Positive thinking: How to foster in your child

What is positive thinking?

Positive thinking is a mental attitude that perceives situations in a constructive way. It does not mean ignoring the negative. Rather, a positive thinker acknowledges a situation and looks at it productively. 

Positive thinking is most effective when a person encounters neutral life events, such as starting a new job, meeting a new teacher, or beginning the first day of school. In these more ambiguous encounters, our perspective carries the most weight.

Can children grasp the concept of positive thinking?

Yes. Positive thinking is an innate capacity partly due to cognitive changes during middle childhood. In early childhood we are given simple, binary instructions on how emotions work, such as, “If I go to a birthday party, I’m going to be happy. If I’m going to get a needle, I’m going to be sad.” After the age of five, these guidelines become more complex and continue throughout middle childhood. The instructions now carry information on how the mind relates to emotion. As a result, children start understanding that a person's mind is separate from reality, so a person’s thoughts can influence how they feel.

5-year olds can connect thought with emotion

Dr Christi Bamford, developmental psychologist and assistant professor at Jacksonville University, did a study involving 90 children from five to 10 years old. She asked each child to listen to six illustrated scenarios, which featured two characters. The characters jointly experience the same positive event (and feel good), negative event (and feel bad), or ambiguous event (and feel okay). Afterward, one character thinks a positive thought, while the other thinks a negative thought. For instance, in one ambiguous scenario, the characters are about to meet a new teacher. One character thinks negatively, “She’s going to be mean and give us lots of homework,” while the other thinks positively, “She’s going to be fun and read us stories.”

After explaining the character’s reaction, the researchers asked the child what they thought and recorded their responses. The study showed children as young as five can understand the principles of positive-thinking: a positive thought makes you feel better and a negative thought makes you feel worse. What’s more, children are better at understanding the power of positive thinking in situations that were ambiguous.

Children get better at positive thinking as they age

Children a few years older are even better at applying positive thinking. Many studies show seven and eight year olds use distraction to help cope with anxiety. When asked how they deal with the fear of receiving a needle from the doctor, they suggest thinking of a happy time, such as eating ice cream. In contrast, younger kids tend to suggest more tangible distractions, such as playing with a toy.

Positive thinkers are more resilient

When it is nurtured, positive thinking is a powerful coping tool and helps foster resilience. A child learns to better manage life’s inevitable disappointments: not making a sports team, rejection from a university program, or failing a test. Studies show older children trained to think optimistically are less likely to develop depression later in life. Consequently, a positive-thinking child becomes a more resilient one.

How can parents foster positive thinking?

Be a model

The more optimistic a parent, the better a child understands the principles of positive thinking. Interpret things in your own life positively. Express it openly and in conversation with your child. For example, before the first day of class, ask, “Tomorrow is your first day of school. What are all the good things you are looking forward to?” If your child feels anxious, help her reframe her thoughts: “If you feel worried about starting a new school year, it is just going to make you feel worse. Why don’t we think about the positive things that can happen today at school?” The earlier a child learns to apply this technique, the more effective they become at using it.

Acknowledge when something bad happens

Positive thinking does not mean dismissing the negative. If your child is recovering from a broken arm, for instance, acknowledge the pain: “It hurts and I understand it makes you feel upset.” Then demonstrate how you can reframe the negative situation by saying, “If we dwell on the fact your arm hurts, it is going to make us miserable. Why don’t we think of all the cool things we can do with the cast?” This reframing technique helps foster resilience in a child.

Key points

  • Positive thinking is a mental attitude that perceives situations in a constructive way.
  • Children as young as five are able to grasp the principles of positive thinking.
  • Children get better at understanding positive thinking as they get older.
  • When it is nurtured, positive thinking is a powerful coping tool and helps builds resilience in a child.
  • Parents can encourage positive thinking by modelling it in their own life.
  • Always acknowledge a negative situation or feeling. Then help your child see it in a way that is positive and productive.


Nira Datta, @NiraDatta

Medical Writer/Editor