Children are all very different. It is amazing to see that children in the same family, with similar genetics and upbringing can be complete opposites. Each child has their own temperament and it is thought that this occurs right from birth. Some children are outgoing, bubbly and optimistic. Others are shy, reserved and seem to be pessimistic in the way they view things. Then there are combinations of all of these.
As a Psychologist who quite literally makes a living from helping children challenge negative thoughts and develop a growth mindset, I found/find it difficult when my son tends to see the world in more a pessimistic light. We could have had a fantastic day, but he will find the one thing that went wrong and get stuck on that. My other children aren't like that at all, they are able to find the positives in most situations. It has taken me some time to come to terms with this being his temperament and that it isn't all bad.
There are positives and negatives for all temperaments. I'm not going to get into all the different personality types because there are so many varying opinions on this. But one thing we all agree on is that everyone has their own unique strengths and difficulties. Children like my son who can be a "glass half empty" kind of thinker, can also be very cautious and analytical. He likes things to be "just right", have all the details worked out and he can be quite serious. Other kids who might be really outgoing and bubbly might not consider the consequences of situations and act more impulsively. Whatever their temperament our kids need to know that they are fine the way they are. But that doesn't mean that we can't work on the weaknesses.
Even though some children tend to be pessimistic in personality, it doesn't mean that we don't address this. We know that a negative thinking style is linked to depression in adults, so while we don't want to change our kid's personality, we do want to support them to think in a more balanced way. Kids like my son are never going to be the ones that see the light in every situation and seem to be bouncing from one happy feeling to another. But he can learn to not get stuck in the negative.
When Psychologists look at our way of thinking, we look at "attribution style". It can be helpful to explain this using a specific example. Let's say your child performs badly in a spelling test at school. The pessimistic attribution style will think that the challenge is Internal, Pervasive and Permanent. So, for this situation they would think, "I am hopeless at spelling"(Internal), "I can't do any school work" (pervasive) and "I'm stupid" (permanent). Optimistic attribution style on the other hand tends to be External, Specific and Temporary. In this example they may think "that was a really hard spelling test" (external), "I'm disappointed I got those words wrong" (specific) and "if I practice I will do better next time" (temporary). If we look at our kid's thinking in this way, we can see that we don't have to change their cautious and analytical personality style, but we can help to change their thinking to be more resilient.
The optimistic attribution style is not all sunshine and rainbows. It is looking at difficult situations in a realistic way. It acknowledges that there are difficult situations and we can feel bad. However, it doesn't allow us to get stuck in our thoughts and head into a downward spiral. When we are supporting our kids we need to help their thoughts be External, Specific and Temporary. Some examples of how we can do that:
You made a mistake this time, you will learn from it. (External)
You got two words wrong, but you got 8 right (Specific)
You can't do it yet. You will get it with practice (Temporary)
What else can we do?
We all have bad days and have times of negative thinking. Kids are just like us they can be in a grumpy mood and feel like everything is going bad. It helps if our kids know that we understand. Children don't really start to understand other's perspectives until about the age of 5 years. So when they feel like everything is bad, they feel very alone. It can be helpful to talk about when you have had "bad" days. Normalising difficult moods and challenges can help kids to see that these things are not permanent.
If we don't connect with our kids with how they are feeling first, there is no way that they will change their thinking style. The reason being, if they feel like you don't understand then how do you know that your way of thinking is better? But, if you say "I know it feels like you can't do it and it is very disappointing" then they know you get it. Give them time to realise you are with them. Then once they feel you are with them, you can look at the thoughts such as, "it took you a while to learn to ride your bike but now you are great at it".
Our kids are soaking up everything we do and say. We may as well use this to our advantage. Let your kids see you frustrated or disappointed but be sure to bring in that optimistic way of thinking (External, Specific and temporary). Talk out loud when things don't go according to plan and model how you can manage your own thoughts to impact your mood. After you have been doing this for a while, it is amazing how your kids will start doing it back to you. I know I have said in frustration "you always leave your towel on the floor", to which I got the response "not ALWAYS, I did tonight". As frustrating as that is, it is good to know that they know how to manage their thoughts.
One of the most powerful ways to change our perspective and attitude is to be grateful. But this isn't something we naturally do and it needs to be practiced. Regularly ask your kids what they are grateful for. You could do it at the dinner table or at bedtime, but have a regular time of doing it. Have your kids be as creative as they can think of what they are grateful for. Is it that they can walk? That they have friends? That they live in a house? It could be anything. A fun activity that I found on Pinterest was writing down things that we are grateful for that happen throughout the year. Then New Years Eve we open the jar and take turns reading them. It is a great way to look for the positives in your day and then be able to reminisce on them together.
We know that our different temperaments are not bad, there are strengths and weaknesses in all of them. However that doesn't mean that we should leave our kids in a pessimistic thinking style. As we recognise this way of thinking we can support them to have a more resilient way of thinking but still celebrating who they are.