We can't be happy all the time but, writes Dr Richard Woolfson, a child who has a low self-worth will need help to overcome pessimism
Some pre-school children are very optimistic - these are the ones who always see the bright side of life no matter what the circumstances, like the four-year-old who, when told that the trip to the park was cancelled due to the bad weather, said that she was happy because the cancellation gave her a chance to play with new toys.
However, some children are extremely pessimistic, and they expect things to go wrong - when something unpleasant occurs, they accept it without challenge. Life is considerably more enjoyable for the optimist.
Reasons for vulnerability
A child's optimism is easily dented, however. Even though she usually has a cheery outlook on life, one small crisis can send her plummeting into a state of gloom. Something as simple as not finding the right colour of crayon can cause her to feel despair.
The most common reasons why a pre-schooler's optimism is vulnerable are:
When a child of this age has low feelings of self-worth and doesn't put much value on herself or on anything she does, then optimism is very elusive. She expects the worse to happen because she thinks that's what she deserves, and therefore isn't surprised when things do go wrong.
Lack of self-confidence
The stronger a child's self-confidence, then the stronger is her optimism. If she feels confident about her abilities, small upsets won't trouble her much - and if they do, she gets over them quickly. Lack of confidence drives optimism away.
Trouble at home
Every child benefits from a happy home, and most of the knocks in childhood are tolerable if there are no parental arguments at home. Research shows that in families where the parents have frequent rows, the children involved are usually more susceptible to emotional upsets.
Happiness breeds optimism, while sadness breeds pessimism. In other words, a child who is generally happy with her life will enjoy all the activities in nursery, whereas a child who is generally sad has difficulty lifting her spirits because that's what she is used to.
Friendships matter during these early years. Having at least one good friend means that a child has someone her own age to talk to when a problem occurs - and that friend is likely to be able to cheer her up. Weak friendships means that she has to weather these storms on her own and that's not easy.
Optimist or pessimist?
To find out if a child you work with is an optimist or a pessimist, ask yourself the following questions:
- Does she cry easily when things don't go according to plan?
- Do you find that when she tries to learn a new skill she gives up quickly?
- Do any changes in the nursery routine result in her becoming upset?
- When she has had an argument with her friend, does she take a long time to cheer up?
- Do the other children comment that she moans all the time?
- When playing with a new game, does she give up without really trying?
- Is she easily put off by a negative remark from another child or adult?
If your answer is 'yes' to most of these questions, then it is highly likely that she is a pessimist - and if the answer is 'no' to most, then she is probably more of an optimist.
An optimistic child has so much more fun. She enjoys her activities each day, looking forward to everything with enthusiasm. And she is also able to withstand life's little knocks more robustly than the pessimist. That's why you should spend time encouraging children to have a bright outlook, to have a positive view of the world around them, and to enjoy everything they do.
Preparing for the knocks
The best way to encourage optimism is by keeping a child's self-confidence at a high level. This isn't an absolute guarantee that she'll be able to weather the storms and stresses in her young life, but it does increase her chances of doing so. Emphasise her strong points, her talents and her abilities, to boost her self-confidence.
Try to develop her sense of humour, if possible. Humour is part of optimism, anyway, and if a child learns to laugh at herself and her catastrophes occasionally, she'll be more resistant to knocks and disappointments. Most depressing situations have their funny side, and it's good for her to chuckle her way into a good mood.
Remind her that every child has ups and downs in life, that nobody is able to avoid upsets all the time. The brightest pre-schooler in her group will have times when she makes mistakes, and the most popular child will have moments of loneliness. It may help a child to be reassured that she isn't the only one her age to feel gloomy at times. NW