Accentuate the Positive: Raising Resilient Kids

Originally written as a letter to parents on October 28, 2011. 

In the last Notes from the Middle, I wrote about how teenagers are more motivated by seeking pleasure than by avoiding pain; therefore, focusing on the positive feelings and outcomes that come from making good choices is often more powerful than emphasizing the negative consequences of poor choices. For example, reminding teens of how they felt when they aced a test is a more powerful study motivator than reminding them of how they felt when they failed one.  How we think strongly influences how we act!

I want to pick up on this theme.  How do we help students when they emphasize the negative? Negative thought patterns (“I can’t” and “I’ll never be able to”) can cripple students’ motivation to improve a situation.

The psychologist Martin Seligman has conducted groundbreaking research on happiness, optimism, and resilience. One of his many nuggets of wisdom is this: people who view setbacks and difficulties as temporary rather than permanent are more self-confident and resilient.  When you hear children use the terms “always” or “never” in response to challenges, this is an opportunity to help them change their line of thinking.  It can be as simple as acknowledging their concern but helping reframe it. Here are some examples (modified from Seligman):

Permanent Setback Reframed as Temporary Setback
No one will ever want to be my friend. It takes time to find a new group of friends when you move to a new school.
I’ll never trust my brother again. My brother hurt my feelings when he told his friends about my sleepwalking.
My teacher hates me. My teacher was frustrated with my behavior today.
I’m a terrible English student. I need to work on my writing skills.
We’ll never be friends again. We are going through a rough patch this week.

As Seligman writes, “Sometimes we may believe that the problem is going to last forever and that we can’t do anything to make it better.  Such ‘Permanent’ thoughts make us feel down and ready to give up without ever trying.  In contrast, if we believe that the situation is temporary and changeable, then we will feel energized and strive to find a way to change it.”  If we can help our students see problems as temporary setbacks that they have the power to influence, we help them become problem-solvers rather than victims of circumstance.

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