The Optimistic Child

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					The Optimistic Child                     Martin Seligman

Chapter One: The Promissory Note


Seligman’s learned helplessness theory came from his work with laboratory dogs.
Review the research and relate to human behavior.

Jonah Salk to Seligman: immunize children psychologically to prevent mental
illness. Psychological immunization teaches mastery and optimism

Pessimism: dwelling on the most catastrophic cause of any setback; an entrenched
habit of mind that has sweeping and disastrous consequences: depressed mood,
resignation, underachievement, and poor physical health. The consequence of
pessimism is depression

Chapter Two: From the First Step to the First Date

The first two milestones of personal control: walking and talking

The parents’ role is to provide new opportunities for the child at the age to master
their environment. Consider some of the ways parents can do this with their two-
year old.

Masterful action is the crucible in which preschool optimism is forged.

By school age they think about the world, about success and failure: what can they
do to turn failure into success? This is the underpinning of their optimism or

Ian in competition with older sister: Dad rescues by lying to him: You can do it as
well as she can; by taking over and building for him; and by countering Ian’s own
self-defeating attitude: “I’m a dumbo.” “I never get anything right.” Ian reacts to
the problem that he is faced with by whining, passivity and giving up.

When children experience setbacks, what do they do? Example of Tamara, a heavy
little girl in a ballet class. The message from her mother: failure is temporary and
changeable: “I had a bad day” and “The other girls did it better.” Both are
temporary and changeable. Perseverance rather than defeat, passivity and
About 1/3 of thirteen year olds have marked depressive symptoms, and by the end
of high school 15% have had an episode of major depression. Review case study of
Marla. Identify her “faulty attribution style” in her diary entry.

Chapter Three: Building the Team
Three main theories of why depression happens: insufficient brain chemicals,
psychoanalytic theory of anger directed against the self, and the cognitive theory
that depression is the result of pessimistic, conscious thoughts

Depression goes away in three to six months if left untreated. Explain why it does.

Proposal: to mount a research program in which normal children are taught the
skills of thinking optimistically

Review the work of Aaron Beck, mentor of Seligman at Penn, founder of Cognitive
Therapy for depression in 1980s.

Symptoms of depression: low mood, listless behavior, physical problems,
catastrophic thinking. The latter was the root cause of other symptoms

Penn Princeton Longitudinal Study of Childhood Depression (a five year study with
400 children and their parents) found that ¼ of the children were markedly
depressed at any one time and almost as many experienced a severe depressive
episode at least once in the five years, and those who experienced depression became
more pessimistic afterwards, precipitating further bouts of depression. Depression
came often when parents started fighting with each other. “Divorce, separation,
and parental turmoil are heavy risk factors for the preteenage child.”

Conclusion: children should be taught cognitive skills and social skills to immunize
them against depression and low achievement.

The Penn Prevention Program was born

Chapter Four: The Self-Esteem Movement
Premise: boosting self-esteem by focusing on feelings rather than mastery and
persistence creates children vulnerable to depression.

Effects of focus on building self-esteem in school systems: mainstreaming, no IQ
testing, grade inflation, teaching to the slower kids, discouraging competition,
decreasing of expectations

Note case study with Randy, the clumsy athlete and his cheerleader Dad: good
intentions, poor outcome: “I think you did a real good job out there.” “ I think you
should be proud of yourself.” “I’m sure you’ll make the team next year.” Dad’s
approach deflated Randy’s self-esteem and eroded his own credibility with his son.

Brief History of Self-Esteem

       1. William James: the more success we have and the lower our expectations,
          the higher our self esteem: feeling state + success in the world
       2. Stanley Coopersmith: focus on child’s self-esteem and its necessity in
          child rearing. Conclusion: the clearer the rules and limits for the child,
          the greater the self-esteem
       3. Nathaniel Branden: leader of self-esteem movement. Doing well =
          Feeling good; self-confidence in our coping, our thinking, and our right to
          be happy and entitled to enjoy our efforts.

Feeling Good vs. Doing Well. Which comes first? Mastering challenges, working
successfully, overcoming frustration and boredom, and winning—these are the
behaviors that serve to increase self-esteem

Aristotle: Happiness is not an emotion that can be separated from what we do. It is
a product of right action

Depressed people have four kinds of problems:

       1.   behavioral—passive, indecisive, helpless
       2.   emotional—sad
       3.   somatic—poor appetites, insomnia
       4.   cognitive—they think hopeless, worthless

“Commerce with the world is going badly” = Depression

Which comes first—failure or low self-esteem?

