How Optimism in Teens Leads to Success
Note from Tracking Wonder: This guest post is from Mya Dunlop and Robin Friend Stint of Teen Brain Trust – a group of professionals and experts dedicated to providing adults with relevant, practical content for engaging teens.
It’s in our nature to crave moments of innocent, wide-eyed wonder with which we experienced the world as children. In times like these, we’re usually at our happiest – so much so that we express ‘feeling like children again’. Unaware and with hardly a care in the world, kids sure do have it easy.
Or at least they used to.
Research shows that the cut-off age for this naive optimism is dropping. More and more children are being faced with adversity that they simply aren’t equipped to handle.
“It’s hard to stop thinking about bad stuff. Sometimes I worry about waking up.” said an 11-year-old to Michele Borba for CNBC. This newly found awareness (and impending dread) in ever-younger children sets the stage for some serious obstacles when puberty hits. We at Teen Brain Trust see the effects of this through the skyrocketing numbers of cases of depression and anxiety in teens. As a company with a vested interest in promoting teen well-being, we are hyper-aware of the current Teen Mental Health Crisis and are always on the lookout for tools and tactics that can help.
Luckily, there are lots of things we can do to create emotional resilience in our kids and teens. Programs, such as the Penn Resilience Program, work with kids and teens, educators, and other institutions to help kids and teens incorporate these skills into their lives. Emotional resilience is an important life skill that translates to better developmental outcomes, decreased risk of anxiety and depression, and overall healthier kids, teens, and adults. If you’re reading this post, you’re already in the right place to be building these skills.
The themes discussed in Tracking Wonder – the community and the book – all contribute to building this type of resilience. In this article we’re going to be digging into some things we can focus on that can help our kids maintain their sense of wonder, optimism, hope, and ultimately, the kind of mindset and worldview that will allow them to live healthy and impactful lives.
What steps can we take to retrain our kids’ brains and revitalize that childlike hopefulness?
To answer this, we refer to Springer’s “From Helplessness to Optimism. Springer is an award-winning publisher of healthcare and behavioral sciences resources and their Handbook of Resilience in Children emphasizes the importance of positive psychology. According to this handbook, we can help build and maintain optimism by promoting more accurate cognitive styles, supportive family relationships, and problem-solving skills. The benefits of practicing resilience in a positive environment don’t stop at building optimism, however. They stretch well beyond, creating an overall positive impact on teens and adolescents and even helping to prevent anxiety and depression.
Let’s get into what we can do about it.
Promote Hope and Gratitude
Kids are impressionable, and even short-lived exposure to negative stimuli can leave a massive impact on their outlook on life. That’s why sharing little wins can go a long way in building positivity and resilience. In a world riddled with violent media, unrealistic standards, and overall chaos, finding the silver lining is important.
One way to apply this is to make a point of expressing gratitude around your kids and teens. It’s important to remember that our kids learn best by example, so making a habit of expressing gratitude yourself will surely prove much more effective than reminding our kids to “be grateful”.
Expressing gratitude can be as simple as taking a moment to appreciate a particularly beautiful day or mentioning how thankful you are to have regular access to coffee. It can also be as profound as letting your teen know how happy you are that they’ve developed a certain positive character trait (see our below point on that) or that you’re grateful for their presence in your life, period.
Gratitude has been linked to a number of benefits, including better physical and psychological health, increased happiness and life satisfaction, decreased materialism, and more.
Alternatively, sharing good news can never hurt. Portals like The Good News Network and HuffPost Good News are dedicated to curating these stories. Besides these two, check out David Byrne’s Reasons to be Cheerful, and the Conspiracy of Goodness podcast.
The prospect of growing up can be exciting, terrifying, sad, frustrating, and embarrassing, and it prompts kids and teens to question everything about themselves and their lives. Plainly said, growing up leaves a lot of space for uncertainty and insecurity whether they admit it or not, according to Teen Brain Trust’s free guide on helping teens leave home with confidence.
That makes it even more important for us to reassure them they are on the right path, that we are there to support them if they need us to, and that they will be alright.
By asking open-ended questions, we give our kids an opportunity to process and vocalize their own thoughts and feelings. This can help with any sense of anxiety or overwhelm that may be present. If you’re looking for examples of such questions, there’s a list in this guide.
Focus on Developing Character Traits Instead of Outcomes
In another point from the Teen Brain Trust, we’re advised to invest ourselves into developing character traits instead of achievements with our kids. It’s natural for us parents to expect certain results from our kids as they become older. Wanting for certain grades or accomplishments seems logical, even. Achievements do not prepare teens to thrive in the real world, though. It is our kid’s character that will support them later in life. We can encourage our kids to work toward building positive traits like optimism and hope by guiding them toward reflection, and asking questions like:
“Who are you among their social group? Are you the joker, the planner, the glue that holds them together, or something else?”
“During what kinds of situations or activities do you feel the happiest, the most confident, the most competent?”
Promoting this kind of self-reflection in our kids is way more beneficial than pushing them to achieve any kind of specific outcome and will help them stay in tune with their own happiness.
Tracking Wonder’s Jeffrey chimed in with another way to encourage self-reflection in children and teens. He shared how he had his older daughter take the VIA Survey, a scientifically backed survey based on Seligman’s positive psychology that points out key character strengths in its applicants.
We often take our own strengths for granted. Surveys like this may help teens see their positive traits in a new light. For Tracking Wonder founder Jeffrey Davis, one of his older daughter’s key virtues in action is humor. This validation empowered her to understand humor as an actual virtue that she could actively cultivate as a character strength.
Jeffrey’s example highlights the benefits of encouraging our kids to focus on character. They might not even realize that some of their best traits are character strengths to be proud of.
Raising kids to be happy is what it’s all about for parents. We want to instill values that will last a lifetime. Fundamentally, the pursuit of happiness for our children is why we ask anything of them. When deciding on what’s most important, though – consider this article and everything on Tracking Wonder. Building resilience and optimism is a sure way to support our kids into adulthood and make sure they know how to take anything life throws their way.
Thank you to Jeffrey from Tracking Wonder for inspiring this post by the Teen Brain Trust.
About the Teen Brain Trust:
We’re a small team of people with a background in education. We also have a kick-*ss board that’s our bridge into the world of developmental neuroscience.
When you take our courses you’re not hearing what we think. You’re hearing from hundreds of researchers & experts around the globe whose work has helped us understand adolescence in an entirely new way.