Coaching Optimism To The Pessimistic Child



Any advice for the child who sees the world as half empty?


Parents can attest to the fact that some children see the world through an optimistic lens while others from a pessimistic outlook. To the former, life’s challenges are viewed as opportunities to stretch one self and defeats are taken in stride, easily assimilated and placed in perspective. The pessimist prevents disappointment by restricting experiences or not putting maximum effort into goals due to a belief that things won’t work out. Parents are stymied by this child’s gloominess despite attempts to point out the positives in life.

If your child sees their world as half-empty read on for ways to coach optimism:

Educate yourself about the psychological process of interpretation error whereby a prevailing thinking bias distorts the perception of ambiguity. Think of it as somber subtitles that appear in one’s field of vision each time an event has an uncertain outcome.  Imagine statements such as “I won’t have a good time” or “I may as well not bother trying” sucking the enthusiasm out of life, along with the capacity to push oneself to the limit. Now imagine that your child is bombarded by such harmful thinking a lot more than they verbalize. Pessimism can be likened to a hovering cloud of doubt that rains on our children’s spirits and provides a false sense of familiar safety.

Understand that the development of optimistic thinking involves a broad range of experiential and internal factors. A child’s accomplishments and successes within the academic, social, activity, and interests spheres of life are not enough to chase the cloud away. The older child must accept they hold a pessimistic bias, identify it when it erupts into their thinking, and practice disrupting it with a different train of thought. Don’t expect them to replace it with rosy optimism but if they can arrive at a neutral mid-point in their thinking this is a good start. For instance, “I won’t know unless I try,” rather than “This is going to be terrible.”

Practice “optimistic evaluation” of future and past circumstances as life presents the family with uncertainty and adversity. Although disappointments and trying situations are inevitable they need not be used as evidence for the validity of pessimism. Point out how often one can see the ripples of good fortune that began with an undesirable outcome. For instance, the tickets were sold out for the must-see movie but as a result the family unexpectedly bumped into old friends at the restaurant and your child renewed one of their favorite friend connections. Similarly, parents need to monitor their own pessimism since these character traits can be handed down.

Gently educate and encourage your pessimistic child when you hear the familiar refrain of their cloudy outlook. Ask them, “Can you rewrite those words in your mind?”  as if you are editing one of their school papers. Point out how important positive thinking is for their future goals since it impacts upon confidence and competence and thereby the many doors of opportunity that await them in life. Consider the possibility that anxiety may be lurking under the surface of their pessimism since it often serves as fuel for this type of thinking. If so, address the anxiety with appropriate strategies.


Dr. Steven Richfield is an author and clinical psychologist in Plymouth Meeting, PA Contact him at 610-238-4450 or