Tackling anxiety and depression by teaching optimism

Levels of anxiety and depression among children and adolescents are rising. Pressures from school, peers and social media can become quickly overwhelming. One of the best ways to support children and adolescents to be resilient to these pressures is by teaching them the coping strategies to deal with them.

A common factor in both anxiety and depression is what psychologists call ‘a negative explanatory style’. This is essentially the story we tell ourselves to explain any event we experience. People with a negative explanatory style tend to own failure and attribute success to luck. The more negative the explanation we give ourselves the more likely we are to be suffering from anxiety or depression.

Children and teenagers tend to have very ‘black or white’ thinking. This is totally normal due to their stage of brain development. However, if we are not mindful of the stories they are telling themselves about themselves this can become an issue, especially as negativity feeds negativity.

Luckily positivity feeds positivity too, and it is by using this we can support our kids to develop more healthy and realistic explanatory styles. Essentially we can teach our kids strategies to challenge their thinking, train them to gain some perspective and essentially ‘learn optimism’. One way of doing this is through teaching them the 3P’s (Seligman).

The 3 P’s stand for Pervasiveness, Permanence and Personalisation.

  • Pervasiveness looks at how much of your life a concern impacts – How big?
  • Permanence looks at how long an issue is going to be of concern – How long?
  • Personalisation looks at how much you feel you are to blame – How much?

In terms of the 3Ps a negative explanatory style would like something like this:- “It is a massive issue that will affect my life for ever and it is all my fault” (you might recognise this from something you might hear your child say!).

Imagine your child comes home and has had a falling out with their school friends. The negative explanation is “that it has ruined their whole social life, they are never going to have friends again and it is because they are unlikeable”.

By using the three 3P’s we can help them to reality check their thinking. Although they have fallen out with their school friends they may still have other friendships elsewhere (pervasiveness). By identifying previous times of successful conflict resolution it makes the likelihood of them making friends again seem more possible (permanance), and by helping them to understand what went wrong and what action they might take gives back a sense of control (personalisation).

By teaching a child to look at each issue and use the 3Ps, you are able to support them to develop a more realistic explanation. Using the 3Ps to challenge their thinking (by scoring each P out of 10) gives them both a clear perspective and also a solid view of where best to take action if required.

With practice over time this strategy allows a more rational explanatory style to develop. By using the 3P’s you learn how to be more optimistic in your outlook. The more optimistic you are in your outlook, the less likely you are to feel overwhelmed, anxious or depressed.

Try it for yourself and let me know how you get on – it works!

Disclaimer -If you are concerned about your child’s mental health, get support. You can talk to the school, talk to your GP and if necessary talk to a psychologist or other mental health professional to get the help that they need in a timely manner.

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