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Can we psychologically immunize kids from mental illness?

Let’s Raise Problem Solvers

I was recently re-reading Martin Seligman’s great book The Optimistic Child  and was struck (again) by the conversation he had in 1984 with Dr. Jonas Salk, creator of the polio vaccine.

Dr. Sallk said to Dr. Seligman, ‘If I were a young scientist today, I would still do immunization. But instead of immunizing kids physically, I’d do it your way. I’d immunize them psychologically. I’d see if these psychologically immunized kids could then fight off mental illness better. Physical illness, too.’  Wow. Right on, Dr. Salk.

So how do we immunize our kids from mental illness?

The research–and my clinical experience–point clearly in one direction: teach your kids how to problem solve.

When we look at kids that are thriving, we find problem solvers.

When we look at kids that are anxious and/or depressed, we often see patterns of emotional reactivity, difficulty making decisions, and lack of independence.

I’ve noticed something recently, in my practice and in my own family: when we’re rushed, it’s just easier for us to do the problem solving for our kids. When the clock is ticking, we want to just tell them what to do. No messin’ around. No trial and error. You’re good at time management, for example, so take over, bark instructions, keep things going.

Here’s the problem: when you constantly direct your kids, and give them instructions from the outside, they don’t learn to talk to themselves on the inside.

Problem solvers talk to themselves. They assess the situation, and literally talk to themselves about possible solutions. Then they take action. They might consult others, of course, but it’s the INSIDE work that creates an independent kid who can handle what life throws his way.

So think about practicing this one change.

When something needs to be done, instruct your child to think about how he’s going to get there, rather than lay out the steps for him.

Here’s an example of the difference.

Your daughter has to go straight from her haircut after school to swim practice at the pool. You could direct her, “You need to pack your swim bag and put it in the car before school. Make sure you remember your towel. Where are your googles? And you’ll need a snack.”

Thank you, External Experienced Problem Solver! Or…you could go over the schedule with her, and give her a shot at planning on her own.

“I’m picking you up after school, taking you to your haircut, and then straight to swim practice. How about figuring out what you’ll need to do tonight so things work for you tomorrow?”

Will she get it right the first time? Hard to say. But asking her to think ahead and plan trains the part of the brain that Dr. Salk and Dr. Seligman recognized as vital for psychologically “immunized” people.

Problem solving is an immunization all kids need.

Browse my books and videos written for kids and parents to practicing more problem solving skills at home as a family.


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