Jan. 10, 2011 -- Being optimistic, long known to play a role in improving adult health, also appears to make a difference in teens' mental health and behavior, new research shows.
High optimism in teens appears particularly helpful in protecting against depression, appearing to cut the risk by nearly half compared to low optimism, says researcher George Patton, MD, professor of adolescent health research at the Murdoch Children's Centre for Adolescent Health in Melbourne, Australia.
Research on optimism in teens is overdue, he says. ''There has been remarkably little research into the effects of optimism on health in adolescents," Patton tells WebMD in an email interview.
"In older adults optimists are less likely to later experience a range of mental and physical health problems, from depression to cardiovascular disease. These relationships are well demonstrated. We have tended to assume the same would hold for adolescents but there have till now not been similar studies examining whether this was true or not."
His study, following more than 5,000 teens for three years, is published in the journal Pediatrics.
He found optimism in teens most protective against depression, but also modestly helpful in protecting again heavy substance use and antisocial behavior.
It's not a cure-all, Patton stresses, as many other factors come into play, such as psychological functioning and the circumstances in which teens are raised.
Overall, however, "optimistic kids do better in avoiding emotional and behavioral problems during their teens, but it in no ways makes them immune to setbacks," he says. Other skills and experiences matter, too.
Evaluating Optimism in Teens
Patton and his colleagues evaluated 5,634 students in Australia, ages 12 to 14, over three years, evaluating how optimistic they were and asking about emotional problems, substance abuse, and antisocial behaviors.
When the researchers divided students into four groups based on optimism levels, those in the highest group had nearly half the risks of developing depression symptoms in the next 12 months as those in the lowest optimism group.
The researchers looked at whether optimism protected against stressful life events, which boost the risk of depression, but found it did not. They did find optimists were better at problem solving, but that didn't explain the optimism-depression link fully either, Patton says.
"It may just be that the set-point for getting into a negative way of thinking and the loss of self-confidence that go with depression is just that much lower for optimists and that is the reason for its protective effects," Patton says.
Lack of optimism seemed to affect girls more than boys, he found, when it came to the depression link. Boys with low optimism levels were about half as likely to get depressed as girls with low optimism.
Those with high optimism were less likely to engage in heavy substance use or antisocial behavior, but the association was more modest than the link with depression.
How Parents Can Help Teens
While parents of teens may be tempted to just encourage their kids to ''think positive," that's not the take-home message, Patton tells WebMD. "Simply saying look on the bright side of life is not going to be helpful alone."
Instead, he says, parents should help teens develop more effective responses to problems of everyday life such as handling conflict.
He also suggests, when a teen has a crisis, that parents talk to them about the bad things that have happened. Especially useful, he says, is helping your teen learn to put things in perspective and to put themselves in another's shoes.
Simply telling a teen to think positively may actually backfire, agrees Alec L. Miller, PsyD, director of the adolescent depression and suicide program and chief of child and adolescent psychology at Montefiore Medical Center in New York. "It can inflame and exacerbate [the situation]," says Miller, who is also professor of clinical psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Albert Einstein College of Medicine. He reviewed the study for WebMD.
When teens seem depressed, he says, parents might help by gently saying they understand about feeling depressed. Next, they might suggest: "Let's look at the evidence to see if the situation is as bad as you think it might be."
From that point, he says, you can encourage your teen to move to a more optimistic perspective.