November 21, 1996
Is it possible to immunize children against depression? Recent research from the University of Pennsylvania suggests that it is. No, not with a pill or a shot, but with cartoons and role playing skits. Does that sound hard to believe? The Penn Prevention Program is outlined in a new book by researcher Martin Seligman, Ph.D., The Optimistic Child, subtitled "a proven program to safeguard children against depression and build lifelong resilience."
Dr. Seligman describes a fateful encounter with Dr. Jonas Salk, inventor of the killed polio vaccine. Salk suggested that "psychological immunization" might prove to be highly effective in preventing mental illness, and perhaps even physical illness, given the connections between body and mind that are even now barely recognized. That set Dr. Seligman thinking. Seligman's own research had shown that teaching animals mastery (over shocks, for example) prevented them from becoming passive, even when the shocks became inescapable. Cognitive and behavorial techniques had then been shown to markedly relieve depression and pessimism in depressed adults. Could these same skills, taught to healthy children, make them resistant to becoming depressed in later life? Could psychological immunization curtail the rampant epidemic of depression in our vulnerable young? Seligman's earlier work had shown that nearly 25% of children were markedly depressed at any given time, so clearly there was a profound need for some program.
Seligman and his research team embarked on a mission to put together a program of teaching cognitive and social skills to help children cope with adversity and emerge stronger. They started with small pilot groups and then moved on to large groups of children at risk for depression in schools in and around Philadelphia. Their program was twenty-four hours of instruction spread out over twelve weeks. In their controlled studies, they were able to reduce depressive symptoms immediately in the "immunized group"; more importantly, two years after the treatment, only half as many of the immunized children reported depressive symptoms compared with a control group. The difference was striking, and seemed to strengthen over time.
The book describes how parents -- presumably without Ph.D.'s in psychology -- can apply the Penn Prevention Program to their own children and families. First, it provides questionnaires to help assess a child's mood and explanatory style (how they interpret bad events). Next, it provides techniques to recognize, evaluate and deal with a child's own immediate thoughts surrounding obstacles or adversity. Seligman introduces what he calls the "ABCDE model": Adversity, Belief, Consequence, Disputation, and Energization. He suggests that much of our reaction to adversity (the consequence) depends on our beliefs and interpretations about why the adversity happened and its meaning to us. Seligman uses cartoons and skits to demonstrate that different beliefs and explanations about adversity can produce markedly different feelings and consequences, and thus lead to different ways of dealing with the same situation, some more helpful than others. Then, by helping children (and not incidentally, their parents) dispute their negative views, it allows them to energize and act upon a more helpful outlook.
Seligman also helps parents work with their children on their explanatory styles, changing their viewpoints from pessimistic to optimistic. "Hopeful Holly" and "Gloomy Greg" help illustrate the points in short, fun exercises. Finally, he works on children's problem solving and social skills. He instructs parents how to teach children to slow down and think about different interpretations of a situation, see things from the perspective of others, set goals and generate alternative solutions for a problem, choose a course of action, and keep at it when their first solution doesn't work. Social skills fostered include assertiveness and negotiation.
Throughout the book, he includes adult oriented examples and exercises to help adults become optimistic, recognizing that much of a child's perspective is shaped by the environment they grow up in.
He is careful to distinguish his work from the "self-esteem
movement" which he discredits as superficial puffery in his book. He
argues that the real basis for achieving one's potential is doing well, and
learning how to do well, not simply "feeling good." He does not advocate
children or adults wearing blinders or rose colored glasses, ignoring the
problems around them. His goal is promoting active engagement and accurate
optimism as a means for achieving goals and as the foundation for solving
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