Building rainbows in children’s minds
Exalted as one of the three most important virtues of Christianity, and a powerful force enabling us to battle the inevitable obstacles of life, hope is a less-examined, vital ingredient for a happy, healthy childhood and adult life.
COVID. Lockdowns. Climate change. Economic depression. Widening inequality. It can feel like there’s not much for our children to look forward to. There are also more ways than ever to be plugged into the dystopian gloom and doom. On an individual level, children also have their own personal struggles to contend with — from bullying, abuse and school and family issues to learning and other disabilities. Sure, some things have improved — healthcare and educational opportunities, for instance — however, this doesn’t minimise the very real problems many are experiencing.
Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, children’s depression and anxiety levels may have doubled, speculate the authors of a literature review published in JAMA Pediatrics. One in four children globally now suffers from depression and one in five from anxiety. The researchers hypothesise social isolation from peers, missed milestones, lack of routines and family financial stress are to blame.
The power of hope
A metaphorical sword and shield, hope helps us battle the problems of life. While sparse on the topic, research links hope in children to better academic achievement, social competency, resilience to adversity, problem-solving abilities and a greater chance of healing from severe health issues like cancer. It can even mitigate the negative impacts of disadvantage or discrimination. Hope helps children create who they want to be and is an important predictor of adult wellbeing and success.
High levels of hope generally are associated with more energy, a sense of self-efficacy and greater wellbeing. In his mental health book, Lost Connections, Johann Hari names the ability to envision a hopeful future one of several vital keys to emotional wellbeing. Hope is critical in therapy, healing from health problems, athletic and academic performance, losing weight, recovery from trauma and abuse, overcoming depression, anxiety and disadvantage and triumphing over disability and adversity.
How hope deficiency impacts us
The opposite of hope is hopelessness. In Everything is F*cked: A Book About Hope, Mark Manson describes this as “a cold and bleak nihilism, a sense that there is no point.” According to Manson, hopelessness lies at the heart of all misery. “Chronic anxiety is a crisis of hope. It is the fear of a failed future. Depression is a crisis of hope. It is the belief in a meaningless future,” he writes.
Hope, he notes, is the basis of virtually everything we do in the world. “All meaning, everything we understand about ourselves and the world, is constructed for the purpose of maintaining hope,” he writes. “Without it, we believe we are nothing.”
The lack of hope in our children isn’t always apparent. Signs and symptoms, according to hope psychologist Charles Snyder, include a tendency to give up easily on things or become easily stressed, low or few goals, poor confidence, anxiety and depression.
In the extreme end, hopelessness can literally kill. Lost hope is at the core of suicidality, according to Mark Goulston, co-creator of the documentary, Stay Alive: An Intimate Conversation about Suicide Prevention and a psychiatrist specialising in suicide prevention in youth.
Hope is vital to the human spirit. What exactly is this magical talisman?
The mechanics of hope
Despite its importance, hope has been subject to relatively little research. Snyder remains its leading theorist, researcher and champion. He described hope eloquently as a “rainbow of the mind”: “It lifts our spirits and makes us think of what is possible.”
Most of us think we have a good grasp of what hope is. Yet it’s still prone to misunderstanding — confused with wishing, wishful thinking and wanting (its more passive but also future-oriented cousins), as well as optimism. This last is a more generalised positive expectation of the future, whereas hope is more specific to a particular goal and more realistic too. It can coexist with despair: it’s not an either/or situation; it’s the candle in the darkness, not the eternally sunny sky.
Most view hope as a positive emotion. But hope is also a thought process and behaviour motivator. Hope, according to Snyder’s definition, is the perception that we can find and use pathways to reach a desired goal in the future. It’s intrinsically linked to a goal within reality (such as riding a bike), a step-by-step mental pathway there, plus motivation. Hope’s feel-good factor, he argues, is the emotional “response” we gain to the perception we can achieve our goal. If you want more hope, get working on those goals!
In The Book of Hope: A Survival Guide for an Endangered Planet, conservationist Jane Goodall explains that genuine hope is deeply entwined with action. “It is what we desire to happen, but we must be prepared to work hard to make it so,” she writes. Sometimes, hope is bereft of action. Those locked in prison can’t get out, for instance, but they can still have hope they might eventually, Goodall says.
Goodall views hope as a highly powerful adaptive survival trait critical to our species, enabling us to keep going in the face of adversity. Significantly, it’s the process by which humans create the future.
Fortunately, a little bit of hope goes a long way. By nature, hope is circular and self-perpetuating, generating action, which in turn generates more hope.
According to Snyder, “false hope” occurs when we have a goal and motivation but no plan to get there. Or alternatively, when we set unrealistic, unachievable goals. Either can be counterproductive.
Having said that, unrealistic hopes are better than low ones. Research shows high hopers and dreamers tend to experience a greater sense of wellbeing, vigour, success and achievement than those with low hopes. And when our illusions are shattered, we naturally tend to moderate our expectations anyway, Snyder says.
