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Peter Gerlach, MSW
+ + +
CHICAGO – A surprising number of
(U.S.) teenagers - nearly 15 percent - think
they're going to die young, leading many to drug use, suicide attempts
and other unsafe behavior, new research suggests.
The study, based on a survey of more than 20,000 kids, challenges
conventional wisdom that says teens engage in risky behavior because
they think they're invulnerable to harm. Instead, a sizable number of
teens may take chances "because they feel hopeless and figure that not
much is at stake," said study author Dr. Iris Borowsky, a researcher at
the University of Minnesota.
That behavior threatens to turn their fatalism into a self-fulfilling
prophecy. Over seven years, kids who thought they would die early were
seven time more likely than optimistic kids to be subsequently diagnosed
with AIDS. They also were more likely to attempt suicide and get in
fights resulting in serious injuries.
Borowsky said the magnitude of kids with a negative outlook was
Adolescence is "a time of great opportunity and for such a large
minority of youth to feel like they don't have a long life ahead of them
was surprising," she said.
The study suggests a new way doctors could detect kids likely to engage
in unsafe behavior and potentially help prevent it, said Dr. Jonathan
Klein, a University of Rochester adolescent health expert who was not
involved in the research.
"Asking about this sense of fatalism is probably a pretty important
component of one of the ways we can figure out who those kids at greater
risk are," he said.
The study appears in the July issue of
Scientists once widely believed that teenagers take risks because they
underestimate bad consequences and figure "it can't happen to me," the
study authors say. The new research bolsters evidence refuting that
Cornell University professor Valerie Reyna said the new study presents
"an even stronger case against the invulnerability idea."
"It's extremely important to talk about how perception of risk
influences risk-taking behavior," said Reyna, who has done similar
Fatalistic kids weren't more
likely than others to die during the seven-year study; there were
relatively few deaths, 94 out of more than 20,000 teens.
The researchers analyzed data from a nationally representative survey of
kids in grades 7 to 12 who were interviewed three times between 1995 and
2002. Of 20,594 teens interviewed in the first round, 14.7 percent said
they thought they had a good chance of dying before age 35. Subsequent
interviews found these
fatalistic kids engaged in more risky behavior than more optimistic
The study suggests some kids overestimate their risks for harm; however,
it also provides evidence that some kids may have good reason for being
Native Americans, blacks and
low-income teens — kids who are disproportionately exposed to violence
and hardship — were much more likely than whites to believe they'd die
The findings of this study support a central premise in this
non-profit Web site: that psychologically-wounded,
(Grown Wounded Children)
tend to raise troubled (pessimistic, impulsive, depressed, self-neglectful) kids.
This study doesn't examine this dynamic.
The report doesn't speculate on how
significant pessimism affects teens when they become parents, and it doesn't examine the teens'
parents' attitude about early death.
Like most such studies and reports, this one focuses on "troubled"
people (i.e. teens) rather than on the families they're raised in or
living in. From
36 years as a
family-system and trauma-recovery therapist, I propose that teen and adult
cynicism, fatalism, and hopelessness (despair) are symptoms of
early-childhood abandonment, neglect, and abuse (trauma).
Opinion: The real problem is average citizens'
tolerance for unwise child conception and ineffective or harmful
parenting. The self-improvement
in this Web site exists to
people to the
of the lethal [wounds + unawareness]
cycle and to suggest how to
The findings of this 7-year
study augment recent UCLA research results about "risky