found herself worried, just as I was, about her students’ unfounded concerns about everyday issues and their propensity to often go to the most extreme, most negative outcomes. “Their pessimistic thinking really derails their performance,” she said. She’d recently done some research into the issue, and when she invited me to watch her lesson, I eagerly took her up on the invitation. 

The concept Sandler was focusing on with the children that day was the idea that worries can grow, but “we can also shrink them.” Then she asked, “Who has a big worry they want to share?” A girl with long pigtails immediately raised her hand. “I’m afraid of sleepovers.” 

The teacher put a cardboard box on the table, about the size of a large computer screen. “Okay, let’s all help Chloe. Pretend this box is your biggest worry about the sleepover, and we’ll help you shrink it. All you have to do is tell us why you’re worried.” 

Chloe said, “I’m scared of the dark and worried I won’t know where their light is.” Sandler asked students to give their peer ways to shrink her worry, and they did. 

“Ask your friend to show you.” 

“Sleep with your sleeping bag by the light switch.” 

“Great ideas!” Mrs. Sandler said. “Which one works, Chloe?” The girl agreed to bring a flashlight, drew her “worry shrinker,” and put the card inside the box. “Your worry isn’t as big now,” the teacher said. “Let’s keep shrinking your worries.” Mrs. Sandler put a second, slightly smaller box on the table—about the size of a laptop. 

And Chloe shared another worry: “I might not like the mom’s food.” Again, the kids had solutions. 

“I packed a peanut butter sandwich to my last sleepover.” 

“Just eat before you go!” 

Chloe decided to put a granola bar in her bag, drew the worry shrinker, and put it in the second box. 

Mrs. Sandler pulled up an even smaller, third box, and for a third time students helped their friend reduce her sleepover apprehensions. When the fourth and final box nested inside the others, Chloe was noticeably relieved. “I’m going to the sleepover,” she pledged, and we all applauded. But I was also clapping for a teacher who helped all her students reduce their pessimism—just by putting their worries into smaller and smaller “mental” boxes until manageable. Science supports her lesson: one of the best proven ways to reduce worries and build hope is by giving children a sense of control— something our pandemic generation will need to thrive.

WHAT PARENTS CAN DO:

Keeping an optimistic “glass is half full” outlook about the future is crucial for mental and physical health. Hopeful children are happier, more satisfied with life, and more willing to try. And these “high-hope kids” have greater academic success, stronger friendships, and demonstrate more creativity and better problem-solving abilities, and lower levels of depression and anxiety. I’ve learned some of the best ways to fight pessimism and maintain a hopeful attitude from teens. 

1. Monitor news consumption. Teen after teen expressed concern about late-breaking “scary” news without parents monitoring it. They also worried that their younger siblings have even more access to the internet than they did at that age. Constant gloomy news can impact kids’ life outlooks. Their ideas: “I upload uplifting YouTube documentaries during hard times,” said Sara, twelve. “I focus on the good stuff: the rescuers, neighbors reaching out, people donating blood,” said Ricky, thirteen. “Parents should put their kids’ smartphones away until the news improves,” said Cara, sixteen. 

2. Read inspiring books. “Learning that other people overcame tough times gives me hope,” Darren, age fifteen, told me. Scientists concur and find that hopeful kids draw on memories of past success when confronted with obstacles. The kids I talked with have the following suggestions: 

Emmanuel’s Dreamby Laurie Ann Thompson. A disabled boy born in Africa helps kids learn that anything is possible if you believe in yourself. 

The Story of Ruby Bridgesby Robert Coles. A six-year-old Black girl, escorted by federal marshals, walked through a mob of segregationists to school with hope!

 Long Walk to Water: Based on a True Storyby Linda Sue Park. A memorable portrait of two children in Sudan who endure every hardship imaginable. 

3. Listen to uplifting music. Natalie, age fourteen, from New York City told me: “I keep a playlist of upbeat inspiring songs. I listen mostly to Elton John’s ‘Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,’ and when I do well on a test I crank up ‘I’m Still Standing.’ For younger kids:“Don’t Give Up” by Bruno Mars; “Let It Go” by Idina Menzel; “Don’t Worry Be Happy” by Bobby McFerrin. For older kids:“Let It Be” by The Beatles; “Eye of the Tiger” by Survivor; “Defying Gravity” from Wicked; “Stronger” by Kelly Clarkson; “Unwritten” by Natasha Bedingfield; “Brave” by Sara Bareilles; “Firework” by Katy Perry; “Somewhere” by Jackie Evancho. 

4. Tell kids: “It’ll get better!” Teen after teen said: “Parents need to tell their kids over and over, ‘We’ll get through this.’ And ‘I’ll love you no matter what. Tomorrow is another day.’ ” Adam, age fifteen, reiterated that statement, saying, “Kids are under such pressure and don’t want to let their parents down. Let them know that you love your kid more than the grade.”Help your child take a step back to look at the big picture so they can put things in perspective. 

Kids who remain upbeat about life despite uncertain times have parents who model optimism. Be the model you want your kids to copy. 

Michele Borba, Ed.D., is the author of Thrivers: The Surprising Reasons Why Some Kids Struggle and Others Shine and UnSelfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About Me World, and is an internationally renowned educational psychologist and an expert in parenting, bullying, and character development. She is an NBC contributor who appears regularly on Today and has been featured as an expert on Dateline, The View, Dr. Phil, NBC Nightly News, Fox & Friends, Dr. Oz, and The Early Show, among many others. She lives in Palm Springs, California, with her husband, and is the mother of three grown sons.

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