The optimistic child – keys to resilience training

by Martin E.P.Seligman, Ph.D.,
With Karen Reivich, M.A., Lisa Jaycox Ph.D. and Jane
, Ph.D.

A Review by Peta Dale
B.B.Sc. (Hons.); Dip.Psychotherapy

As with immunisation against physical disease, there is an understanding that the disease of depression can be prevented through encouraging a sense of optimism and personal mastery.
  • Review of Martin Seligman’s theory of psychological immunisation
    Self-esteem as a by-product of action
    Optimistic thinking
    Ways of handling failure
    Resilient Kids Book – top skills for 8-12 yo


Seligman presents the idea of childhood “psychological immunisation” against depression. As with immunisation against physical disease, there is an understanding that the dis-ease of depression can be prevented through encouraging a sense of optimism and personal mastery. Based on the results of the Penn Prevention Program and his study of Learned Helplessness, Seligman brings in the theory of Erickson’s stages of development and Aaron Beck’s Cognitive Therapy into a well-formulated program.

A new emphasis in Self-Esteem

In straining to quickly achieve self-esteem in children, Seligman believes that there has been an emphasis on “…how the child feels at the expense of what the child does – mastery, persistence, overcoming frustration and boredom, and meeting challenge” (p.27). This has left children without confirmation in the real world. The possible inconsistency between what the child is told and what is experienced about the self, can lead to confusion and mistrust.

Such affirmations of self-worth are empty without concurrent success in the world. “The feeling of self-esteem is a by-product of doing well” (p.33). It cannot be separated from action.

Seligman writes that we have also been misled in believing that feeling good about ourselves can come about through trying to avoid “bad” feelings. In fact, this avoidance can itself lead to depression. Feeling anger, sadness and anxiety can be useful as indicators to the need for change and as a driving force towards mastery and action. It is necessary to fail, feel bad and to try again repeatedly until success occurs. When we impulsively protect our children from failure, we deprive them of learning mastery skills.

Optimistic Thinking

Mastery skills involve the way the child thinks, particularly when he or she has failed. The child questions “Why did I fail?” or “Why did I succeed?” The basis of optimism is in the way that the child thinks about causes: the Permanence of bad events, the Pervasiveness of bad events and who and what is at fault, the Personalisation of the events.

Explanatory style

It takes time to make a new best friend when you move to a new school (temporary) No one will ever want to be friends with me at this school. (permanent)
I’m no good at kicking a football.(specific)

I’m smart. (global)

I’m hopeless at sports. (global)

I’m smart only at maths. (specific)

I got grounded because I hit my sister. (specific) I got grounded because I’m a bad kid. (general)

The child who thinks in a pessimistic way tends to use terms like “always” and “never”, seeing bad events as permanent. Optimistic thinking involves using “sometimes” or “lately” to explain a bad event. When considering the pervasiveness of bad events, pessimistic thinking is global, encompassing many situations, while optimistic thinking is specific. Seligman suggests that there is a need for the child to take realistic responsibility and consider behaviour rather than general self-blame.

The pessimistic explanations of failure undermine trying and produce hopelessness while optimistic explanations are the basis of seeing failures as challenges with associated activity and hope.

There are many exercises presented for changing the child’s explanatory style, developing skills for disputing unrealistic interpretations and for boosting social skills and problem-solving skills. These rules of thumb are given for caregivers:

  • Don’t solve every problem for your child
  • Don’t be overly critical of the child’s attempts to problem-solve
  • Model a flexible problem solving strategy yourself

Parents and teachers are given The Five Steps to Problem-Solving:

  • Slow down
  • Perspective taking – put yourself in other’s shoes
  • Goal setting
  • Choosing a path or course of action. Compare pros and cons
  • If it doesn’t work try another plan.

“Parents, teachers and coaches are enormously influential in modelling social skills, problem-solving skills and imposing their explanatory style on children” (p.108). This means that awareness of one’s own explanatory style is essential for imparting optimism.

Seligman brings relief and hope in his book, The Optimistic Child: relief that there may be an explanation for the current sweep of adolescent depression and hope that something can be done. The message instills the very thing Seligman is showing us how to reach – a sense of optimism

Resilient Kids Book – top skills for 8 – 12 yo




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