The Optimistic Child: A Proven Program to Safeguard Children Against Depression and Build Lifelong Resilience

This program is clinically proven to cut the risk of depression among children in half.

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Karsen: From The Parent’s Club, I’m Karsen Kolnicki. This is your briefing.


Karsen: Today, we’re discussing The Optimistic Child: A Proven Program to Safeguard Children Against Depression and Build Lifetime Resilience. Written by Martin Seligman.

In this title, the professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania and past president of the American Psychological Association takes on the epidemic of depression impacting 30% of all children in the United States. The author offers parents a program clinically proven to cut the risk of depression in half.

Karsen: Vincent Phamvan on the key takeaways [pause] and what you need to know.


Karsen: Vincent, all parents want their children to be happy and capable of reaching their full potential in life. What does the author say holds children back from doing so?

Vincent: Dr. Seligman says that pessimistic thinking has dangerous consequences. In this title, he covers many psychological insights and gives practical parenting advice that can help you raise your child to be an optimist. And this is what, he says, you can do to set them up for a lifetime of success and resilience.

Karsen: We've all heard the saying—glass half full or glass half empty—but how do pessimists and optimists see everyday life differently?

Vincent: The author says that people with a pessimistic mindset will often focus on the worst possible explanation for why something bad happened. For example, a pessimist might think they failed an exam because they're dumb and unlikely to succeed in the future.

Karsen: Which is different than how an optimist would think about the same situation.

Vincent: Yes, an optimist might think that they failed because they didn't study hard enough and that working harder next time will result in a better grade on a test.

Karsen: It sounds like the key message here is that optimists come up with more positive reasons for why things go wrong.

Vincent: Exactly. There's actually a word for when pessimists think of worst-case scenarios for the future. It's called catastrophic thinking. And this can have a big impact on someone's entire life. When someone focuses on the worst-case scenario, they can start feeling like the future doesn't hold much potential. This leads to symptoms of depression, low mood, and lower levels of motivation.

Karsen: Would these children be more likely be depressed in the future?

Vincent: Yes, unfortunately children who have these thoughts are likely to become low achievers and be more depressed later in life.

When you feel helpless and unable to change your situation, this is known as learned helplessness. This is when you feel like nothing you do matters. If you believe that you can't make an impact on your future, then often, you might give up without even trying.

The author found in his research that when children have extreme feelings of helplessness, this is one of the root causes of depression. Optimists, on the other hand, could resist feelings of helplessness and often would keep trying. They had more persistence because they aren't easily defeated.

Karsen: Is it possible to unlearn this feeling of helplessness?

Vincent: Definitely, the author says that when you have the right tools, you can help your child fight pessimism, and protect them from depression and low achievement. You can do this by teaching the cognitive skills that foster optimism.

Many parents think that helping a child with their self-esteem can lead to optimism. However, the connection between self-esteem, optimism, and depression is really complex. Starting in the 1960s, schools focused on building children's esteem by doing activities where kids wrote down the reason they're special. Parents even cheer on their kids at little league games, yelling "You're doing a great job!" even if they're playing poorly.

Unfortunately, the author points out, that our children have never been more depressed. People are suffering from depression at an increasingly young age.

One study in 1993 found that nearly a third of American 13-year-olds had symptoms of depression.

Karsen: So why is it that higher self-esteem doesn't result in lower levels of depression?

Vincent: The problem is in our understanding of what self-esteem actually is. Most of us believe that self-esteem is all about what children think of themselves. However, these feelings are just a part of self-esteem. The more important component, according to the author, is what a child actually does.

He says that most of self-esteem comes from how you behave, not just how you feel. So when you can learn new skills, overcome challenges, and find solutions to boredom or frustration, these all increase self-esteem. It comes as a result of doing well.

Karsen: So when you simply praise children or teach them to feel good about themselves, this doesn't directly impact self-esteem.

Vincent: That's right. The best way to have an impact on self-esteem is not simply by teaching your child to feel special or happy all the time. This may seem counter-intuitive, but empty slogans and unrealistic emphasis on happiness aren't the answer.

Karsen: So let's talk about what is helpful. How should parents think about optimism?

Vincent: Many parents would say that optimism is mostly about positive statements and thinking about happy outcomes. However, Seligman says that is wrong. Instead, he says that it's about how you think about causes of events. It's how you explain why a positive or negative event occurred.

Pessimistic children believe that bad events have permanent and pervasive causes. They believe that the things that caused bad events are permanent and can't be changed, which means that more bad things will keep happening in the future.

Karsen: Vincent, what's an example of this thinking?

Vincent: Well, for instance, if a pessimistic child is in trouble, they might say, "My mom is the meanest!" The child is attributing their unhappiness to their mother's character, which can't be changed.

However, an optimistic child might say, "My mom is in the worst mood." The difference here is that mood is temporary, so the optimistic child might find that it's easier to be hopeful about the future.

Karsen: It sounds like you can gauge optimism in your child by paying attention to the words that they use.

Vincent: Absolutely. If your child talks about their failures using words like "always" and "never," then it might be a sign that they have a permanent explanatory style and may be pessimistic. Whereas using words like "recently" and "sometimes," suggest a more optimistic view.

