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CYC-Online Issue 137 JULY 2010 / BACK
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Learning the ABCs of accurate optimism

Martin Seligman, Jane Gillham and Karen Reivich

Accurate optimism can help a child escape a pattern of self-defeating responses to adversity. Based on their research and work at the Penn Prevention Program, the authors define optimism, identify the three Ps of how children explain events, and provide exercises for teaching children the four basic skills of optimism.

When Wendy was not depressed, she could not wait for social studies class, especially when the subject was the battles of the Civil War. But when she became depressed, after a string of fights between her parents culminated in her father’s moving out, her enthusiasm for the class turned to apathy and pessimism. As Wendy describes it, “it was like I didn’t even care anymore. I knew I liked that stuff, but I would just feel bored all the time and I stopped liking even my favorite classes and teachers.” Not surprisingly, her classwork suffered.

Events that bring about an extraordinary sense of helplessness or failure “the death of a parent, physical abuse, severe parental strife, or a crude rejection of the first adolescent yearning for sexual love “can undermine an optimistic worldview. An inchoate theory that begins with the idea that “things will never work out for me,” “the world is unjust,” or “I am unlovable” often becomes self-fulfilling. Once pessimism gains a foot-hold, confirmation abounds. Every further rejection or defeat has at least a few real elements that are permanent and pervasive. The child with a developing pessimistic attitude seizes on these elements as the explanation for troubles and ignores more optimistic ones. All a developing pessimistic child has to do is turn on the television or read the newspaper to have his or her pessimism reinforced. Pessimism then can become a way of life.

Roots and effects of pessimism
When working with children who have a pessimistic world-view, the most important questions become “How can I intervene? How can I change pessimism into optimism? How can I strengthen and maintain optimism in these children?” You can affect a child's optimistic tendencies by changing the way you criticize the child, providing him or her with mastery experiences at just the right time, and teaching the child the skills of optimism directly.

Pessimism is neither inborn nor a direct result of challenging circumstances. Many people who have confronted grim realities – unemployment, the stresses of inner-city life, terminal illness, even concentration camps – have remained optimistic. Both optimism and pessimism are theories of reality. Children learn these theories from parents, teachers, coaches, and the media, and they in turn communicate them to their children. It is our responsibility to reverse these cycles of pessimism.

Why should we bother? Isn’t pessimism just a posture without effects in the world? Unfortunately not. I have studied pessimism for the last 20 years, and in more than 1,000 studies, involving more than half a million children and adults, I have found that pessimistic people do worse than optimistic people in three ways. First, they become depressed much more often. Second, they achieve less at school, on the job, and on the playing field than their talents would suggest. Third, their physical health is worse than that of optimists. The good news is that children can, with our help, learn optimism.

Optimism and the three Ps of explanatory style
The commonsense view is that optimism is seeing the glass as half full, or always seeing the silver lining, or habitually expecting a Hollywood ending to real troubles. The “positive thinking” angle on optimism tells us that optimism consists of repeating boosterish phrases to ourselves, such as “Every day in every way, I’m getting better and better,” or visualizing the ball dropping into the cup when we putt. These may be manifestations of optimism, but optimism goes much deeper than this. After 20 years of research, investigators have come to understand what is fundamental to optimism. The basis of optimism does not lie in positive phrases or images of victory, but in the way we think about causes. Each of us has habits of thinking about causes, a personality trait I call our “explanatory style.” Explanatory style develops in childhood and, without explicit intervention, is lifelong. There are three crucial dimensions that a child always uses to explain why any particular good or bad event happens to him: permanence, pervasiveness, and personalization.

Permanence: Sometimes versus always. Children who are most at risk for depression and the pessimism that accompanies it believe the causes of the bad events that happen to them are permanent. Since the cause will persist forever, they reason, bad events are always going to recur. For example, a child may think, "No one will ever want to be friends with me at my new school."

In contrast, children who bounce back well from setbacks and resist depression believe that the causes of bad events are temporary. This type of child might think, "It takes time to find a new best friend when you move to a new school."

A child who thinks about his or her failures, rejections, and challenges in terms of “always” and “never” has a pessimistic style. A child who qualifies and thinks about bad events in words such as “sometimes” and “lately” has an optimistic style.

Optimistic and pessimistic children also respond differently to good events in their lives. Children who believe good events have permanent causes are more optimistic than children who believe they have temporary causes (just the opposite of the optimistic style for bad events).

