A recent Northwestern University study found that a teenager’s outlook on life can affect his or her health for years to come. Because of this, American Counseling Association members say it is important for counselors to help foster a positive sense of well-being in young people before they reach these formative years.
The study, published in the July issue of the Journal of Adolescent Health, found that adolescents who maintained a positive outlook during their teen years reported better overall health during their adult years. And as they got older, said researchers, these teens were also at less risk of engaging in unhealthy behaviors such as smoking, binge drinking, drug use and eating unhealthy foods.
School counselor Tedman Martinez, a member of ACA, works with high schoolers in New London, Conn., and says having teenagers in positive environments is key to cultivating a positive sense of well-being. However, he says, that job can’t fall solely on counselors.
“I find that there is a sense of well-being if it’s fostered at home, at school and in the community,” he says. “If they don’t have that safeness, they don’t [develop] that internal locus of control, and there is a sense of helplessness and hopelessness.”
Martinez says developing this sense of well-being can be especially difficult for youths who live in high-crime areas, where they don’t always experience that sense of safety within their communities. And being young, it is sometimes difficult for them to process negative events, he explains. “They tend to internalize what they see,” