From technology to the pandemic to the complex nuances of growing up, it's not surprising why the adolescent mental health crisis is at an all time high. A 2022 survey conducted by the Mental Health America Organization found that over 3.5 million youth (12-17) had at least one major depressive episode in the last year. In 2023 that number jumped to over four million.
I know as a parent myself, my initial instinct is to want to protect my children from anything tough or hard to deal with, but as a behavioral scientist who focuses on the science behind Optimism, I also know how important it is to equip our kids with the tools they need.
By helping our children cultivate an optimistic mindset as early as possible, we are setting them up for success later in life. Here are some ways to start:
Model Optimism + Lead by Example
It's no secret that kids do as kids see. When we model a definitively negative outlook our kids follow suit… the same is true for the opposite. Some of our kids’ most important learning experiences come from watching how we as parents or caregivers react to our own experiences, whether it be struggles or celebrations.
Take a moment to mindfully assess what’s in your own tool box and identify your own points of struggle. Helping people proactively come up with their own mental health toolbox is why I originally created the "Things Are Looking Up Optimism Deck of Cards" - Maybe you need a prompt to practice “perspective shifting” or a ritual of scheduling 5 minute worry sessions (believe it or not, we all worry and eliminating all worries is a futile effort whereas designing how to worry more effectively is where it’s at :)). It’s vital to find which of these potent, effective tools that can be used anywhere, at any time work best for you.
Remember that nobody feels bliss 24/7, there will be moments where you can’t find the silver lining right away… and that’s okay, in fact, that is a perfect modeling moment.
Setbacks Are Temporary
Teach your children to understand the impermanence of emotions:
By saying “I will always be sad” or “ I will never be happy” we are inadvertently telling our kids that bad feelings will never end… teaching your child how to identify, understand, and feel these big emotions will help them decide how to react in the future.
One of my favorite cards from the new "Things Are Looking Up Kids Deck" which is going to launch in the Fall prompts you to sit down with your child after a tough moment and reflect. Help them realize that the feelings have passed and prompt a discovery of what they may have learned from those feelings. The idea that setbacks are temporary is a hallmark of an optimistic mindset.
Normalize the Roses and the Thorns
Regardless of the environment we build for our kids, there will always be ups and downs. Optimism is not about being positive 24/7 but, more so, it’s about resiliency. It’s about being able to persevere through less than ideal situations and learn to reflect on those moments.
At the end of each day, I ask my kids to identify those lows and highs, always ending on the best part of their day. By talking about these feelings on a regular basis, we normalize emotions of all kinds diminish the power they have over us.
Highlight Effort Not just Success
Praise the process rather than just the outcome. When we focus on winning or being the best we are teaching our kids that the energy they have put into something is only worth it if they come out on top often leading to perfectionism.
One great example from the Kids deck, highlights this by joining you and your child on a cooking adventure. Along the way we recognize the energy, effort and skill put into each step, in doing so we get to celebrate mastery, progress and the small but mighty moments along the way!
Go out in Nature!
Research shows that spending as little as 2 hours a week in nature drastically decreases stress cortisol levels. Whether it be going to your local park, taking a neighborhood stroll or having an impromptu backyard camping trip, spending time outdoors is a great tool for kids and adults alike!
Challenge yourself to stack these tips. Sit in the backyard when talking with your kids about hard emotions, or model optimism by going on a nature happiness hunt together!
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