Pervasiveness: Specific versus global causes. If you believe a cause is pervasive, you project its effect across many different situations in your life. For example, a student who did poorly on a test may think, "I blew the writing test! I guess I’m a terrible writer. I’m just lousy at school in general!"

Some children can put their troubles neatly into a box and go about their lives even when one important part crumbles. Others interpret one failure to be a predictor of many other failures to come, even within totally different arenas of endeavor.

Personalization: Internal versus external causes. The third dimension of explanatory style is personalization, that is, deciding who is at fault. When bad things happen, children can blame themselves (internal) or they can blame other people or circumstances (external). Children who habitually blame themselves when they fail have low self-esteem. They feel guilty and ashamed. Children who blame other people or circumstances feel better about themselves when bad events strike. On the whole, those who blame others feel less guilt and shame and like themselves better. They are also angrier children, and this anger can make the children more likely not to accept responsibility when they should and to act out against those they blame.

Children need to learn how to see themselves accurately so that they do not automatically blame themselves or others when something goes awry. Accurate self-perception helps them take responsibility and correct their behavior (rather than blaming their character) when problems are their fault.

The first goal to work toward in improving a child's explanatory style is to make sure the child takes realistic responsibility. The second goal is to encourage him or her to use behavioral rather than general self-blame. General self-blame, because it is permanent and pervasive, not only damages self-esteem (because it is internal) but produces long-lasting (permanent) and global (pervasive) passivity and despair. One student might think, "I got a C on the test because I’m stupid."

Behavioral blame, on the other hand, points to a changeable cause. It motivates a child to try harder to change the behavior so he or she can prevent the problem or overcome the set-back. A student with this outlook might think, "I got a C on the test because I didn’t study hard enough. I can change that the next time!"

The ABC model
The attribution of a stressful event is a more important determinant of a child's feelings and reactions than the event itself. Many people believe that feeling bad is determined by the “stressors” or adversities we experience. We feel angry when someone transgresses against us. We feel depressed when we lose something we cherish. Certainly, the events in our lives are connected to our emotions, but the connection is much weaker than commonly believed. This becomes apparent when we imagine two people with different styles of attribution in the same situation.

Mark and Bethany sang in the middle school chorus. Both had recently auditioned for the school musical. Their first auditions went well and they were among a small group of students called back for second auditions. When the final casting list was posted, however, Mark and Bethany “s names were not on the list.

Bethany felt disappointed. This lasted for a few days during which she tried to avoid talking about the musical but continued to attend choir rehearsals, spend time with friends, and engage in her other activities. In contrast, Mark became despondent. He stopped attending choir rehearsals, withdrew from his friends, and started to spend most of his free time alone in his room. When his parents asked him how things were at school, he snapped at them, telling them to “leave me alone.” One month later, his mood had still not improved.

These differing reactions can be analyzed with the ABC model, which was developed by Albert Ellis, who, along with Aaron Beck, founded cognitive therapy (Ellis, 1962). In this model, A stands for adversity, which can be found in any stressful event: a failed vacation, a fight with a close friend, the death of a loved one. C stands for consequences: how one feels and behaves following the adversity. Often it seems that the adversity immediately and automatically produces the consequences. Ellis, however, argues that it is B – the beliefs about and interpretations of A – that cause the particular consequences.

Bethany believed that, although she had done well in the auditions, other students were better suited for the roles in the musical. She reminded herself that there would be many opportunities to audition for solos and musical parts over the next few years and remained hopeful that she would have her chance in the future. In contrast, Mark believed that failing to land a part in the musical meant he had no talent. He saw no point in continuing with choir and expected that auditions for future parts would go badly. Further, he believed that the other students thought he was a poor singer and talked about his “terrible voice” behind his back. These beliefs and interpretations led to his despondency, irritability, and withdrawal.

The four basic skills of optimism
Whether the setback is losing an audition or something far more serious, such as losing a loved one, a child's beliefs and interpretations can be influenced positively when he or she learns and uses the four basic skills of optimism. These four skills are taught in the Penn Prevention Program, a school-based intervention designed to help students cope with problems that are frequently encountered during the early adolescent years. The initial 2-year program reduced by 35% the number of children experiencing strong depressive symptoms. Two years after the program ended, depressive symptoms among children who had participated were reduced by 100%. The program has been used widely with similar results. The four skills taught in the program can influence the beliefs in the ABC model, which in turn can lead to more optimistic beliefs and positive consequences.

