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Depression is an increasing problem among teen-agers. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, as many as one in five children experience depression as teens. Depression interferes with social interaction and motivation for school. It’s something parents need to take seriously.

A new study published in the Journal of Clinical Child & Adolescent Psychology suggests that the best time to pay attention to teen depression is before children enter their teen years. Parents and teachers of middle school students should actively teach skills of resilience and persistence.

By about age 9, many children adopt a “trait orientation” towards their abilities. This means they come to believe that they are either “good at” something or not and that there is nothing that can be done to change this trait. Younger children tend to have a more flexible “performance orientation” which leads them to believe that “practice makes perfect” and “if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.” Parents can recapture this performance orientation for their middle school children by actively teaching problem solving skills.

The study, conducted by Dr. Cari McCarty of Seattle Children’s Hospital, found that middle school students who showed early signs of depression didn’t do so well with one-to-one therapeutic support as children did who were just taught positive thinking and coping skills.

“Basic problem solving skills are important: really thinking about a problem, taking a step back, generating multiple solutions, brainstorming options and then making a weighted decision about what they should do,” said McCarty.

Instead of clinging to the idea that “I’m going to give up, I’m no good at this, I’m not going to even try anymore,” kids can be taught to work out alternative ways to succeed and to keep trying.

Parents should avoid telling a child she’s just not good at something and also should avoid telling a child “I’m not good at that either.” Doing that just supports an ineffective trait orientation. Parents also should avoid blaming the teacher or coach or making other excuses for setbacks. Instead, parents should take a more matter-of-fact approach. Here’s how:

Dr. McCarty says, “Depression is preventable in that we can make a difference and we can mitigate some of the negative effects by intervening earlier with kids.”

Middle school is hard enough. Make sure your child has the tools to get through with confidence and to start his teen years with strength.

© 2013, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved.

We’ve talked before here about the dangers of promoting a trait orientation in children. A trait orientation or trait mindset is a problem when children believe they naturally are unable to learn something and so quit trying. The child who says, “I’m no good at math,” or “I’m just clumsy, or “I’m hyper” has adopted an excuse for his low grades, his poor showing in soccer, or his lack of self-control. If he’s “just not good at” something, there’s no point in trying.

A trait orientation is obviously a barrier to learning. It causes a child to give up too soon, assuming he tries at all. Teachers and parents should do everything they can to avoid encouraging a trait orientation in children. It doesn’t make sense to hand a child an excuse for not even bothering to try to do well.

But… what if we encourage a trait mindset for positive qualities? Can the problems a trait mindset creates actually support good character? Researchers Joan E. Grusec and Erica Redler found the answer is “yes.”

In an interesting experiment conducted many years ago, Grusec and Redler praised 7- and 8-year-old children for either generous behavior or for having a generous character. They set up a game in which children could win marbles and then could “donate” some to “poor children.” They then told half of the children, “It was good that you gave some of your marbles to those poor children. Yes, that was a nice and helpful thing to do.” This praise focused on the action the children took. The other half of the group were told, “I guess you’re the kind of person who likes to help others whenever you can. Yes, you are a very nice and helpful person.” This praise focused on a trait the children demonstrated; it was about who the children were, as people, not what they did.

A few weeks later, the same children were given other opportunities to share. The children who were praised for who they were, as people, were more likely to share and share more than the children who were praised for what they did.

The notion that attaching a positive label to children encourages positive behavior has been confirmed recently in a study by Christopher Bryan.  Bryan found that asking children “to be a helper” was much more likely – by 22% to 29% – than asking them simply to help. He also found that telling children not to cheat was less effective in preventing cheating that telling them, “Don’t be a cheater.” In fact, “Don’t be a cheater” cut cheating in half. Bryan puts it this way: nouns are more effective than verbs.

We know this is true. This is exactly why we’ve tried so hard to avoid telling a child she’s a poor speller, or messy, or disorganized. We know how powerful these negative labels can be. But most of us – myself included – haven’t realized the same power can attach to positive labels.

So helping your child become more generous, more thoughtful, more compassionate, and more grateful, a simple first step is to tell your child he is these things. Not just as random statements, of course, but in response to something your child does that can be praised.

Instead of praising the action, try praising your child’s character. See if she responds by showcasing her good character even more.


© 2014, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Ask for Dr. Anderson’s new book, Parenting: A Field Guide, at your favorite bookstore.

We’d all like our children to have easy lives. We’d like them to sail through all their school subjects, be picked first for playground games, and find no frustration or setbacks in anything they try. Sometimes we want this so much that we believe it’s the way things should be – and when they aren’t then there must be something wrong.

The fact is, though, that struggle is good for kids. Struggle is how growth happens. A recent investigation of the differences between Korean students and American students showed that Korean kids – well-known as a group for their high academic achievement – are not discouraged by struggle. They know how to persist and come out on top.

American students tend to give up. They seem to think that they should be “good already” at whatever they undertake.

This attitude – that being good at something is part of a person’s personality and not something that develops through effort – is known as “trait orientation.” Children tend to develop this in the early school years. Obviously, toddlers don’t think this way. If they did, they’d give up immediately on learning to walk!

Believing that one has to be “good at math” to be good at math sets a kid up for failure. It gives her a ready excuse for not trying – “I’m just not good at that” – and it shuts down any learning that might help the child feel more confident. When parents support this idea, by saying, “I’m not any good at math either,” they teach a child that the only things worth doing are things that come easy.

But most things worth doing have to be learned. A more useful point-of-view is a “performance orientation,” in which a person recognizes that becoming good at something is accomplished through learning and practice. Under a performance orientation, anything is possible. If it’s not easy yet, it will be easy someday, after a person has learned more and become more expert.

One way to encourage a performance orientation is to smile and say, for example, “You’re not good at math yet. But you will be. I have confidence in you.”

It’s important that we parents accept that not everything will come naturally for our kids but that giving up too soon is not the way to go. Giving up limits a child to who he is and what he knows right now. It doesn’t let him grow.

By adopting a performance orientation for our children – and, yes, even for ourselves – we set the expectation that the best is yet to come. What we want to be able to do and be is within our powers to achieve.

Struggle may be tiresome. But struggle is a very good thing.

© 2012, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved.