How Positive Psychology can help children be happy, confident and successful – An Interview with Jeni Hooper

Photo: JKP author Jeni HooperJeni Hooper is a Child Psychologist and Parent Coach who is based in Winchester, England. She has over 30 years’ experience working with children in both public and independent settings. She now specialises in applying positive psychology to promoting children’s psychological wellbeing as a trainer, coach and consultant.

In this interview, Jeni talks about her new book, What Children Need to be Happy, Confident and Successful, a practical model based on Positive Psychology principles that can help parents and professionals to support children in facing the challenges of real life.


Please tell us a little about you and how you came to work in child psychology and parent coaching.

I discovered psychology in my teens and was immediately fascinated by what we could learn about ourselves and creating our best life. I had a very happy childhood but knew a lot of children who didn’t. I loved school and did well there but I could see how hard it was for others. I remember a young woman with learning difficulties who lived nearby. She couldn’t talk but liked to go out for walks by herself with her basket of treasures. She was a child in a woman’s body, and I was horrified when children teased her. They tried to take her basket from her and she would become very distressed. I tried hard to imagine what it would be like to live her life instead of mine. I knew her family received very little help and just did the best that they could. I grew up knowing I wanted to make life better for children but at first I didn’t know how exactly. I suppose my motivation was both compassion for others and gratitude for my own good fortune.

I studied psychology at university and then went into teaching, first in primary schools and then in special education, before training as an Educational Psychologist. In Educational Psychology, I could support parents and schools to help those with the greatest needs. While this is vitally important, it helps only those in greatest need. In recent years, I have combined working in the public sector with setting up an independent practice so that I could share what psychology has to offer with more families. I think it is important to support all adults, both parents and professionals, to deal with children’s difficulties before they reach crisis level. My book is a means to share what I have discovered with a wider audience.

Can you explain what positive psychology is for the uninitiated?

Positive Psychology is the study of optimal wellbeing: what we need to be our best selves. For the past 100 years, psychology has focused on helping those in most need by treating mental health needs and learning difficulties. By focusing on this specialised area, psychology has become distanced from the lives of most people. In contrast, Positive Psychology reaches out to a wider audience. It is relatively new, but has taken off like a rocket, and now has a substantial evidence base of what helps people to flourish.

How do you find it helps the children you work with?

Getting things right from the beginning is the best way to create a good life for children. Wellbeing is about having the skills that you need for day-to-day life. Children need to learn how to manage their thoughts, feelings and behaviour so that they can make good choices. This self-determination is satisfying and boosts confidence.

Professionals and parents want the best for children and need to know how to guide them through childhood. Positive Psychology provides the evidence on which to base decisions. For example, we know that optimism is invaluable to mental health because it encourages people to be hopeful and take good care of themselves. It helps people stave off depression by reframing challenging experiences and it increases people’s overall happiness. We know that happy people are more successful at school, in work and in their relationships. So one of the pillars of positive psychology is to teach optimism.

Your new book is based on your own ‘Flourishing Programme’. Can you tell us what this is, and why you have written the book?

The Flourishing Programme provides a comprehensive guide to nurturing wellbeing. There are 5 core areas of wellbeing:

  • Personal strengths: the skills and abilities important to us which we choose to use when we can. These strengths are satisfying and also help us to be successful.
  • Emotional Wellbeing: keeps us calm and stable and able to get on with life. This depends on our ability to understand and manage our emotions so that we maintain a positive mindset.
  • Positive Communication: the skills to connect with others and nurture happy, healthy relationships.
  • Learning Strengths: to grow and develop, a child needs learning habits which motivate and help get results.
  • Resilience: is the set of problem-solving abilities which help us deal with challenges.

The Flourishing Programme provides a framework to assess a child’s wellbeing in each of the 5 core areas, and describes activities which will encourage progress and growth. There are downloadable questionnaires which can be used to assess wellbeing. The programme is designed to be personalised to reflect a child’s strengths and interests as well as address their current needs.

Every child is unique and their personality and strengths will determine the direction they want to go. One of my favourite sayings is: “The child provides the power while the adults do the steering.” When adults try to control everything they are likely to meet resistance; but equally when a child is left to explore and experiment, they risk confusion and failure. The Flourishing Programme suggests that childhood is a shared journey which works best when adults understand the unique strengths of the child. The book offers both parents and professionals a useful map to identify those strengths and nurture progress.

For an overview of The Flourishing Programme, please visit my blog.

With a positive psychology approach, is there a danger in focusing too much on the positive and ignoring the negative?

Positive Psychology is a memorable name, more so than “wellbeing psychology” would have been. But despite the name, Positive Psychology is not a one-sided approach. In the early days the media focused on happiness, but more recently the subject of resilience and bouncing back from set backs has been better understood. Positive Psychology is definitely not a happy, clappy approach. It faces up to the challenges of real life: not only how you get on track to make a good start in life, but also how you can manage challenges if something awful happens. Professor Martin Seligman, for example, is working with the U.S. military to monitor the wellbeing of soldiers and their families and to develop both self-help strategies and early support.

What are your thoughts on proposed Happiness Index – a measure of the UK’s happiness – and campaigns such as Action for Happiness?

The Happinex Index is a welcome concept. It reminds politicians to judge their effectiveness not just on economic criteria but by the impact policies have on people’s lives. This is harder than measuring growth in economics but equally important. I hope the Office for National Statistics will refine their measures to get past the trivialising headlines I saw recently which told us that the happiest people in the UK are over 65 with children and living in Northern Ireland. It is not a competition!

Action for Happiness is a great resource and I would thoroughly recommend people to explore the website: www.actionforhappiness.org. It reminds people what works for individual wellbeing, but equally how important relationships are essential to a happy and satisfying life.

 

Copyright © Jessica Kingsley Publishers 2012.

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