COULD A pessimistic explanatory style be one root cause of depression and poor achievement among children, as it is among adults? In 1981, when this question emerged from my investigations, I thought of Joan Gigues. Over the years we had stayed in touch and kept abreast of each other’s research. Her work with children focused on how perception developed as the child grows. I also knew that at City College of New York she’d been greatly concerned about students’ underachievement. I felt she’d be the ideal partner in my inquiry.
First, Explanatory Style
CHI L D R E N WITH pessimistic explanatory style are at a serious disadvantage. If your child starts off in third grade with a pessimistic score on the CASQ, he is at risk for depression. We divided the children into those whose depression scores got worse as time went on and those whose depression got better as time went on. Explanatory style separates these two groups into the following tendencies:
- If you start off the third grade with a pessimistic style and you are not depressed, you become depressed as time goes on.
- If you start off pessimistic and you are also depressed, you stay depressed.
- If you start off optimistic and you are also depressed, you get better.
- If you start off optimistic and you are not depressed, you stay depression-free.
Second, Bad Life Events
THE MORE MISFORTUNES befall a child, the worse his depression. Optimistic children resist the impact of bad events better than pessimistically. The reader IS reminded that to protect the confidentiality of the participants in our research I have created composites as my examples both for the children and for patients in therapy.
School children do, and popular children resist better than unpopular do. But this does not prevent bad events from having some depressing effects on all children. Here are some events to watch out for. When these occur, your child can use a lot of your time and all the help and support you can muster.
Divorce and Parental Turmoil
BECAUSE DIVORCE and serious turmoil between parents are increasing and are also the common events most depressing to children, we have focused in the Princeton-Penn Longitudinal Study on children who have experienced them.
When we began the study, sixty of the children-roughly IS percent told us their parents were divorced or separated. We have watched these children care for the last three years and contrasted them to the rest of the children. What they tell us has important implications for our society at large and for how you should deal with your children if divorce happens to you.
Girls vs. Boys
THE DISASTROUS long-term effects of divorce and fighting were not the only data that surprised us. We had been very interested in sex differences. We had strong expectations about which sex should be more depressed and pessimistic, but when we looked at our data, we found the opposite over and over again.
As you know from chapters four and five, adult women are much more depressed on average than men. Twice as many women are found to suffer depression-whether the phenomenon is measured by treatment statistics, by door-to-door surveys, or by a number of symptoms. We supposed that this must begin in childhood and that we would find that girls are more depressed than boys and have a more pessimistic explanatory style.
Traditional Wisdom about Success at School
FOR ALMOST a hundred years aptitude and talent have been the code words for academic success. These idols occupy the place of honor on the altars of all admissions and personnel officials.
Get placed on the track unless your IQ or your SAT score or your Meat score is high enough, and the situation is even worse in Europe. I think “talent” is vastly overrated. Not only is talent imperfectly measured, not only is it an imperfect predictor of success, but also the traditional wisdom is wrong. It leaves out a factor that can compensate for low scores or greatly diminish the accomplishments of highly talented people.
In our studies, we hold talent-SAT scores, IQ, life-insurance qualification test scores-constant to begin with and then look at what happens to the optimists and pessimists among the highly talented. Over and above their talent-test scores, we repeatedly find that pessimists drop below their “potential” and optimists exceed it. I have come to think that the notion of potential, without the notion of optimism, has very little meaning.