Another dimension to optimism is pervasiveness. When children are pessimistic, they believe that the causes of hardships are pervasive and can be felt across many areas of their life... not just the area where they have just failed in. So for instance, a child that fails a math test might think that they suck at everything.

This is different than an optimistic child, where they believe that the cause of failure is specific. They're not doing poorly overall, just in one area, like math. Because the optimistic child doesn't believe that other parts of their life are affected by the failure, they can have fun playing with friends later in the day.

Karsen: And so the pessimistic child is more likely to spend the rest of their day depressed and withdrawn?

Vincent: Right, they're going to be more likely to spend the rest of the day alone in their bedroom. The pessimism may cause them to give up on everything, not just math.

Karsen: So when something does go wrong, what's a healthy way of approaching the situation?

Vincent: For children who are at risk of depression, the cause of failure tends to be themselves. It's normal to assign blame when things go wrong. However, self-blame can lead to depression, chronic guilt and low self-esteem.

The author points out that children who share the blame with other people or circumstances tend to have higher-self esteem. This is because they strike a balance between blaming themselves and looking for causes of failure in other areas.

Karsen: So optimistic children can think about self-blame in a healthier way than pessimistic children.

Vincent: Yes, but obviously you don't want to teach your children to always blame other people or the world for their own problems. Everyone makes mistakes, so you can't encourage your children to avoid taking any blame. That wouldn't be realistic or ethically sound.

The key here is that optimistic children take accurate responsibility. So they can hold themselves accountable for when things go wrong, but they don't blame themselves so much that they feel overwhelmingly guilty.

One way of learning to accept their share of blame is behavioral self-blame.

Karsen: What exactly is behavioral self-blame?

Vincent: According to the author, it's a way for optimistic children learn to accept their share of blame. The difference is that this blame is temporary and specific. An optimistic child who is grounded because they hit their sister would connect the punishment to their behavior. So they may say, "I was grounded because I hit my sister."

Karsen: What would a pessimistic child say?

Vincent: Probably something along the lines of "I got grounded because I'm a bad kid." The difference here is that the condition that caused the punishment is permanent and pervasive.

In order to encourage this healthy self-blame, you want to make sure that you criticize your child's behavior, not their character. You want to make sure your feedback is specific, about hitting their sister, not for being a bad child.

Karsen: How can parents model the optimistic mindset for their kids?

Vincent: This same framework works for parents just as well as children. So if you find negative thoughts crossing your mind, you can also take a look at your own behavior and evaluate your actions. If you had an outburst where you yelled at your children, you might recognize that it was because you were tired from not sleeping, and not because you were a bad parent.

This helps model the optimistic behavior while you also teach your child to challenge their pessimistic thoughts. Optimism, by itself, won't make problems go away though. Instead, they need to also have problem-solving skills to overcome challenges.

Many children react impulsively, which can lead to actions that they may regret later. You want to teach your child that good problem-solving skills means stopping and thinking for a minute before reacting.

For example, a child might react with anger and violence if a classmate bumped into them, knocking their lunch to the ground. However, as a parent, you could teach them that they shouldn't rush to act.

Karsen: And that could include thinking about why other people act the way they did too, right?

Vincent: That's a good point. The second step, after slowing down, would be to think about why the other person acted the way that they did. For example, in the cafeteria, the child could look at the other person's face to understand if they did it on purpose or not. If the person looked sad or embarrassed, then it likely was an accident.

The third step of problem solving would be goal setting. This happens later. When children face challenges, but they have a way to set a goal and decide what to do next, it helps them understand that they can have an impact on their future.

One goal could be to repair a friendship. With this goal, the child can then list out actions like "do something nice for their friend."

Karsen: It sounds like the key takeaway from this book is that optimism isn't only about upbeat slogans and wishful thinking. Good optimism is about taking accurate responsibility for your actions and persevering through challenges. Parents can help children be more optimistic by teaching them to see their setbacks as temporary and specific, instead of permanent and pervasive.


Karsen: That’s it for your briefing. I’m Karsen Kolnicki. See you next time.


The epidemic of depression in America strikes 30% of all children. Now Martin E. P. Seligman, the best-selling author of Learned Optimism, and his colleagues offer parents and educators a program clinically proven to cut that risk in half.

His studies demonstrate that “pessimistic children are at much higher risk for becoming depressed than optimistic children.” His mission here is to teach parents and other concerned adults how to instill in children a sense of optimism and personal mastery. Seligman discounts the prevalent theory that children who are encouraged by others to feel good about themselves will do well. Instead, he proposes that self-esteem comes from mastering challenges, overcoming frustration, and experiencing individual achievement. In clear, concise prose peppered with anecdotes, dialogues, cartoons, and exercises, Seligman offers a concrete plan of action based on techniques of self-evaluation and social interaction. 

He describes the development of the Penn Depression Prevention Program, in which school kids are taught ways to divest themselves of pessimistic approaches and adopt optimistic ones, and adapts it to home use by parents. While a few of the exercises may seem daunting to parents, this encouraging volume moves beyond popular self-help tomes and ideology to offer hope and practical suggestions; it will be of great value to teachers as well.

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