How parents can help
As parents, we can feel powerless in the face of the world’s problems; however, hope can exist in the worst possible circumstances. Holocaust survivor, writer and psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, for example, managed to find hope while incarcerated in Nazi concentration camps.
Hopeful thinking develops in children when they encounter obstacles and use strategies to overcome them. Rather than innate, hope is learned. Support is central to the process, and parents play a critical role. Snyder’s research found the most hopeful children have high-hoping parents and secure relationships and received a lot of mentoring from caregivers, including neighbours, teachers, aunts and uncles. Conversely, low hope in children is associated with child abuse, neglect and loss of a parent. Other factors include poor parental modelling and overwhelming adversity or barriers to goals such as learning disabilities and social anxiety.
Parents can help cultivate hope by being an active, supportive participant in their children’s dreams, endeavours, exams and events and with encouraging, affirmative language. Always show and tell them that you believe in them. The most basic hope lesson you can provide is teaching them that no matter what happens in life, you care and will give your time. Also, consider yourself a role model for the kind of goal-directed hopefulness you want to inspire in your child.
Hold space for despairing feelings
An equally vital part of helping our children with hope is listening to their pain. Dr Mark Goulston, the author of Just Listen: Discover the Secret to Getting Through to Absolutely Anyone, says, “It’s often less important what you tell your children than what you enable them to tell so that they feel less alone at their darkest moments. The less alone your children feel during their most painful moments, the more hope they will feel that they can make it through them.”
To begin a conversation, he recommends raising the topic in the midst of an activity like driving. Let them know that many parents have been worried about how the past couple of years have affected their children and their emotional and mental health. Request permission to ask them a few things. Goulston suggests the following four prompts.
- “At its most upsetting, how awful are you capable of feeling about your life or yourself?”
- “When you’re feeling that, how alone do you often feel?”
- “Take me to the last instance when you felt that way.” Pull out of them the clearest description of it, because when you can see what they’re saying with your own eyes, they re-feel it, but this time they’re not alone. After they finish, tell them how sorry you are that they went through that.
- “I have a request and favour to ask you. The next time you feel that or are even heading towards feeling that, I want you to do whatever it takes to get my undivided attention because our minds are often very busy, and there is nothing more important than wanting to help you feel less alone when you’re feeling that awful.”
Teach the hope recipe
Snyder found the most hopeful people have a clearer vision of their goals and a more explicit mental map of how they’ll get there. When blocked, they tend to look for an alternative route to their goal. In fact, obstacles are an important element in the development of hope. Where something is certain, hope cannot exist.
In Teaching the Hope Recipe: Setting Goals, Finding Pathways to Those Goals and Getting Motivated, Snyder suggests helping your child conceptualise a goal for the future. This goal needs to be clear and singular. The vaguer the goal is, the more chance it will be doomed to failure — which can dampen hope. A good goal matches your child with their strengths, talents and desires and is something your child chooses and wants, not you. Ideally, their goal should stretch them a little: succeeding at something that isn’t a definite conclusion is key to developing hope.
Second, help your child to think about how to reach their goal. Get them to break it into sub-steps. Encourage them to talk about every part of their plan and avoid overly focusing on the outcome. Don’t do the planning for them but offer help in addressing any learning gaps.
Third, call upon their motivation to follow the plan.
The link between a supportive community and hope
To build and maintain hope, Manson says we need a sense of control, community and a belief in the value of something. We need community to matter, for our values and actions to have an impact and be worth pursuing, he explains.
Research shows that support from peers can be protective against hopelessness. The school environment can also promote hope by providing an avenue toward goal attainment.
The flip side of social connection: the wrong kind can discourage or even crush hope. Help your child build positive relationships and avoid negative social media. Interestingly, high hopers, including high-hoping children, tend to create empathetic goals and strategies for others, Snyder tells us. Like light breaking through the darkness, hope has a ripple effect, spreading its beautiful rainbows from person to person.
Tips for parents
Based on Snyder’s hope theory
- Use hopeful language in your daily conversations, like “You can”, “You’ve got what this takes”, “You’re ready for this”.
- Avoid blaming, lecturing or minimising statements
- Reframe problems as a normal but surmountable part of life, and failures as challenges and a chance to improve strategy rather than a lack of personal talent
- Help your child think up ideas for getting past problems. Avoid the temptation to try to solve their problems.
- Ask questions that foster their own thinking.
- Encourage your kids to recall instances where they managed to turn things around.
- Relate the stories of others who overcame adversity.
- Invite your child to imagine themselves as a hero in a story laden with challenges.
- Chart and applaud their sub-steps and any improvements along the way. A sense of self-competence is key to building hope.
- Offer praise, especially when they show determination.
- Help them focus on their strengths.
- Don’t overload your child with too many goals or extremely hard ones. Allow time for rest.
- Encourage their sense of control by accentuating the fact they are the ones who made something happen.
- Use whatever tools help, including mind maps, journaling, tutors, life coaches, mentors and counsellors.