Cheer up the children

t Put a positive outlook in kids, counselor Sue Anderson says.

Life is hard. Most kids learn that lesson fairly early on.

But while some youngsters dwell on life’s difficulties, research shows that optimistic kids are better able to handle life’s travails.

It’s a reality that Bainbridge counselor Sue Anderson – a specialist in the field of happiness, also known as “positive psychology” – has observed time and again in her Winslow practice.

“It’s not the amount or kind of adversity that you have, but how you meet it,” that determines one’s resilience, Anderson says. “If school kids had an extra boost of optimism, an extra shot of resiliency, then they would be better able to roll with life’s punches.”

There are techniques that parents can use to instill more optimism in their children, she says, regardless of whether the child is the glum or the effusive sort.

Anderson will share her insights in a public workshop “Teaching Children Optimism and Resilience” Thursday at Voyager Montessori School on High School Road.

Parents and children can fall into habits of negative thinking, which can lead to depression, underachievment and resignation, said Anderson, who trained in the field of “authentic happiness” with psychologist Martin Seligman, a leader in the field. Seligman’s program was featured in the Jan. 17 issue of Time magazine.

But parents can help turn that around, not with excessive cheeriness or feigned bliss, but with techniques that encourage optimum mental health for the whole family.

There is considerable scientific evidence that happiness is a health issue, Anderson says.

“Positive emotions help broaden our mind set, to help us see that more things are possible,” she said. 

Likewise, people who are upbeat get a positive response from others, thereby building broader and stronger social networks than folks who are negative.

People who are happy, she noted, “are friskier...they move their bodies more. And being healthier physically helps you meet adversity better.”

When people are in a negative mind set, on the other hand, they tend to “narrow in” on what’s wrong, rather than what’s right, perhaps Mother Nature’s way of preparing the person for a “fight or flight” response.

One double-blind study showed that doctors in a good mood performed significantly better at diagnosing illness than those in a bad mood, she said.

The other good thing about positive emotions, Anderson said, is that they have a way of crowding out the negative ones.

Parents can help encourage them through play and laughter.

“Just increasing the amount of positive emotion is a step toward more resilience and hope,” Anderson said. “Children at play are not just playing – they are broadening and building psychological capital what will make them more resilient.”

Another way that parents can help build hope and optimism in their children is by helping them achieve goals that are suitable for their level of development, Anderson said. That can be as simple as giving the child a household task that they can master.

“Hope comes when we feel capable and can attain the goals that we want to achieve,” Anderson said.

“If that gets thwarted in some way, then kids have a less hopeful view of the world.”

Of course, everyone has bad days on occasion. But what’s a parent to do when a child comes home with a declaration such as, “nobody likes me,” or “I am stupid” because something went wrong that particular day?

Saying “nonsense” might not be enough. Sometimes a parent would be wise to gently point out evidence to the contrary, to help the child obtain a more balanced view of the situation.

“Everyone develops a critic,” she said, saying that hers sits on her shoulder, whispering into her ear. “It’s about being able to talk back to the critic and see things more realistically.”

The idea for the workshop came at the end of last summer, when car crashes claimed the lives of two young island women.

The crashes have led to a great deal of community soul-searching over dangerous teen behavior, such as substance abuse and daredevil driving.

“We see a greater amount of depression among young people, even down to the grade school level,” said Anderson, who worked as a registered nurse before staying home to raise her children.

“I think the pace of our lives, and the pressures, can contribute. Parents are also under a great deal of pressure, and kids can feel that.”

Anderson earned a degree in counseling 15 years ago, helping families with all manner of trouble.

That got her to thinking about optimum mental health: Was it enough to help lower someone’s distress level?

What about helping people swing the pendulum the other direction, toward happiness?

And what did it mean to be happy?

Anderson read Seligman’s book, “Authentic Happiness,” and was inspired to take the professor’s training at the University of Pennsylvania. Now happiness is the focus of her practice, and that makes her, well, happy.

“Happiness is good for you,” she said.

* * * * *

Don’t worry...

Sue Anderson offers a free workshop on “Teaching Children Optimism and Resilience,” at 7 p.m. Feb. 10, at Voyager Montessori School, 8225 High School Road. Information: 780-5661.

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