The Optimistic Child by Martin Seligman, Ph.D. teaches you how to “immunize” your child against depression by teaching them how to think optimistically. Dr. Seligman is the former president of the American Psychological Association and the founder of the Positive Psychology movement. I absolutely loved his book and I recommend it for anyone, even if you don’t have kids. It is a very dense read. It did make me feel like this was a textbook for a course on child psychology, but what you learn from it is invaluable. The Optimistic Child basically outlines, in a very clear, easy to follow manner, how to use cognitive behavioral therapy in your life. If you want to know what a CBT therapist does in session read this book! Dr. Seligman advocates that every parent has to first learn how to use these skills themselves before they can teach it to their own kids. My poor kids have a psychologist for a mother and I of course read this thinking about how I can help my own kids but the target range for the program here is for 8 to 13 year olds. Children under 8 years don’t yet have the ability for meta-cognition so the approach is a bit different but Dr. Seligman addresses this too at the end of his book.
A few of the key highlights from the book:
Optimism is not just a look at the silver lining, think positive, or wear rose colored glasses approach to life. Optimism, as taught in cognitive behavioral therapy, is how you explain the things that go on around you. It is your explanatory style. Dr. Seligman outlines 3 patterns of thinking that differ the most between optimists and pessimists:
Permanence – looking at things as lasting forever vs. looking at things as temporary or changeable
Pervasiveness – looking at things as generalized, global vs. looking at things as specific or compartmentalized
Personalization – taking things personally vs. looking at all factors that contributed to the situation
Here is an example:
Dr. Seligman provides a plethora of research on the health and mental health benefits of having an optimistic outlook on life. Optimists are less likely to get depressed, more likely to succeed in work, school, sports, etc…, and have better physical health than pessimists. Moreover, he does a great job of explaining that being optimistic isn’t just about feeling good and having better self-esteem. In fact, Dr. Seligman summarizes the flaws in the self-esteem movement and makes suggestions on how to improve it. He outlines how simply praising kids, without tying it to tangible success, protecting kids from getting their feelings hurt, generalizing achievement by giving everyone a participation trophy, has actually taken away children’s opportunity to learn resilience and mastery. He then discusses how mastery and the experience of failure is what builds a child’s confidence, self-esteem, and more optimistic outlook on life.
I reflected on this message as I’ve watched my twins learn how to walk. They fall down constantly, and sometimes it hurts. Yet they do not give up, they keep getting up, and when they make it all the way across the room the look of glee on their faces is priceless. They’ve mastered a skill that now opens up a new world of exploration for them. I think that as an adult, I probably would not have gotten up as many times. I would have been sorely tempted to quit trying after the 50th time I fell and thus I would have never mastered that skill and felt accomplished. Mastery is how we build genuine self-esteem, but with mastery comes the inherent failure. Negative emotions are not “bad” they are actually teachers. And the negative feelings that accompany failure can actually help us learn which direction to go and how to make changes in our lives. Dr. Seligman delves into the research of learned helplessness to really illustrate how a lack of mastery leads to learned helplessness, and learned helplessness leads to wallowing in negative emotions and depression.
I won’t get into it all here but Dr. Seligman then provides a step by step guide on how to learn and teach cognitive behavioral therapy with several examples that are relevant to children in middle school and high school. He also includes chapters on learning problem solving skills and assertiveness skills. These are all skills that I teach adults in therapy! Wouldn’t it be amazing if more children could learn these skills while young! So if you have children in your life or could use an extra boost yourself, check out this book!
I encourage you to check out the book from your local library! In fact many libraries even have the books available as ebooks for download! All of the books I have reviewed here I borrowed from my local city and county libraries.