No research that finds that self-esteem causes anything at all. Self-esteem is caused
by doing well, accomplishing something and being productive.

Explanatory Style: the key to understanding the optimist and
the pessimist. When a bad thing happens to a pessimist:

       1. Who is to blame? PERSONAL: “I am to blame.”
       2. How long will it last? PERMANENT: “Forever”
       3. How much of her life will be affected? PERVASIVE:
          “This will affect all aspects of my life.”
The doing well approach: changing the child’s thinking about failure, to encourage
frustration tolerance, and to reward persistence rather than mere success. The
advocates of this approach do these things by changing pessimism into optimism
and by changing helplessness into mastery.

Sense of permanence and pervasiveness undermine success and perseverance,
causes learned helplessness and depression and results in low self-esteem

The self-esteem movement of the last thirty years has been a failure, and Seligman
believes that it is because the focus has been on feeling good, and not doing well.

Chapter Five: The Epidemic of Depression
Depression: the common cold of mental illness. Rates of depression are ten times
higher in the last thirty years than in times before the “feel good” era

Females were 20 times more likely to have suffered bouts of depression than their
male counterparts

Depression is beginning earlier, to more adolescents, with a record of 9% of 12-14
year olds reporting depressive symptoms.

Seligman attributes the increase to social change since the 50s: focus on feel good
rather than high achieving; focus on happiness and self-esteem, individual freedom
and satisfaction, consumerism, recreational drugs, daycare, psychotherapy, sexual
satisfaction and grade inflation, movement away from God, Nation, Family, Duty

Note list on page 41 for other possible explanations.

“The bloated self is fertile soil for the growth of depression.”

Premise: sadness, anger and anxiety are to be avoided, or minimized, in favor of
feeling good and enjoying life

Dysphoria is needed for euphoria. Dysphoria motivates into action and action
promotes change.

Anxiety protects from danger; sadness prepares you for loss; anger alerts you to

Flow: the highest states of positive emotion; it occurs when your skills are used to
their utmost

Life without anxiety, frustration, competition and challenge is a life without flow
Persistence is a result of bad feelings—anxiety, sadness, anger—that serve to
galvanize to either persevere or leave the field. The first is mastery, the second is
learned helplessness

Children need to fail, to feel sad, anxious and angry; they need to encounter

The self-esteem movement has the consequence of producing low self-esteem on a
massive scale.

Chapter Six: The Fundamentals of Optimism

Review the history of pessimism that Seligman offers, from the 1950s reaction to the
blind optimism of the postwar boom to the 60s with their assassinations, Watergate
scandal and the Vietnam debacle.

For some Americans today, pessimism is a theory of reality. Look at the poverty,
racism, violence, unemployment, hunger, and sickness that are an everyday
occurrence for so many.

Pessimists get depressed and anxious more often, achieve less at school, on the job
and on the playing field, and suffer physically.

For children, pessimism can become a lifelong, self-fulfilling template for looking at
setbacks and losses. Seligman’s goal is to change pessimistic outlook into optimism.

Optimism lies in the way one thinks about causes, what Seligman calls
EXPLANATORY STYLE. It has three dimensions:


Change the following permanent statements into more temporary ones:

   1. I will never make friends at this school.
   2. My dad never does what he says he will do.
   3. John will never call me again. I made him so mad.

If you believe a cause is permanent, you project it across time; if you believe it is
pervasive, you project its effect across many different situations in your life.

Change the following pervasive (global) statements into more specific ones:

   1. Teachers are unfair.
   2. I’m a total loser at sports.
   3. Nobody likes me.

Blamers take no responsibility, feel better about themselves, feel less guilt and

Is it your fault? Then take responsibility and use behavioral blame rather than
general self-blame.

Seligman urges two goals for parents: (1) Don’t let your child off the hook for the
things they do wrong, and (2) Teach your child to use behavioral rather than general

Change the following general self-blame statements to more behavioral self-blame

   1.   I failed that test because I’m stupid.
   2.   I got picked last in gym because no one likes me.
   3.   I got grounded because I’m a troublemaker.
   4.   Why are you such a crybaby when I’m gone?
   5.   Why don’t you ever clean your room?
   6.   You kids today are so selfish.
   7.   Look at this room. You are such a slob!

