Developing optimism

A big part of resilience is about optimism – being able to maintain a positive attitude when we’re faced with difficult situations.

This comes more naturally to some people than others, and kids often need help to see that a situation can and will get better. 

For example, a child might interpret being left out of a group as: ‘They don’t like me. I’m not worth liking. I’m not a nice person’. You can help them to shift their thinking by reminding them of times they’ve played happily with others, so they have good memories to call on.

What we think about children and how we talk about them to others in front of them also shapes how they see themselves.

Tips for building optimism

So how can we help children to develop optimism? Let’s start by looking at different sources of optimism and resilience that have been identified in the International Resilience Project. These sources can be divided into three groups: our inner personal strengths (I AM), our interpersonal skills (I CAN) and the external supports and resources available to us (I HAVE).

Within each source we’ve included some ideas for how you can help to encourage a sense of optimism in your child or young person.

I AM

This is about kids believing in themselves and knowing that they are:

  • a person people can like and love
  • glad to do nice things for others and show concern
  • respectful of myself and others
  • willing to be responsible for what I do
  • sure that things will be all right.

Children and young people can learn to feel good about themselves when adults:

  • tell them they love them and show their love, such as by hugging them
  • want to be with them, having fun and playing with them every day
  • listen and talk to them
  • develop trust by not letting them down
  • help them learn to manage their feelings
  • help them learn how to relate well to others
  • don’t criticise them or put them down, but notice the good things about them
  • give them appreciation, encouragement and praise.

I CAN

This is about kids feeling capable and able to do things for themselves such as:

  • talk about things that frighten or bother me
  • find ways to solve problems that I face
  • control myself when I feel like doing something not right or dangerous
  • figure out when it is a good time to talk to someone or to take action
  • find someone to help me when I need it.

Children and young people learn to feel capable when adults:

  • listen to their ideas seriously
  • give them opportunities to do things for themselves
  • encourage them to try new things and give them a hand when needed
  • ·notice their interests and help them by supporting their hobbies and activities
  • let children help - it will help them feel needed. For example, toddlers can carry a parcel or open a door, while older children can help with chores around the house or be responsible for tasks
  • teach them how to solve problems and how to get help if they need it.

I HAVE

This is about kids knowing they belong somewhere, have a place in the world and have people who:

  • I trust and love me unconditionally
  • set limits for me
  • lead by example
  • encourage me to be independent
  • help me when I am sick or in danger
  • help me learn.

Children and young people feel like they belong when they have:

  • grandparents and other relatives who love them, care for them and want to be with them
  • ·other adults such as teachers, community leaders, and sports coaches who care about them and look out for them
  • a stable home environment and predictability such as knowing they have a place to sleep every night and knowing who will be there
  • provision of basic needs such as warm clothes, having enough to eat and a place to play
  • health care and education
  • adults who respect and show care for each other
  • a group of friends to belong to
  • confidence and faith in a fair and just world.

The HAPPY principles

Building optimism and resilience is about feeling safe and supported while we give things a go, and these simple HAPPY principles can help. Bear in mind that the HAPPY principles are NOT about being happy all the time (it’s just a catchy acronym). It’s unrealistic to think that kids will be happy all the time and they need to be allowed to express a range of emotions. Anger, sadness and worry are just as legitimate as happiness and joy.

The HAPPY Principles are:

  • Have a go: Break tasks and games into manageable chunks so children can succeed. Celebrate your child’s successes.
  • Accept both success and loss: You know that sporting cliché “It doesn’t matter whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game?” Focus on the learning experience rather than the outcome, and help children bounce back from disappointments.
  • Practice: Allow your child to watch you practise and persevere at activities – both enjoyable things and stuff we just have to get done. This will teach them to do the same.
  • Plan for the best outcome: Encourage children to think situations over and choose outcomes that are enjoyable and build confidence.
  • Getting to Yes: Optimism and resilience grow from persevering and succeeding, even after setbacks.
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