The Optimistic Child - Martin E. Seligman

Martin Seligman is a leader in the Positive Psychology movement, which aims to study "what goes right" instead of just "what goes wrong." It's still a relatively new field as far as psychology goes, but it's becoming quite popular. This particular book is from 1995 and actually uses less of the positive psychology language, but instead addresses the self-esteem movement which started up around the 1960s or 70s. The lengthy subtitle is "A Revolutionary Program That Safeguards Children Against Depression & Builds Lifelong Resilience," which is a pretty good summary. Seligman's goal is to "vaccinate" your child against pessimism, which he argues is strongly linked to depression later in life.

The book is both a history of the development of the program and a guide to putting Seligman's theories into practice. The history portion includes his early research into child depression and its long term effects, a criticism of the self-esteem movement, and the creation of the Penn Prevention Program which was put into place in a Philadelphia suburb middle school. Regardless of how well the program works, the book itself is a little clunky because it tries to do a little too much. Also, because the program was still a work in progress when the book was written, there's little data provided about the long-term results of the study. I was surprised that Seligman hasn't published a followup to this particular book with more, although perhaps newer editions may have some updates included.

That said, I think the program itself is worth considering, and offers some practical tips on building optimism in kids--it's just a little hard to get directly to the practical portion of the book without wading through a lot of other stuff. The rest of this entry is just my own notes for reference, but will give you an idea of how the program works.

One thing that Seligman stresses is that it's not simply a matter of being optimistic and ignoring reality; accuracy of beliefs is very important. But a pessimistic view can often lead to self-fulfilling prophecies and a vicious cycle. A large part of teaching your child to be optimistic is to put them in situations where they can achieve mastery. So always rescuing them out of difficult situations isn't recommended, but neither is leaving them in situations where they are constantly failing. The key is giving them challenges they can overcome, which then builds confidence for more difficult challenges.

A big part of the theory is learning an optimistic "explanatory style," the way you look at the world and how you evaluate adversity. An optimistic style sees problems as changeable, specific, and behavioral. A pessimistic style sees problems as permanent, global, and general. A child's explanatory style comes from various sources, but is largely influenced by the parents and teachers.

One of the first steps is evaluating automatic thoughts, things that just pop into your head. Seligman points out that most people won't just automatically accept criticism from others, but that critical thoughts about yourself are often accepted without evaluation. What's important is recognizing that automatic thoughts aren't necessarily accurate, and then judging critical thoughts based on reality.

Next up is disputing and decatastrophizing: disputing those thoughts that aren't based in reality, and then taking a realistic look at outcomes. So instead of thinking "Oh, I'm the worst friend in the world, and Bob will never speak to me again," you judge what your mistakes were, and come up with a more realistic prediction: "Maybe Bob will be pretty mad for a while, but I can apologize and try to explain."

Then there's Seligman's ABCDE process (which is introduced in sections, first as ABC and then later with the DE added): Adversity, Beliefs, Consequences, Disputation, Energization. It's some cognitive behavioral therapy, the idea that the way we feel about adversity is directly tied to what we believe. So when we feel a certain way in response to a situation, Seligman encourages us to think through our beliefs about what happened, evaluate those, and decide which beliefs are actually true. Disputation and Energization (the strangest term, picked simply because it starts with E) are follow-up steps: the arguments you make to counter your beliefs, and then the emotional and behavioral consequences of your disputation. I think this sort of thing would work if you're a Thinker-type on the Meyers-Brigg test, but if you're a Feeler-type, then I'm not sure simply evaluating beliefs would change the way you feel.

Seligman also encourages assertiveness, which he describes as a balance between passivity and aggression. His four steps in dealing with a situation assertively are: describe the situation (objectively, without blame), say how the situation makes you feel, propose a change, and say how the change would make you feel. With practice and in combination with the disputation/decatastrophizing mentioned above, these steps could help you (or your child) develop confidence and assertiveness.

Throughout the book are exercises and examples, usually first for the adult to work through, and then a simplified or modified version for children. I can see the benefits to developing an optimistic explanatory style, whether or not you have kids, but unfortunately this book needs a little more streamlining to make it easier to use as a manual. I don't know if his newest book Authentic Happiness is any better, but it would be nice to have the exercises and practices in a more straightforward format.

Fed to jonathan's brain | February 05, 2007 | Comments (0)


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