Chapter Seven: Measuring Optimism
Optimism is not a transparent trait such as introversion-extroversion

On a scale of 0 to 100 how optimistic would you judge yourself? ____________

Children’s Attributional Style Questionnaire (CASQ) for 8 to 13 year old children.

Thinking about your own thinking (metacognition) is easier after age 8.

In Seligman’s research he found two clear predictors of a child’s depression: bad
life events and pessimism. Pessimistic children believed that bad events were
permanent, pervasive and personal, while good events were temporary, local and
externally caused. He found that girls are more optimistic than boys until puberty.
Unpopularity is correlated with depression, but a clear cause-and-effect has not
been established.

As we age, depression resides more and more in our head, not in the world.

CES-DC: a measure of all four clusters of symptoms: thinking, mood, behaviors,
The nine criteria for depression using the DSM-IV

       1.   sad mood
       2.   anhedonia
       3.   insomnia
       4.   appetite change
       5.   fatigue
       6.   psychomotor retardation/agitation
       7.   feelings of worthlessness, guilt
       8.   indecisiveness; inability to concentrate
       9.   suicidal ideation

Chapter Eight: Where Optimism Comes From
Twin studies: concordant rates for IQ suggest 50-75% heritability

Personal traits are heritable (25-50%): depression, job satisfaction, religiosity,
liberalism, authoritarianism, exuberance, likelihood of divorce, amount of TV
watching (aggression, lust, need for thrill-seeking, passivity)

Heritability for optimism is about 15-50%. Seligman distinguishes between
heritable and genetic. Optimism may be heritable because of genes for resiliency,
athletic prowess, physical attractiveness, etc.

What is the role of parents? To model explanatory style

Teachers criticize boys and girls differently, often criticizing the lack of ability in
girls, the lack of motivation in boys

No gender differences in optimism and pessimism in adulthood, with the following
exception: men are more optimistic about work, pessimistic about relationships;
women are the reverse

The Hoving Effect: a single, crucial event that shatters the routine of childhood or
adolescent life—such as divorce or death—can markedly alter optimism/pessimism
because the event changes the theories of the child as to who he is and what he is

Brown study: adults whose mothers died before they were eleven are more prone to
depression for the rest of their lives. Death is permanent and pervasive

Other events: physical or sexual abuse, parental turmoil, separation and divorce
Four places that pessimism can originate
      1. genetics
      2. parental pessimism
      3. pessimistic criticism from parents/teachers
      4. mastery and helplessness experiences

Chapter Nine: The Penn Prevention Program

Review the procedures and protocols necessary to go into the school system to do
any kind of therapeutic intervention. How ethical is it to intervene with a group of
students to make them healthier and to use another group as a control group? How
did the researchers deal with this problem? As parents of these children, what
reservations would you have? What questions would you like to ask Seligman about
his project?

Two components of the PPP: the cognitive one and the social problem-solving one

The cognitive component: to teach children to monitor their “automatic thoughts”
and to evaluate their accuracy. Read the story of Hemlock Jones and Sherlock
Holmes that was used to illustrate the point.

The social problem-solving component: to teach children to deal with conflict in
healthier ways, rather than to become the “bully” or the “pushover”

Review the results of the study: Prevention group decreased rates of depression
from 24% to 13%; the control group decreased from 24% to 23%. Two years
followup: only 22% of the experimental group reported moderate to severe
depression; 44% of the control group reported moderate to severe depression. The
children in the prevention groups were half as likely to be depressed. Not only was
depression decreased but children in the experimental group increased their
optimistic perspective when explaining bad events.

Next goal: to teach teachers and parents the skills so they can teach the children.

Chapter Ten: Changing Your Child’s Automatic Pessimism
The skills taught here are the same skills taught to depressed patients by cognitive
therapists. With these skills, depression is treated successfully in 70% of the cases;
with cognitive therapy only half of the patients will relapse into depression when
compared with patients who received antidepressants only.
Four basic skills related to cognitive restructuring

       1.   thought catching
       2.   evaluating the automatic thoughts
       3.   more accurate explanation
       4.   decatastrophizing

of Albert Ellis and Aaron Beck)

Irrational beliefs will lead to (1) self-fulfilling prophecy (bringing about the very
outcome that one wants most to avoid), and (2) confirmation bias (seeing only the
evidence that confirms one’s own self-view and dismissing evidence that refutes it)

Use the following chart to practice the ABC Model:

ADVERSITY                    BELIEFS                       CONSEQUENCES






                                                           Rate the intensity of the
                                                           feeling from 0 to 100.

