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The Science of Hope As A Framework for Parenting In Difficult Situations By Chan Hellman, PhD And Stacy Phillips, DSW, MSW

Hope is a mindset not an emotion.

Hope is a psychological resource based upon our ability to set, pursue, and achieve desired goals. This positive expectation of the future is grounded in three simple elements: Goals, Pathways, and Willpower. Goals (short- and long-term) are the cornerstone of hope. When we are in distress, we should focus on short term goals. Pathways represent the strategies or plans we identify to pursue our goals. Neither willpower nor pathways alone is sufficient for hope. For example, a child may have a strong desire to get good grades but struggles completing homework assignments. Alternatively, the child may understand how to do the assignments but seem unmotivated to do the work. Both scenarios will result in failure or under achievement.
The hopeful child is able to identify multiple pathways to the goal and can effectively identify alternative pathways or solutions to potential barriers. Willpower refers to the mental energy, such as attention and intention, on our pathway pursuits. The hopeful child has the willpower to self-regulate their thoughts, behaviors, and emotions when selecting and pursuing their desired goals. With over 2,000 published research studies, hope has emerged as one of the most important predictors of well-being for children, adults, and families.

Hope is more than wishful thinking.

Consider how often we use the word hope in our conversations. I hope it doesn’t rain today. I hope you are well. I hope you have a great day. This is wishful thinking (not hope). To be considered hopeful, we must have both willpower and pathways to our goals. A wish is when we desire an outcome but have no pathways to achieve our goals. Hope is about taking action to pursue your goal. A wish is a passive desire for a goal.

Parents as drivers of Hope.

Because hope is based upon goals, pathways, and willpower, it can be taught even during difficult times. Based upon our published research, we know parents can be drivers of their children’s hope. To this end, hope is a social gift that children learn from the adults in their lives. When children are struggling, frustrated, or in despair we can use the principle that hope begets hope by focusing on short term achievable goals (weekly, daily, hourly). We can then work with the child to set pathways and to practice problem solving potential barriers. When the child begins to take small steps to their goals, willpower will increase as the child begins to imagine the future is possible. You will notice a shift in language from “I can’t do it” to “I want to do it but not sure I can.” Hope begets hope.
At the age of 11, Stacy’s son was diagnosed with Disruptive Mood Dysregulation Disorder, Depression, Anxiety, and ADHD combined type. Stacy tried every avenue to support her son including therapy, medication, and essential oils. Nothing seemed to help as he continued to struggle in school with his emotional outbursts and behavior impacting his teachers, classmates, and grades. He expressed hating school and that “I can’t do it”. Stacy tried to help him with schoolwork, saying things like, “you need to try harder, if you don’t get good grades- you won’t get into college” In his growing frustration, he would say he didn’t care. Stacy’s heart hurt for her little boy. Then Stacy learned about the science of hope in a training with Chan. She recognized the potential as Chan described the loss of hope transitioning from anger/frustration, to despair, and ultimately apathy. When Chan spoke about apathy, the picture on the screen was a little boy with his head down on his desk like nothing mattered. This was what her son’s teacher’s described when he was in class. Stacy learned the simple application of hope and the need to set short-term goals and celebrate small successes. Within a hope framework, Stacy learned we might be able to identify the goal, but if we struggle identifying pathways or overcoming barriers our hope is at risk. In a sudden realization, Stacy’s son had become robbed of hope. While she tried motivating him by focusing on long-term goals (college, making the basketball team) her son was losing the willpower as he struggled to complete a math problem or his homework.
Stacy began to implement the simple principles of hope she learned, especially hope begets hope, and hope is a social gift.
Stacy shared the science of hope with everyone in her son’s immediate circle (brothers, father, family members, teachers, and coaches). She instructed everyone to stop talking about long-term goals and to focus on his every day small successes- “I made it clear that he needed to feel connection and support from all of them for his short-term accomplishments”. “I stopped focusing on getting the A for the quarter, and celebrated completing the homework assignment”.
She worked with her son and his teachers to identify the goals that he desired rather than those goals impressed on him by others. Stacy stopped mentioned goals such as college, getting a job, the high school basketball team, getting A’s, etc and only spoke about setting and pursuing daily goals.
Her son would select daily goals of which subject to focus including the assignments. Stacy then began celebrating the small daily successes especially when he made a conscious choice to keep his head off the desk and participate in class.
Over time Stacy began to see changes. Her son was becoming excited over his accomplishments. His language changed from “I can’t do this” to “I think I can do this.” and “ Look what I did”. His relationships with his teachers became stronger as he began to believe in their investment in him. At home, his brothers made a point to congratulate how well he did rather than focus on success or failure.Today, her son is a 16-year-old high-hope teenager. His grades have gone from barely passing to earning A’s and B’s. He learned to drive a stick shift car in less than an hour. He has not had an issue in school behaviorally or at home for three years. He no longer says, “I can’t”. The science and power of hope is real. ❦

About the Authors

Chan M. Hellman is a professor of social work at the University of Oklahoma and Director of The Hope Research Center. He has written more than 150 scientific publications and has presented at numerous national and international conferences worldwide.
Chan also presented his work TEDx in May of 2021. Chan’s research is focused on hope as a psychological strength helping children and adults overcome trauma and adversity. This research informed the development of the “Hope Centered and Trauma InformeÒ” training program. Chan is the co-author of the award-winning book “Hope Rising: How the Science of Hope Can Change Your Life” with his co-author Casey Gwinn published by Morgan James. As a result of this work, Chan was one of five invited workshops for Jane Goodall’s Activating Hope Summit (November, 2021).

Stacy Phillips is a Victim Justice Program Specialist with the Office for Victims of Crime (OVC) within the U.S. Department of Justice. Dr. Phillips works with on the Discretionary Team and Human Trafficking Team where she assists the office in developing, implementing, and monitoring victimization-related efforts and programs. Dr. Phillips has more than 20 years of experience in the victim services field and is a children and youth expert within OVC focusing on trauma, polyvictimization, and brain science. She represents OVC on the DOJ Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) Working Group and the Federal Inter-Agency Work Group on Child Abuse and Neglect. She also addresses crime victims’ rights enforcement and legal wraparound networks, law enforcement-based direct services, post-conviction initiatives, and has spearheaded demonstration initiatives on polyvictimization, reducing child fatalities and recurring serious child injuries, and leads the opioid/ drug addiction crisis initiative. She is a social innovation strategist working on developing and deploying effective solutions to challenging and systemic issues.
Before joining OVC, Ms. Phillips spent 15 years working in child welfare. As the Grant Coordinator and Planning Specialist, at the DC Child and Family Services Agency, she coauthored several successful federal grant applications on child abuse prevention, and started the DC Parent Advisory Council. Dr. Phillips also assisted in developing the Districtwide Children’s Justice Act Task Force, served on the District’s Human Trafficking Task Force, and worked on child and family protective services issues, including grants and program management, needs assessment, resource development, and policy development. Beforehand, she served as a Child Protective Services Investigations Supervisor conducting adoption, foster care, and kinship licensing studies at the Travis County Domestic Relations Office and Texas Department of Protective and Regulatory Services; and she began her career as a Child Protective Services Investigator at the Department of Children and Families in Bridgeport, Connecticut.
Dr. Phillips holds a Doctorate of Social Work (DSW) from the University of Southern California with a focus on smart decarceration specifically with youth; an M.A. in Clinical Psychology from Southern Connecticut State University; and an M.S.W. from The Catholic University of America. She is a sought-out speaker at many national conferences and has advised research teams in their development of nationwide toolkits.

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