Thursday, August 4, 2011

The Optimistic Child by Martin Seligman

Proven Program to Safeguard Children from Depression & Build Lifelong Resilience

This book was recommended to me during a parent advisory committee meeting by the assistant director of elementary ed of my kids' school district.  She was talking about how gifted kids often have depressive thoughts because their intellect is so far ahead of their maturity level.  Like they are aware of problems and injustices that they don't have the life experiences to cope with yet.  This made sense to me, and I do have some concerns about depressive tendencies in some of my children, and I was very interested in this book.

I have really enjoyed reading it.  It is specific and precise in explaining the philosophies and then how-to's of Dr. Seligman's ideas.  It has taken me a long time to get through the whole thing, but considering the amount of this type of non-fiction books that I set aside and don't finish, my determination to get through it is a testament to it's value in my eyes!  I have taken tons of notes and am going to buy my own copy.

Here's a good quote that comes near the end, "Raising children, I realized, is more than fixing what is wrong with them.  It is about identifying and amplifying their strengths and virtues, and helping them find the niche where they can live these positive traits to the fullest."  Yep.

Dr. Seligman's basic idea is that you can vaccinate children against depression by helping them be more optimistic.  He is careful to explain that "optimism will not make the problems disappear.  On the contrary, it allows your child to get to the root of the problem so that she can focus on correcting the situation."  He is also very concerned with the scientific proof that his Penn-Prevention program has been successful.  He gives a lot of data and examples.  I didn't care as much about this.  But I suppose it helps you know he isn't just making things up. 

I've decided not to try to outline his whole book and the philosophies, and instead share with you a few nuggets that rang true with me.

A big part of his program is teaching your kids to evaluate the things they tell themselves.  To notice the dialogue in their head and then take control of it, "we aimed to teach children that thoughts are verifiable and changeable, that they do not need to believe the first thought that pops into their head."  Recognizing what we are telling ourselves, and realizing that it isn't always accurate seems like a really important skill.

"Children who habitually blame themselves when they fail have low self-esteem. They feel guilty and ashamed. Children who blame other people or circumstances.....feel less guilt and shame and they like themselves better. They are also angrier children."

One part that I've been talking to everyone who will listen to me about is the "ABC model."  It was developed by Albert Ellis who helped found cognitive therapy (this means nothing to me).  "The A stand for adversity.  An adversity can be any negative event: a failed vacation, a fight with a close friend, the death of a loved one.  The C stand for consequences: how you feel and behave following the adversity.  Often it seems that the adversity immediately and automatically produces the consequences.  Ellis, however, argues that it is the B--the belief and interpretations about A--that cause the particular consequences."  So if I get a D on a test, I might tell myself I am stupid and worthless and won't ever succeed. Or I might tell myself that my teacher is a jerk and writes bad tests. Or I might tell myself that I didn't study enough and I need to work harder next time. Consequently, I would feel depressed, mad or disappointed.

"Although thinking about the worst case--catastrophizing--can be productive in some situations, it is counterproductive in some situations, it is counterproductive when the worst case is actually very unlikely.  In these cases, planning for the worst is a bad use of your time.  It is a drain on your energy, and it ruins your mood."
There is a cool quiz you can give your kids to test their optimism levels.  It is based on bad and good events, and whether your child perceives them as permanent or changeable, whether the responsibility is theirs or another, and how pervasive it is in their life.  That was also very cool.  I gave it to my two oldest, and the results were very interesting to me.

There are three chapters of discussions and role playing and assignments to work on with your kids that are modeled after his Penn Prevention program.  While I haven't followed this, I have had some conversations with my kids using these ideas.  One example is reading a dialogue of a boy at a school dance and what he tells himself after he is turned down for a dance.  Then you explain to your kid, "When Greg thinks___, he is explaining his rejection by Cindy with Permanent thoughts.  This causes Greg to feel sad and he decides....." Then of course there are contrasting dialogues that show other possible reactions.  I liked reading through these, and thought they were valuable in explaining and really spelling out what his program is about. 

There is valuable information about depression.  For example, "The depressive's habit of thinking that the future is bleak, the present unbearable, the past filled with defeat, and the self without the ability to improve matters creates the low mood, the lack of zest, and the somatic symptoms of depression." And, "teach the depressive to change her habits of thinking, to decatastrophize, and all the rest of the symptoms would evaporate."

There is a section about the right way to criticize.  This was perfectly logical and helpful to read.  It goes well with the right way to praise that I learned in NurtureShock. "The first rule is accuracy.  Exaggerated blame produces guilt and shame beyond what is necessary to galvanize the child to change....The second rule is that whenever reality allows, you should criticize with an optimistic explanatory style.....When they blame changeable and specific causes of the problem, the child begins to learn optimism.  Any time you find your child to be at fault, it is important to focus on specific and temporary personal causes....and avoid blaming the child's character or ability."  He uses lots of examples to illustrate his points.

At times phrases are repeated and some ideas even seem repetitious, but it didn't get on my nerves like some books.  And given the length of time it took me to get through this, sometimes I even liked the reminders!

I have more good quotes, and I feel like I'm just barely touching on the content of this book.  But I'm going to stop now.

I recommend you read it, then we talk about it!  I found it enlightening, helpful and I am excited to continue implementing it in my life and my childrens' lives.

2 comments: said...

I think that my kids need me to read this book

Kim P. Edwards said...

That sounds like a really valuable book, Kammy! Thanks for the recommendation.