By Tony Fiore
I had just completed a session with 17-year old Julie who
suffered from severe depression. Julie believed she was a
failure and would never be able to change anything in her
Julie also felt all her shortcomings were her own fault.
Where, I ask myself, did such a young person acquire this
negative and fatalistic thinking?
The answer soon became apparent when I invited her parents
the session. They began discussing numerous life events and
explaining them in ways that their children were learning. The
car, for example, got dented because you can’t trust anybody
these days; Mom yelled at brother because she was in a bad
mood; you can’t get ahead in this world unless you know
As a parent, your own thinking style is always on display and
your children are listening intently!
The Importance of Optimism
Why should you want your child to be an optimist? Because, as
Dr. Martin Seligman explains: “Pessimism (the opposite of
optimism) is an entrenched habit of mind that has sweeping and
disastrous consequences: depressed mood, resignation,
underachievement and even unexpectedly poor physical health.”
Children with optimistic thinking skills are better able to
interpret failure, have a stronger sense of personal mastery
and are better able to bounce back when things go wrong in
Because parents are a major contributor to the thinking styles
of their children’s developing minds, it is important to
to the following five steps to ensure healthy mental habits in
How Parents Can Help
Step 1: Learn to think optimistically yourself. What children
see and hear indirectly from you as you lead your life and
interact with others influences them much more than what you
try to ‘teach’ them.
You can model optimism for your child by incorporating
optimistic mental skills into your own way of thinking. This
not easy and does not occur over night. But with practice,
almost everyone can learn to think differently about life’s
events – even parents!
Step 2: Teach your child that there is a connection between
they think and how they feel. You can do this most easily by
saying aloud how your own thoughts about adversity create
negative feelings in you.
For example, if you are driving your child to school and a
driver cuts you off, verbalize the link between your thoughts
and feelings by saying something like “I wonder why I’m
so angry; I guess I was saying to myself: ‘Now I’m going to be
late because the guy in front of me is going so darn slow. If
he is going to drive like that he shouldn’t drive during rush
hour. How rude.’”
Step 3: Create a game called ‘thought catching.’ This helps
your child learn to identify the thoughts that flit across his
or her mind at the times they feel worst. These thoughts,
although barely noticeable, greatly affect mood and behavior.
For instance, if your child received a poor grade, ask: “When
you got your grade, what did you say to yourself?”
Step 4: Teach your child how to evaluate automatic thoughts.
This means acknowledging that they things you say to yourself
are not necessarily accurate.
For instance, after receiving the poor grade your child may be
telling himself he is a failure, he is not as smart as other
kids; he will never be able to succeed in school, etc. Many of
these self-statements may not be accurate, but they are
‘automatic’ in that situation.
Step 5: Instruct your child on how to generate more accurate
explanations (to themselves) when bad things happen and use
them to challenge your child’s automatic but inaccurate
thoughts. Part of this process involves looking for evidence
the contrary (good grades in the past, success in other life
Another skill to teach your child to help him or her think
optimistically is to ‘decatastrophize’ the situation – that is
– help your child see that the bad event may not be as bad or
will not have the adverse consequences imagined. Few things in
life are as devastating as we fear, yet we blow them up in our
Parents can influence the thinking styles of their children by
modeling the principals of optimistic thinking.
2005 © Dr. Tony Fiore All rights reserved.
About The Author: Dr. Tony Fiore (www.angercoach.com)
a So. California licensed psychologist, and anger management
trainer. His company, The Anger Coach, provides anger and
stress management programs, training and products to
individuals, couples, and the workplace. Sign up for his free
monthly newsletter "Taming The Anger Bee" at