The Parents Guide to Positive Psychology and Child Anxiety

positivepsychAs parents of anxious children, you may already be familiar with various forms of traditional psychology. Your child typically goes to see the therapist, the therapist digs deep to find out what’s wrong, and then your child, therapist and family can work together to fix it.

This is good. But taking psychology one step further may be even better.

That’s where positive psychology kicks in. This relatively new branch of psychology doesn’t necessary seek to “fix” what’s wrong but rather seeks to increase what’s right, or what can improve your overall levels of contentment and quality of life. Psychology Today sums it up quite nicely: 

“Positive psychology is the study of happiness.” 

This “study of happiness” doesn’t necessarily mean you get to spend your entire therapy session swinging on swings and gliding down slides – although that’s always an option if that’s what makes you happy. And you don’t necessarily need to go to a therapist at all to incorporate positive psychology into you and your anxious child’s life.

What It Can Do

Research shows that positive psychology interventions can do some pretty amazing things, such as:

  • Alleviate depression
  • Kick out negative emotion
  • Build resilience that helps combat physical illness
  • Offer relief for anxiety and other mental disorders

What It Is

Psychology Today sums it up sweetly, but the summary is only a piece of the positive psychology puzzle. Positive psychology takes a bigger view on what makes life most worth living and all components that go into making life as worthwhile as possible. It examines your strengths and weaknesses, looking to bolster the strengths and fortify the weaknesses for an overall enhancement of well-being.

As with any science, positive psychology stems from facts, studies and data compiled from empirical evidence. In other words, it isn’t something someone made up on the fly.

What It Is Not

While positive thinking does have its power, positive psychology is not simply an “official” form of it. Positive psychology is based on scientific evidence, whereas positive thinking is based on ideas in your head. Also unlike positive thinking, positive psychology does not demand a positive outlook at all times.

Nor does positive psychology serve as a replacement for traditional psychology. It can instead serve as a supplement, taking you and your anxious child’s quality of life and happiness to a whole new level.

Happiness Myths

Some people may still be put-off by the idea of happiness, perhaps thinking it may not be as “meaningful” as despair or as worthwhile as suffering. Untrue. Happiness is genuine, not just some fleeting thing you and your anxious child just kind of luck into.

Others may erroneously believe that happiness is simply the absence of tragedy. That, too, is incorrect. As Psychology Today writer and former psychology professor Christopher Peterson points out, “We all know the difference between not being depressed and bounding out of bed in the morning with enthusiasm for the day ahead.”

Positive psychology examines that bounding, how it came to be, and then passes along how you and your child may also achieve it.

Other happiness myths include:

Happy people are stupid people. No matter how many times you might chalk up someone as a “grinning fool,” ignorance is not necessarily bliss. And bliss doesn’t necessarily come from ignorance. The most intelligent folks can also be the most content, just as the least intelligent can be the most miserable. But don’t take it from us. Take it from both psychologist Martin Silegman and a report published in Psychological Bulletin:

People who are optimistic or happy are more successful in work, school and sports, are less depressed, have fewer physical health problems, and have better relationships with other people.” 

Most people are unhappy. Sorry, Charlie, but you’re not getting much company for misery. Most people are actually happy, Peterson reports.

People are either born happy or unhappy. Sorry again, Charles. Happiness – and unhappiness – can be learned. Tufts University says about 50 percent of happiness is set in the disposition we’re born with, but 10 percent comes from environment circumstances and a full 40 percent comes from intentional activity.

That intentional activity can be filled with ways of thinking, acting and living that have been shown to increase levels of well-being. That means happiness can be “learned” for anyone willing to give it a whirl.

How to Give it a Whirl 

Incorporating positive psychology into you and your child’s life can be as simple as choosing the proven methods the psychology has discovered make people happier. Tufts University’s Experimental College points out several of these methods, which it calls “Happiness Interventions.”

The Gratitude List. Have your child write down five things every day for which he or she is grateful. Review and discuss the list at the end of the week, reflecting on all the wonderful things in life you have to appreciate.

The Random Act of Kindness. Have your child do one thing each day as an act of kindness for someone else. Keep it up for a week to discover how doing nice things for another makes your child feel nice, too. Since it felt so good, write a list of other acts of kindness you or your child can do for others next week, too.

The Three Good Things List. Similar to the gratitude list, this daily list records three good things that happened that day. Keep it up for a week to help shift thinking about bad things that happened to the good that went down. Get extra credit for noting why a good thing happened.

The Strengths List. One more helpful list is one that outlines your anxious child’s strengths. Pick the top five then have your child use those strengths over the next week to improve his or her own day or to help someone else.

The Savoring. Instead of rushing through you and your child’s usual routine, slow down and try to savor a particularly delightful activity or moment. Practicing mindfulness with your child can increase your awareness of the moment, and you can find greater detail in our Parents Guide to Teaching Mindfulness to Children with Anxiety.

The Relationships. Meaningful relationships play a huge role in overall well-being. Make a point throughout the week to have your child spend quality time with a good friend, special relative or even a brand new friend he or she wants to get to know better.

The Goal Chart. One more way to invite happiness in to you and your child’s life is to set up goals. Create a short-term and long-term goal chart that outlines feasible, achievable goals for your child. The goals don’t need to be difficult or complex, although they certainly can be. Watching any level of achievements pile up can make anyone feel good, contributing greatly to overall happiness.