Overview of Positive Thinking
Positive Thinking refers to several skills including self-talk and optimism. Self-talk refers to the inner conversation we have with ourselves, while optimism refers to how we think about the future. Together these skills serve as protective factors that bolster mental health.
Benefits of Positive Self-Talk
Self-talk is the inner dialogue we have with ourselves. Sometimes when we feel threatened, our self-talk turns negative (“I can’t do this”; “I’m not smart enough”; “I don’t have enough friends”), compounding our stress. Some beliefs about popularity, competition, and perfectionism may also be the root of these stressful thoughts. It is important for us to remember that we are not our thoughts.
One great way to recognize if our internal dialogue is overly critical is to ask ourselves, “Would I speak this way to a friend?” Often we are much more harsh in speaking to ourselves than to others.
Self-Talk for Elementary-Aged Children
One way to support kids as they develop healthy self-talk is to help them become more aware of their thinking. As they become more aware of their thoughts, they can begin to challenge thoughts that may not be true. Listening carefully is an important first step to recognize cognitive distortions. Some key words and phrases to be aware of are “can’t,” “never,” and “always” (overgeneralization), “should” and “must” (perfectionism), and “I am a __” (labeling), among others.
Listen empathically: Listening to your child’s concerns, without dismissing them, is an important first step. After they feel they have been heard, gently ask follow-up questions to uncover the underlying thought causing worry or frustration.
Realistic Approach: Helping your child think more positively does not mean painting everything as rosy. Some moments in life are difficult. However, you can help your child reframe the situation. For a child nervous about the first day of school rather than saying, “Don’t worry, you’ll have a great time!” you might say, “It makes sense you are nervous. The first day of something new can often be both exciting and worrisome. Though it may be scary at first, as you settle in you will become more comfortable.”
Provide Context: Children do not always have the ability to see the big picture, which can lead to catastrophic thinking. As an adult with more life experience, you can provide a bigger picture and help contextualize their experience.
Model Positive Thinking: One of the best ways to help children develop healthy thinking patterns is to model it as a parent. Children are constantly learning from those around them, picking up on how adults frame events in their life.
Self-Talk for Adolescents
Negative self-talk can often be rooted in cognitive distortions, or irrational beliefs. One of the techniques to combat negative self-talk is to think critically about our beliefs.
These steps include:
- Identify the troubling situation.
- Identify the thought behind the troubling situation.
- Label how it makes you feel.
- Challenge the underlying thought by looking at the evidence that supports and does not support it.
- Find a more balanced, evidence-based thought as a replacement.
Click here for a worksheet that may be helpful for following this process.
Often our thoughts are not objective. Here are a few ways in which we can distort our thinking:
- Filtering: We only look at the negative parts of a situation and ignore the positive.
- All-or-nothing thinking: We create false dichotomies between good and bad, right and wrong, without leaving any gray area.
- Overgeneralization: We view a single event as representative of all events.
- For a more cognitive distortions look through this list.
Source Credit: Cognitive Behavioral Therapy: An Information Guide
Challenge vs. Threat Thinking
Surprisingly, how we think about events in our life can directly impact how our bodies and minds respond to stress. One way to think about situations is to view them as a “threat.” In this framework, stress is a bad thing and the situation feels like a danger to our values, goals, or identity. We can also characterize the same situations as "challenges" or "opportunities." While we may have a pounding heart and sweating palms, we can reframe the situation as our body preparing to perform a difficult task. This type of reframing has been shown to improve learning, memory, connection, and physical health. Changing our relationship to stress can have profound effects on our thinking, emotions, and physical health. (It is important to note that this research studied acute stress--stressful situations we face in our daily lives, as opposed to chronic stress--experiencing stress for prolonged periods of time.).
Books on Positive Thinking
Most books are available at the Livermore Public Library
by Louise L. Hay Year Published: 2008
This book helps children learn how to reframe negative thoughts into positive affirmations.
by Grace Byers Year Published: 2018
An uplifting book about knowing who you are, dealing with adversity, and self-respect.
Benefits of Optimism
An optimistic framework is one in which we believe the future will work out. Optimism is not thinking that everything is always rosy. It is about thinking that something good is right around the corner, fostering self-efficacy and resilience.
Like other protective factors, optimism is related to both better physical and mental health. While it is partially a result of genetics and the environment, optimism is not purely hard-wired and can be changed with deliberate practice.
True optimism acknowledges difficulty, while believing things will work out. In the midst of a challenge, true optimism asks, “What could go right?” It also recognizes that good things do not happen on their own. Hard work and preparation are critical for optimism to be more than wishful thinking. Naive optimism, on the other hand, is ignorant of suffering and tries to put a positive spin on every situation.
Optimism reflects how we attribute causes and blame in different situations. Someone with a pessimistic style attributes the cause of bad news to themselves (rather than circumstances or the environment), assumes it is stable across time, and will affect everything in the person's life. Someone with an optimistic attribution style recognizes adverse events as not necessarily caused by themselves, temporary, and affecting only a part of their lives.
Source Credit: Yuan and Wang, 2016
Talking with Your Children
Optimistic and pessimistic worldviews can be easily taught and passed on from parents to children. Kids frequently pick up the subtle and not-so-subtle ways the adults in their lives approach the world. The best way to foster an optimistic mindset in kids is to model it yourself.
To help deliberately develop an optimistic framework, as your child moves into a difficult moment, try asking, “What could go right in this situation?” After visualizing a positive outcome, try brainstorming together what your child can do to thrive in the situation (“What do we need to do for things to work out?”).
After difficult moments, help your child attribute the causes appropriately. Allow them to recognize that adverse circumstances are a result of numerous factors and not solely their own failures. Demonstrate that adverse circumstances are not everlasting and will not affect everything that they do--they are limited in scope and domain.
After accomplishments, help your child attribute their successes to their hard work. Emphasize that in the future hard work can lead to similar outcomes across multiple activities.
Source Credit: Greater Good Science Center
Three Good Things
A simple way to begin to train optimism is through the “Three Good Things” exercise. Every night right down three things that went well during the day and their causes. If you are doing this with your child, ask them as they are preparing for bed about three things that went well and discuss the causes.
Try practicing for a week and see what happens. You will likely find that you become a “detective for good” throughout the day. This intervention has shown to increase happiness and decrease depression.
Source Credit: Seligman, Steen, Park & Peterson, 2005
Books on Optimism
Most books are available at the Livermore Public Library
by Kobi Yamada Year Published: 2016
A book about a boy who encounters a problem and learns to see the opportunity in any challenge.
by Martin Seligman, PhD Year Published: 1995
Dr. Seligman shows adults how to teach the skills of optimism that have been proven to safegaurd against depression and build resilience. Drawing on positive psychology research, Dr. Seligman highlights the ways an optimistic framework support children's mental and physical health.
If you are in need of further information, please contact your child's physician or your child's school. For middle or high school students, contact your school's counseling office. For elementary students, contact the school's main office.