The No. 1 skill that sets mentally strong kids from ‘those who give up’—and how to teach it

An angry pandemic, gun violence, climate change – as an educational psychologist, I saw firsthand how the worrying events of today are taking a toll on our children.

“It’s hard to stop thinking bad things,” an 11-year-old told me recently. “Sometimes I worry about waking up.”

Without the right tools to deal with adversity, hopelessness can ensue and children’s overall well-being can decline. Hope is what gives them energy to stay spiritually strong during difficult times, and it is what sets them apart from those who give up easily.

Research shows that hopefulness can dramatically reduce anxiety and depression in childhood. Hopeful children have an inner sense of control. They view challenges and obstacles as temporary and can be overcome, so they are more likely to thrive and help others.

Despite its tremendous power, hope is largely excluded from our parenting agendas. The good news? Hope is teachable. One of the best ways to increase this power is by equipping children with skills to deal with life’s inevitable bumps.

Here are nine science-based ways to help children maintain hope – especially during difficult times:

Stop negativity in the moment.

Unfounded pessimism eats away hope, which is why it is important to help children capture negativity before it becomes a habit. Develop a private code to indicate “this is a negative comment,” such as pulling over to you. Then encourage them to interrupt negative thoughts.

Creating a nickname for their pessimistic voice (“Mr. Negative Nelly”) can help children control it. When your child even expresses a hint of optimism (“I’m getting better at this.”), Greet it (“Yes, I can say you’ve practiced!”).

2. Use hopeful mantras.

Words have great power. Help your child develop an upbeat mantra (“I have it!”, “There’s always tomorrow,” or “I’ll be okay”) to use during difficult times. Then teach them to use the phrase to reduce pessimism.

You can also let your child set their positive mantra as a phone screen saver by using quote creation platforms like Canva. Do not forget to adopt one for yourself. Say it until your voice becomes your child’s inner voice.

I always said, “I have what it takes!” for my kids, and now they still say it as adults.

3. Learn brainstorming.

Hopeful children do not avoid problems. They take it on because they have learned problems can be solved.

Explain to your child: “The trick to getting loose is to ‘spark’ your brain for solutions.” Then learn brainstorming. One trick is to use the STAND acronym to help children remember the steps:

  • Slow down so you can think.
  • Tell your problem.
  • Ask: “What else can I do?”
  • AAme all you can do to solve it without judgments.
  • Dchoose the best choice and do it.

4. Share hopeful news.

Hopeful children hear hopeful stories. Violent media can create a view of the world as utterly common, terribly dangerous. Constructive news keeps children’s hopes alive.

Look for inspirational news stories to share with your kids from time to time. Set up a bedtime overview of the good parts of each person’s day to help your children find the bright side of life.

And remind them of their own victories over battle: “Do you remember when you had trouble making friends? Now you have wonderful friends!”

5. Ask ‘what if?’

Pessimistic children often think of “gloomy probabilities”, which dull hope. But hopeful children learn to assess accurately. If your child shares a doubt, ask ‘what-if’ type questions to think about possible outcomes more realistically.

You may ask, “What can happen if you try – or have not tried? What is the worst thing that can happen? How likely is it to happen? What is the most likely outcome?”

These questions help children weigh whether potential outcomes are really as bad as they thought. That knowledge can be the way forward.

6. Four small gains.

Repeated failure increases hopelessness, but acknowledging even a small success increases hope. Redefine “success” as a gain: a small improvement over previous performance due to effort. Then help your child identify personal gains.

For example, “Last time you got nine words correctly. Today you have 10! It’s a win!” Or: “Yesterday you hit one run; today you have two. It’s a win!”

7. Increase assertiveness.

Children who feel hopeless find it difficult to advocate for themselves. Learning assertiveness, which is the center between passivity and aggression, increases hopefulness and agency.

Body language also matters. Learn the basics of confident body language: “Keeping your head high helps you look confident. Always look the person in the eye.”

Brainstorm return that your child can use to stand up for herself: “Not cool.” “It is not right.” “I do not want to do that.” Practice these skills until your child can defend himself.

8. Create gratitude rituals.

Hopeful children are grateful. One study found that people who keep gratitude journals feel more hopeful about their lives in just 10 weeks.

Have a mealtime tradition in which each family member reveals one thing for which they are grateful for what happened that day. Set up a bedtime ritual where everyone mentions someone for whom they are grateful and why. Or record your children’s appreciation in a family journal to remember the good parts of their lives.

9. Embrace service.

As accidents increase, hopelessness can ensue. Showing children that they have the power to make a difference in the lives of others inspires hope and builds self-efficacy.

Hopeful children have adults who care who show hopefulness. Start a family charity box where children add soft toys, clothes and games. Deliver it to a needy family so they can see the impact of kindness.

Find causes tailored to your children’s passion and support their efforts. Projects should be driven by their own concerns, not designed to look good on resumes. Follow their guidance!

Michele Borba, EdD, is an educational psychologist, parenting expert and author of “Thrivers: The surprising reasons why some children struggle and others shine” and “UnSelfie: Why Empathic Children Succeed in Our All-About-My-World.” She lives in Palm Springs, California, with her husband, and is the mother of three sons. Follow her further Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

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