A new study shows optimism is healthy for teens


by JEAN ENERSEN / KING 5 HealthLink

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Posted on February 19, 2011 at 11:00 AM

Updated Saturday, Feb 19 at 11:29 AM

What springs to mind when Ms. Rice's 8th grade students at Seattle's Madrona K-8 think of optimism?

"Kindness," said Dijhion, one of her students.

Another student, Matt, added, "I would say kindness, but happiness at the same time."

"To me optimism means power, cause it helps you get through things," said classmate Cris.

Fourteen-year-old  Marcel Sampson had a slightly different view.

"It means overcoming, like overcoming obstacles and anything else that would get in the way of success," he said.

A new study published in the February issue of the journal Pediatrics showed optimism is good for teens' health. The most optimistic teens cut their risk of depressive symptoms by nearly half. It also offered modest protection against substance abuse and antisocial behavior.

Dr. Leslie Walker, Chief of Adolescent Medicine at Seattle Children's, called the study exciting. She has seen optimism help  young cancer patients.

"You have a brighter outlook on the treatment and you think, "I'm going to get better. Yes, I have cancer," it's not denial, but "'I'm going to work and put my body and my soul into trying to get better,'" she said.

Marcel Sampson, who said optimism overcomes obstacles, could easily be voted most positive by his teachers and peers.

"He keeps a smile on his face. He's always showing his dimples. So he's just a happy child overall, and he doesn't let anything get him down."

It's optimism in spite of setbacks, said Marcel's aunt. When his home life was turned upside down at age 5 he came to live with her. 

"But he transitioned very well, because he got the love he needed. And he just moved forward and never looked back."

Is that kind of resilience hard wired in some people? Marcel doesn't think so.

"You don't have to be born with it," he said, adding "You can learn it or you can be taught it, or it's just something that you gain over years."

Dr. Walker said validating a child's  feelings, and offering perspective when life seems bleak can boost optimism.

"We as parents and adults that are around teens need to help them see some of the shades of gray that can maybe for some kids be the little ingredient that helps them get through the day," she said. 

"Dr. Walker said a great way to teach optimism is by modeling positive problem solving. Your child learns from watching you.