Glass half full: How to raise an optimistic child, according to a psychologist

Steph Arnaldo

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Glass half full: How to raise an optimistic child, according to a psychologist
Optimism can be taught, and the earlier we teach our children this trait, the better. Here's how to do so, and why it's so important.

Most of us are aware of “Is the glass half full or half empty?” litmus test. If you pick the former, you’re an “optimist,” and if you pick the latter, you’re a “pessimist.” It’s not a black-or-white test, but psychologists believe that it can give a general gauge of how one sees life.

According to psychologist and relationship counselor Lissy Ann Puno, most of us grow up wanting to be an optimist – a person who can see the good in any situation and can stay hopeful amid challenges. For some people, though, life happens and they start to see the glass half-empty instead. Pessimists err on the side of negative thinking, seeing the wrong in every situation, focusing on what’s lacking, and giving up on hope.

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Being continuously barraged by bad news and disappointments can turn optimistic children into cynical adults (hello, millennials). For some, the shift becomes easier, being raised by pessimistic parents. Others still remain optimistic, thanks to a positive household growing up.

This is why honing optimism in young children is crucial for their development as adults, Lissy Ann told Rappler. If adopted at an early age, this powerful trait can help children grow into strong, resilient adults equipped to handle life’s circumstances with confidence, courage, and hope. What parent wouldn’t want that for their children?

Optimist vs Pessimist

Lissy Ann said that there are three factors that determine the difference between an optimist and a pessimist: permanence, pervasiveness, and personalization.

An optimist lives by the saying “This too shall pass,” believing that everything in life, especially challenges, are temporary. Pessimists, on the other hand, believe that things will never change for the better.

An optimist sees a difficult situation as an isolated case rather than an encompassing one, believing that “a bad day doesn’t mean it’s a bad life.” Pessimists will let a bad situation pervade all aspects of their life.

The last factor is personalization. Optimists believe in their innate capacity to change certain situations in their life using the agency of choice. Pessimists, however, blame external factors and circumstances when things aren’t going their way.

Children: The ‘natural optimists’

“Children are seen as natural optimists,” Lissy Ann said. They come into this world with unbiased eyes and a pure heart that hasn’t been influenced by societal expectations, life experiences, trauma, or authority figures yet.

Lissy Ann said that whether a child grows up to be optimistic or not is part genetic and part environmental (the good ‘ol nature vs nurture debate). “Childhood experiences, parent-child connection, or trauma will all have some influence,” she said. Although optimism (or the lack thereof) could be passed down genetically, it can also be taught.

“Through the years of their development, the trait can be seen as emerging as early as three years old, so it is optimal to teach or model optimism during the school age years and just before the onset of puberty,” Lissy Ann said. Optimism is closely linked to the capacity for metacognition, which emerges at that stage. Metacognition is the awareness and understanding of one’s own thought processes.

Why it’s important to start them early

When it comes to cultivating skills and traits in children, the earlier, the better, Lissy Ann said. Three years old is the perfect age to start.

“This is to preserve self-esteem early on. If you do it a later time, experiences in life may influence the way the child thinks of his/her self, which will be harder to shift when negativity or mental health issues have set in when he/she is older,” Lissy Ann added.

The pandemic has also highlighted the importance of this trait. In dire times, resilience could be the only thing that keeps us going. According to Lissy Ann, optimism plays a big part in strengthening one’s ability to bounce back after a difficult time.

“It is harder during the pandemic as many aspects of this is unfamiliar and unknown. The stress of the pandemic and its extension create hopelessness, helplessness, and despair.  Realistic optimism is then essential to be resilient,” Lissy Ann said.

“If children can stay positive amidst the frustration of online learning, find things to be grateful for being at home, can find joy in things that might be different from their expectations, then they will be able to manage the pandemic in a way that will protect their mental health,” she added.

The optimistic child checklist

Not sure whether your child is optimistic or not? Here are the signs of an optimistic child, according to Lissy Ann:

  • Overall happy and pleasant disposition, not frequently moody
  • Displays gratitude, always says “thank you”
  • Enjoys learning new things
  • Surrounds self with positive family members, friends, pets
  • Interested in problem-solving
  • Has a realistic view of his/her own strengths and limitations
  • Has a sense of humor

Parents can also observe how their child reacts to certain situations. For example, if your child has a hard time making friends right away in a new school, a pessimistic child may say: “No one will ever want to be friends with me at school.” An optimistic child, however, may say: “It takes time to find a new best friend when you move to a new school.”

A pessimistic child also undermines their own accomplishments and downplays their efforts. When it comes to scholarly achievements, they may say: “The only reason I won the spelling contest is because I practiced this time,” but an optimistic child will say that they won because “I’m a hard-worker and I study my lessons.”

An optimistic child also knows when to not take things personally. If they were scolded by their mother, an automatic reaction might be: “my mom is the worst mom in the entire world.” However, an optimistic child may reassure themselves by saying that Mom might just be in a bad mood today.

Benefits you can’t ignore

Aside from increased happiness, an optimistic child can enjoy other perks in life, too! Here are five psychologist-proven benefits that optimism can reap for children, according to Lissy Ann:

  • They get depressed less often
  • Their moods are more stable
  • They achieve more at school
  • Their physical health is better
  • They have better relationships

If optimism is continuously practiced, these mental and physical benefits can extend to adulthood, too.

As parents, what can you do?

The development of a child starts at home. Because parents and older siblings harness the power to help shape young children into hopeful and optimistic beings, Lissy Ann shares a few tips and tricks to help raise an optimistic child.

  • Learn to think optimistically yourself. Show a good example and be vocal about your optimistic thoughts to the family.
  • Express your feelings appropriately – don’t resort to outbursts, moodiness, or passive aggressive measures. If your child is having a tantrum, let them be and help them process their emotions after.
  • Find ways to work through difficult situations by problem-solving together with your child. Ask them to list down pros and cons.
  • Adjust your attitude. Look for the good. Practice daily gratitude with your child – have them write a list of five things to be grateful for each day.
  • Avoid using negative labels. Instead, look for opportunities to learn and improve. Ask your child: “What can we learn from this?”

Self-validation is also key in teaching your child to be optimistic. This isn’t to be confused with ego-centrism or self-absorption – rather, it is the patient practice of remembering your successes when there are challenges and patting yourself on the back whenever positivity wins over pessimism. –

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Steph Arnaldo

If she’s not writing about food, she’s probably thinking about it. From advertising copywriter to freelance feature writer, Steph Arnaldo finally turned her part-time passion into a full-time career. She’s written about food, lifestyle, and wellness for Rappler since 2018.