Catching automatic thoughts. The first skill is learning to recognize the thoughts that flit across our minds at the times we feel worst. These thoughts, although often barely perceptible, profoundly affect our mood and behavior. This technique is called thought catching.

As a student in the Penn Prevention Program, Mark learned that he often had thoughts like “I’m a failure,” “Everyone knows I’m a loser,” and “Things will never work out.” He learned to attend to these thoughts, particularly when he found himself feeling sad or irritable.

Evaluating automatic thoughts. The second skill of optimism is evaluating these automatic thoughts. This means acknowledging that the things you say to yourself are not necessarily accurate. Over the course of the program, Mark learned to evaluate his interpretations of events by considering evidence for and against them.

Challenging automatic thoughts. The third skill is generating more accurate explanations when bad things happen and using them to challenge your automatic thoughts.

Mark realized that although he didn’t do as well as he wanted to all the time, he did many things quite well and was hardly a failure. He realized that there were other explanations for not getting the part in the musical. For example, he was very nervous on the day of the second audition and had not given his best performance. In addition, some of the students who were given parts had much more acting experience.

Decatastrophizing. To learn this fourth skill, we reflect on a time when something went wrong. At that time, did we think about the worst possible consequences? Did we fantasize about the most dire implications? Although thinking about the worst case – catastrophizing – can be productive in some situations, it is counterproductive when the worst case is very unlikely. In these situations, planning for the worst is a bad use of our time. It is a drain on our energy, and it ruins our mood.

Catching automatic thoughts, evaluating automatic thoughts, challenging automatic thoughts, and decatastrophizing are the central cognitive skills of the Penn Prevention Program.

Teaching a child the ABCs
You can use the following strategies from the Penn Prevention Program to teach a child the ABCs of optimism. The optimum age for these exercises is 8 to 12, but by improvising with more sophisticated language, you can use them for children up to 15 years old. Because it is important that the child find the exercises engaging, the program is designed to be interactive, creative, and fun.

You will need to create an atmosphere in which the child feels safe, supported, and able to laugh and joke. Do not be too rigid about the amount of time you spend on these activities. If a child sees this as “homework,” or like cleaning out the bed-room closet, he or she will not engage.

Start by spending 15 minutes on the activities (more for older children) and gradually increase the time to about 30 minutes. The general atmosphere you want to create is one of curiosity. Help the child become curious about his or her feelings and thoughts by showing the child that you are curious about your own. Throughout the day, when you find yourself feeling a strong emotion and the child is around, work through the ABC model aloud. Try to do this in an informal way. Simply tell the child what your belief was and the feeling it created.

Introduce the internal dialogue. The first step is to explain the ABC model to the child. Begin by introducing the concept of an internal dialogue. Some children are aware of the things that they say to themselves when bad things happen, but other children are not. Here is an example of how to introduce the idea:

When problems happen, like getting into a fight with a friend or getting punished at home, we all talk to ourselves about what just happened. We think about it inside our head and because it is inside our head, no one else can hear the things we say to ourselves. Everybody does this, kids and adults, and it is totally normal. A lot of the time, we may not even really notice what we are thinking when a problem happens. It’s just like a voice inside our head turns on automatically. Imagine that your teacher blamed you for something you didn’t do. You might say to yourself, “Why is she picking on me? She “s always blaming me for things I didn’t do. She must really hate me.”

The most important point to make is that “talking to yourself “is completely normal, that everyone does it. Next give the child an example, such as the following: Sam is looking in the mirror after coming home from the barbershop. He is thinking to himself:  Man, I can’t believe the haircut I just got. He practically scalped me! I’m almost bald! How can I go to school like this? All the kids are going to laugh at me, and it’s going to take months for my hair to look good again. I look like such a geek.

Once the child understands that he or she has an internal dialogue too, ask the child to think of a recent example when something went wrong. Ask the child what he or she was thinking when it happened. The goal is to help the child begin to pay attention to these internal thoughts so that later you can work together to evaluate the accuracy of these statements. If the child is having a hard time coming up with examples, you can use the probes provided in the next paragraph or make up some probes tailored to the kind of experiences the child is likely to have. Tell him or her to imagine that each situation is happening and ask the child to say aloud the things he or she might think.

