The #1 skill that separates mentally strong kids from those who give up — and how to teach them

A raging pandemic, gun violence, climate change—as an educational psychologist, I have seen firsthand how today’s disturbing events are taking their toll on our children.

“It’s hard to stop thinking about 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 set in and children’s overall well-being can decline. Hope gives them the strength to stay mentally strong in difficult times, and that differentiates them from those who give up easily.

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

Yet despite its immense power, hope is largely excluded from our parenting agenda. The good news? Hope is teachable. One of the best ways to increase this strength is to teach children skills to deal with life’s inevitable bumps.

Here are nine science-backed ways to help kids keep hope alive—especially during tough times:

1. Stop the negativity in the moment.

Unfounded pessimism eats away at hope, which is why it’s important to help kids learn negativity before it becomes a habit. Develop private code to signal that “this is a negative comment,” such as B. pulling your ear. Then encourage them to interrupt negative thoughts.

Creating a nickname for her pessimistic voice (“Mr. Negative Nelly”) can help children control her. If your child expresses even a little optimism (“I’m getting better at this.”), greet them (“Yes, I can see that you’ve been practicing!”).

2. Use hopeful mantras.

Words have great power. Help your child develop an optimistic mantra (“I got this!”, “There’s always tomorrow,” or “I’m fine”) to use in difficult times. Then teach them to use the phrase to reduce pessimism.

You can also get your kid to set their positive mantra as their phone screensaver by using quote creation platforms like Canva. Don’t forget to adopt one for yourself. Say it until your voice becomes your child’s inner voice.

I’ve always said, “I’ve got what it takes!” to my kids, and now they still say it as adults.

3. Teach brainstorming.

Hopeful children do not avoid problems. They embrace it straight away because they’ve learned that problems can be solved.

Explain to your child, “The trick to getting out of a tight spot is to activate your brain for solutions.” Then teach brainstorming. One trick is to use the acronym STAND to help kids remember the steps:

  • Sdown so you can think.
  • Tell your problem.
  • Ask: “What else can I do?”
  • NAme all you could do to resolve it without judgements.
  • DMake the best choice and do it.

4. Share hopeful news.

Hopeful children hear hopeful stories. Violent media can make the world seem totally mean, frighteningly dangerous. Uplifting news keeps children’s hope alive.

Look for inspirational messages to share with your kids from time to time. Before bedtime, introduce a review of the good parts of each person’s day to help your kids discover the bright side of life.

And remind them of their own triumphs over fights: “Remember when you had trouble making friends? Now you have great friends!”

5. Ask “What if?”

Pessimistic children often think of “dark probabilities,” which dampens hope. But hopeful children learn to judge correctly. When your child expresses doubts, ask “what if” questions to help them think more realistically about possible outcomes.

You might ask, “What might happen if you tried—or didn’t try?” What’s the worst that could happen? How likely is that to happen?

These questions help children evaluate whether the possible outcomes are really as bad as they imagined. This knowledge can be the way forward.

6. Celebrate small wins.

Repeated failure increases hopelessness, but recognizing even small success increases hope. Redefine “success” as gain: a small improvement over past performance due to effort. Then help your child to recognize personal advantages.

For example: “You got nine words right last time. Today you have 10! That’s a win!” Or: “Yesterday you hit one run, today you hit two. That’s a win!”

7. Increase assertiveness.

Children who feel hopeless have a hard time representing themselves. Learning assertiveness, which is the midpoint between passivity and aggression, increases hope and agency.

Body language also plays a role. Teach the basics of confident body language: “Holding your head up gives the impression of being confident. Always look the person in the eye.”

Brainstorm comebacks that your child can use to stand up for themselves: “Not cool.” “That’s not right.” “I don’t want to do that.” Practice these skills until your child can defend themselves.

8. Create gratitude rituals.

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

Keep a mealtime tradition where each family member reveals one thing they are grateful for that happened that day. Establish a bedtime ritual where everyone names someone they’re grateful for and why. or Write your children’s appreciations in a family journal to remember the good times in their lives.

9. Accept service.

As unhappiness increases, hopelessness can set in. Showing children that they have the power to change the lives of others inspires hope and builds self-efficacy.

Hopeful children have caring adults who live hope. Start a family charity box where children add gently used toys, clothes and games. Give it to a family in need so they can see the impact of kindness.

Find causes that align with your children’s passions and support their efforts. Projects should be driven by their own causes and not designed to look good on resumes. Follow her lead!

Michele Borba, EdD, is an educational psychologist, educational expert and author of “Thrivers: The Surprising Reasons Some Kids Fight and Others Shine” and “UnSelfie: Why Empathic Kids Succeed in Our World That’s All About Me.” She lives with her husband in Palm Springs, California and is the mother of three sons. keep following her Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

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