A new study suggests children understand that positive thinking can help an individual feel better.
Such a finding could power parents to model optimism and show to their children how this behavior can improve emotions.
In the study, researchers looked at 90 mostly white children ages 5 to 10. The children listened to six illustrated stories in which two characters feel the same emotion after experiencing something positive (getting a new puppy), negative (spilling milk), or ambiguous (meeting a new teacher).
Following each experience, one character has a separate optimistic thought, framing the event in a positive light, and the other has a separate pessimistic thought, putting the event in a negative light. Investigators described the thoughts verbally, then asked the children to judge each character’s emotions and provide an explanation for those emotions.
Children as young as five predicted that people would feel better after thinking positive thoughts (than they would after thinking negative thoughts).
Moreover, the children showed the strongest insight about the influence of positive versus negative thoughts on emotions in ambiguous situations. And there was significant development in the children’s understanding about the emotion-feeling link as they grew older.
The study also found that children (like adults) have difficulty understanding how positive thinking could boost someone’s spirits in situations that involved negative events—such as falling down and getting hurt.
In these coping situations, children’s levels of hope and optimism played a role in their ability to understand the power of positive thinking, but parents’ views on the topic played an even larger part.
“The strongest predictor of children’s knowledge about the benefits of positive thinking—besides age—was not the child’s own level of hope and optimism, but their parents’,” said study leader Christi Bamford, Ph.D.
The results point to parents’ role in helping children learn how to use positive thinking to feel better when things get tough, Bamford notes.
“In short, parents should consider modeling how to look on the bright side,” she said.
The study appears in the journal Child Development.