Teaching your child: introduce the concept of internal dialogue; use cartoons to
teach ABC model. Use matching exercise to teach association of thoughts and
Chapter Eleven: Changing Your Child’s Explanatory Style
Do exercises to recognize the three Ps on pp 163-164

Once the child understands the distinction between optimism and pessimism, teach
them issues of accuracy: take personal responsibility for their part in the problem,
without blaming themselves for things out of their control, and make sure your
optimism is not “empty optimism”, optimism in the absence of evidence, i.e. “Every
day, in every way, I’m getting better and better.”

First teach your child the concept of Permanence—the most crucial dimension of
explanatory style. Use Gloomy Greg and Hopeful Holly skits to reinforce the

Then teach Personalization: does your child blame herself or her behavior? Does
she blame everyone else? Is she internal or external in his attribution of blame?
Use the cartoons to distinguish between the “Because of Me Thoughts” and
“Because of Someone or Something Else Thoughts”

Behavioral Self-Blame is changeable, leads to action to rectify the problem,
forestalls depression and helplessnerss. Use Gloomy Greg, Hopeful Holly and
Angry Adam skits to illustrate the concept.

Characterological Self-Blame promotes depression and pessimism

The final activity: the pie game to combat black and white thinking. Draw a pie
below and slice it into pieces that list possible causes for an adversity that has
occurred in the last week.
Chapter Twelve: Disputing and Decastrophizing
Self-Disputing is a lasting and effective way to challenge the validity of your
unrealistic interpretations. You expose your inaccurate, exaggerated or false

The ABCDE model: adding disputation and energization to the formula

Effective Disputation rests on four pillars:

       1.   What is some evidence that the belief is inaccurate?
       2.   What other explanations can you find to explain this adversity?
       3.   What is the worst possible thing that could happen? How likely it that?
       4.   What is the best thing that could happen? How likely is that?
       5.   What’s the most likely outcome?
       6.   What is my plan of attack for resolving this problem?

Playing the Brain Game: teaching rapid fire disputing to children

Do you have a tendency to catastrophize when adversity comes?

Chapter Thirteen: Boosting Your Child’s Social Skills

Effective Social Skills
            Making new friends
            Comfortable in new situations
            Joining in novel activities
            Maintaining friendships
            Cooperation with others
            Trusting
            Respecting differences
            Handling conflict well
            Acknowledging when they are wrong
            Taking a firm stand when they are right

Problems with friendships bring on depression, which, in turn, bring problems with

Depression affects boys and girls differently. Girls have a tendency to withdraw,
boys to become aggressive.
Automatic thoughts Seligman refers to as “hot thoughts” in this chapter: these fast
and biased thoughts like “People are out to get me.” That lead to impulsive and
aggressive behaviors.

Review the Problem Solving and Social Skills assessment tool found in this chapter.
This will give you an impression of both problem solving skills and social skills of
assertiveness and negotiation.

Seligman provides three rules of thumb for parents whose children have problems:
           Don’t solve your children’s problems for them.
           Don’t be critical of his attempts at solving his own problems.
           Model a flexible problem-solving strategy yourself.

The Five Steps of Problem-Solving
           Slow down and replace “hot thoughts” with “cool thoughts” Play the
             “hot seat” game with the children to practice this skill
           Perspective-Taking is standing in the other person’s shoes
           Set a goal and think of things to do to reach that goal
           Make a decision as to what to do; choose a course of action, using the
             plus-and-minus approach
           Evaluate your actions: how did it go? Not well? Find another solution

Teaching Assertiveness with children may be done by role-playing with skits.
Review the Bully Brenda, Pushover Pete and Say-It-Straight Samantha skits.

Using the I-message, in a slightly different form: Describe the situation, Identify
your feelings, Say what behavior you would like changed, Tell how you would feel if
that happened.

Teaching Negotiation with children involved identify and acting on five steps:
          Figure out what you want
          Ask for it
          Listen to what the other person wants
          Look for a compromise and offer a solution
          Continue to find a compromise that makes both happy

Part Five of the text includes two brief chapters. The major points of the chapters I
will leave for you to discover.