Introduce the ABC model. After the child is tuned in to his or her internal dialogue, it is time to explain the ABC model. The key point is that the child's feelings do not just come out of the blue and are not determined by the things that happen to him or her. Instead, it is what the child thinks when problems arise that determines how he or she will feel. When the child suddenly feels mad or sad or afraid, there was a thought that triggered the feeling. Once the thought is uncovered, the child can then change how he or she feels.

ABC: Matching thoughts to feelings. The following activity will help the child match thoughts to feelings. Ask the child to draw a line connecting each thought below with the feeling that goes with it. For example, you could say, “If you got into a fight with your best friend, you could have different thoughts about the fight. Each thought would make you feel a different way. Imagine that you really did get into a fight and that you were thinking each of these thoughts. Then draw a line from each thought to how it would make you feel.”

Thoughts Feelings
Now I don't have any friends Mad
My friend was being mean to me on purpose Okay
We'll make up and be friends again soon Sad

ABC verbal example. Once the child understands that thoughts, rather than adversity, directly cause feelings, work through the following verbal example with him or her. After the example, have the child explain it to you in his or her own words. Pay close attention to whether the child makes the connection between beliefs and feelings. Then ask the questions at the end of the example:

Adversity: My favorite teacher, Mrs. O'Leary, left to have a baby, and I don’t like our new teacher, Mr. Watts. Yesterday he asked me to come to the front of the class and solve a fraction problem. I got it wrong and he said, right in front of the whole class, that I needed to spend more time on my studies and less time on daydreaming.

Belief: Mr. Watts has it in for me. He’s going to pick on me all year and now everybody thinks I’m a loser.

Consequences: I felt really stupid. I wanted to just get up and leave and never come back. My face turned all red and I couldn’t stop it.

Why did this boy want to leave and never come back?

Why did his face turn red?

Did he want to leave because he got the fraction problem wrong?

Why did he feel stupid?

How do you think he would have felt if he believed that other kids in the class thought it was mean of Mr. Watts to scold him in front of the whole class?

Real-life ABCs. The next time you work with the child, spend a few minutes reviewing the adversity-beliefs-consequences connection and review an example or two. Then ask the child for an example from his or her own life. It is important to stress that the example does not have to be a time in which something horrible happened. Rather, it could be any time in which the child felt sad or mad or embarrassed or afraid or acted in a way he or she did not like “was nasty to a friend or gave up easily “even if the child did not feel this way or act this way for long. Then help the child identify his or her beliefs and the consequences of those beliefs. Try to work through at least three real-life examples this way.

Accurate optimism
It should be clear by now what I mean when I use the term 0ptimism. Optimism is not chanting happy thoughts to yourself. Slogans such as “I am a special person,” “People like me,” and “My life will get better and better” will not help you achieve your goals. Optimism is not blaming others when things go wrong. Dodging responsibility for problems will serve only to exacerbate them. Optimism is not the denial or avoidance of sadness or anger. Negative emotions are part of the richness of life and they are usually healthy responses that encourage us to understand or change the things that upset us.

When you teach children optimism, you are teaching them to know themselves, to be curious about their theories of themselves and of the world. You are teaching them to take an active stance in their world and to shape their own lives, rather than be passive recipients of what comes their way. In the past, these children may have accepted their most dire beliefs and interpretations as unquestionable fact. Now they are able to reflect thoughtfully on these beliefs and evaluate their accuracy. The optimistic child is equipped to persevere in the face of adversity and to struggle to overcome his or her problems.

Should we worry that the optimistic child will fail to appreciate real problems when they occur? I do not want to teach children to wear blinders to poverty and crime, hatred and envy, greed and suffering. The accurate optimist thinks, “When there is opportunity to be grasped and there is hope, then things get better. When there is no hope, things do not. What can I do to help the cause of providing opportunity and hope?”

Optimism, then, is not a cure-all. It will not substitute for good parenting. It will not substitute for a child's developing strong moral values. It will not substitute for ambition and a sense of justice. Optimism is just a tool, but a powerful tool. In the presence of strong values and ambition, it is the tool that makes both individual accomplishment and social justice possible.

Ellis, A. (1962). Reason and emotion in psychotherapy. New York: Lyle Stuart.

This feature: Seligman, M; Gillham, J. and Reivich, K. (2000). Learning the ABCs of accurate optimism. Reaching Today's Youth, 4, 4. pp. 9-13.


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