Glass half full: increasing boys’ sense of hope
Recently, at a professional learning seminar, one of my colleagues (a psychologist) spoke about how important it is to increase our students’ sense of hope. She noted that, sadly, hope goes into freefall as kids move up into high school. Dr Arne Rubinstein, an expert in adolescent development, agrees. His own research shows that boys’ sense of satisfaction (which is strongly linked to hope), plummets at age 12 to 13, bottoming out at age 16.
My colleague’s words struck a chord with me: as a teacher of teenage boys and a parent of sons, are my boys hopeful? Do they look forward to the future?
Firstly, let’s look at why boys need hope.
Basically, it’s because without it they’ll stop trying. And, as any parent or teacher will tell you, seeing a child give up is one of the hardest things to witness.
So what can we do to help our boys hold on to hope?
A wealth of research has identified optimism as an underlying foundation of hope.
In his book The Optimistic Child, Dr Martin Seligman (who is considered to be the founder of positive psychology) offers families and schools practical advice on combating depression and self-esteem issues in children by increasing their optimism and hope.
Seligman’s work shows that children who know how to think optimistically (and therefore have a greater level of hope) are:
- more resilient
- perform at a higher level at school.
So, what can we do then to help increase our boys’ sense of optimism about the future?
- Encourage him to listen to his internal dialogue
Younger children tend to externalise their thoughts; toddlers can often be heard talking to themselves, stream-of-consciousness style, when they think they’re alone. As children get older, this external dialogue becomes internalised. Some children are aware of the voice in their head that talks to them when bad things happen, but others are not.
According to Seligman, the key is to assure our children that ‘talking to yourself’ is normal. And that everybody does it (even adults).
The next time when something bad happens, ask your son what thoughts were running through his head at the time, and then help him change his thinking.
- Help him change his thinking
Helping our boys be aware of the way they think helps them not fear stressors (adversity). Examples of adversity include a friendship breakdown or poor marks at school. An effective way to do this is to get him to:
- Consider the evidence – what are the facts? Help your son be honest about why the stressor might have occurred. Did he treat a friend poorly? Did he ‘forget’ to do his homework?
- De-catastrophise. Planning for or expecting the worst is unhelpful. We can help our boys by asking them what they can do to improve a situation that is (really) temporary. Can he apologise to his friend and make amends? Or can he start completing his homework?
Seligman is careful to point out that “optimism will not make the problems disappear. On the contrary, it allows your child to get to the root of the problem so that they can focus on correcting the situation.”
- Enable him to link his thoughts to emotions
Another important strategy for helping increase optimism and hope is to help children link their thoughts to feelings. This will help them identify any problematic thinking they might have.
A great strategy from Seligman is to get your son to consider a hypothetical adverse situation and then link 3 thoughts to 3 emotions.
For example, the situation is I’ve fallen out with my best mate.
Three possible thoughts could be:
- Now I’ve lost my best mate and have no friends.
- My best mate said those mean things to me on purpose.
- We’ll work it out and be mates again.
Now get your son to link each of those thoughts to one of these emotions:
By encouraging your son to link his thoughts to emotions you can help him identify a pattern, and hopefully increase his ability to think more optimistic thoughts, such as we’ll work it out and be mates again, which in turn lead to more positive emotions, and greater resilience and confidence.
- Be an optimism role model
Researchers at the University of South Carolina in partnership with the Capital Normal University in Beijing found that a social network (as opposed to a social media network) is one of the main contributors to hope and optimism in teenagers.
This is great news for us parents and teachers – it means that by fostering positive relationships, we can play an active role in increasing our son’s/student’s sense of optimism for the future.
Part of building that positive relationship is being a strong role model. If your son sees you face adversity with a realistic yet optimistic outlook; if he’s aware that you look towards the future with hope, he will be more likely to model similar behaviour.
We all want our boys to think and perceive the world with a sense of hope. We want them to grow up feeling they can have a positive impact on their community. After all, without hope, how can any boy believe he can make a real difference?
By helping your boy be more optimistic, even in the face of adversity, we can help him look forward with hope and see the bright future we know awaits him.Meg Adem is a science and psychology teacher, writer and athletics coach at Brighton Grammar, an all-boys school in Melbourne. This article is about Wellbeing
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