Why positive psychology will help our children thrive

By Lamis Solaim PhD, CPsychol, AFBPsS
Dr Solaim is a child psychologist and part-time lecturer at Harvard Medical School

Earlier this week, I was sitting with my daughter Haya at the kitchen counter when she asked me, “mama, did you have an exciting day?”. I noticed that it had been a while since we used the word “exciting” and it has certainly taken on a different meaning over the past year! Well, my answer was that I was “excited” to have discovered a really good fishmonger not too far from us, and that it was “exciting” to see the variety of freshly caught, wild fish, they had. I was also “excited” to let her know that we would be having a delicious red snapper for dinner. To my excitement, Haya got excited, and it might be worth mentioning here that she is a teenager (not usually excited by red snapper, or any fish, for that matter).

The point is, one can say, I must lead a rather dull life to get excited about a fish, or one can say that I have developed a new appreciation of the ordinary. Do you remember the ordinary? When hugging was the way you greeted loved ones? When dining at a restaurant, and sharing plates was nothing to think of? When travel was a thing? That sweet sound of an airplane seatbelt clicking? And, of course, the most ordinary of all, when children went to school?

Barbra Fredrickson, one of the most prolific researchers in positivity, describes positive emotions not as everlasting states, but rather as “micro-moments” that are beyond a fleeting sense of elation; they are moments of connection that expand our awareness. In my micro-moment with Haya, I was able to see abundance in what is painted as scarcity, and experience a sense of security while enduring the unknown.

Smiling children looking at the camera / Shutterstock

For the past six years, I have been involved in the field of positive psychology. I studied with a master in the field, Tal Ben-Shahar, known to have created the most popular course in the history of Harvard University. As a psychologist and a person, it truly shifted my perspective. Positive psychology asks questions like, what makes people thrive?, as opposed to why do they fail?

If nothing else, it provided me with an exit strategy from the most common social situation I find myself in. The moment I am introduced as a child psychologist in social gatherings, someone will inevitably take me to one side for a “private conversation”. While I am truly concerned about children’s wellbeing, listening to mothers complaining about their children’s behaviours is not my only idea of socializing. So, after five minutes of “he can’t do this”, “she is failing at that”, “I can’t understand why they won’t listen” I would reply with: “What is s/he good at?”.

What I have realized is that many mothers either do not “see” or do not “value” what their child is good at. While I may not fully address the mother’s main concern, nevertheless, I find the question itself shifts her perspective and, to my relief, moves the conversation into a different path.

Positive Psychology is not “Happyology”; it does not disregard sadness, anger, frustration, failure or grief. Nor does it strive to create an illusion of a flawless self and a perfect state of well-being. It rather strives to create a sense of wholeness, authenticity, and grounded optimism; something we need now more than ever.

Smiling child wearing sunglasses / Shutterstock

As a psychologist, I am very interested in the impact of this sudden disruption of what we take for “ordinary”, how we react to this disruption, and the different ways in which we adjust to it. Those are big questions that will fill scientific journals for years to come. For this has been perhaps the largest human experiment to date.

As a mother, I am also impacted by this experience and wonder how it is shaping my own children. We, as modern parents, are made to believe that children need so much to thrive. Hence, the loss of the past year’s academic, emotional, and social achievements seems to many as irrecoverable. Well, I have had the privilege to work with many experts in the field, and the consensus seems that while this has been the most unusual life experience for most of us, children are capable of overcoming this, and that maybe there will be a lesson or two to take from it.

Perhaps the most fundamental question is, what really matters when all guarantees and distractions are taken away? Last week, I was at a seminar with Dan Siegal, one of the most brilliant minds in child development of our time. He brings it all back to the four S’s. For children to thrive, they need to feel:

  • Safe – protected from danger/harm
  • Seen – for who they really are
  • Soothed – when they experience negative emotions
  • Secure

As a result of all of the above, children develop a mental model and an internalized sense of self they feel comfortable in and become more resilient in the face of adversities.

This, at the end of the day, is what truly matters.

While you are here

I plan to run a six-week virtual course for teenage girls on Character Strength. If you are interested in the details, please contact me via MCC Bookings and I will send you the details once they become available.


More about Dr Solaim

Lamis SolaimDr Lamis Solaim, PhD, CPsychol, AFBPsS is a child psychologist and a Lecturer (part-time) at the Harvard Medical School. She is also the program director of MGH/Alfaisal Child Mental Health training program in Riyadh.

Dr. Solaim works to address the need for Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services in the Middle East. Her hope is to address the need for a comprehensive multi-level system of care through capacity building and research efforts, collaborating with experts in the field to propose and implement efficient and cost-effective interventions.

Dr. Solaim received her Bachelor’s degree in psychology from Saudi Arabia’s King Saud University, an M.A. in applied child development (clinical/developmental concentration) from Tufts University, and a completed her Ph.D. in psychology from the Royal Holloway, University of London, in the UK.

Image credits: Shutterstock; Dr Lamis Solaim

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