I’ll admit that I have generally thought of hope as an emotional state: an optimistic feeling of possibilities unfolding. So I was a bit surprised to learn that psychologists view hope as a skill that adults can teach to children. In fact, they say that fostering hopefulness leads to higher self-esteem and the ability to bounce back faster from adversity. It even helps children set and achieve goals. It seems that hope is much more than a feeling. It is a building block for a strong and resilient spiritual identity.
So how do we help our children cultivate hope? Pediatrician David Schonfeld says one key action is to avoid pretending that crises and difficult experiences aren’t a big deal. Encourage children to talk about issues and situations that cause anxiety. Affirm their feelings, even if the source of their anxiety seems minor compared to other potential stressors. Help them identify the one or two things that most worry them and look for ways to manage those things together.
Parents and caregivers can also share stories of people who have found ways to overcome adversity or failures. Such stories provide an example for children to follow. Look for books that reflect your family’s social identity and your child’s gender identification, as children relate best to examples that mirror their own background.
Denise Larsen, who researches hope, says that asking children about their hopes is another way to build hoping skills. Invite your child to complete the sentence, “Today, I hope…” as your family gets dressed or eats breakfast in the morning. Or ask your child periodically to reflect on times in the past when they have overcome obstacles to succeed at something they hoped to do.
Tying hope to specific goals also makes a difference. Help children break down what they hope for into manageable pieces and think about how to achieve each part. If they hope to fight climate change, help them think about different actions they can take that will reduce their carbon footprint. Then support them as they put their hope-driven goals into practice.
Finally, offer children opportunities to be in control of some aspects of family life. When children feel powerless, they are less likely to express hope and work toward hope-inspired goals. So invite children to pick the menu for one meal a week and challenge them to find ways to make that meal healthy and fun. Give them the opportunity to decide where your family’s monthly charitable donation will go. These responsibilities encourage them to see themselves as capable of making a difference, which fuels hope.
Supportive adults are the biggest factor in whether children learn how to be hopeful. While it is normal for feelings of hope to wax and wane, the skill of hoping is a tool families can use even when they aren’t feeling emotionally upbeat. Share your own attempts to practice hope when feeling hopeless would seem easier. That way, children will know that you understand their struggles and will be there with them as they learn.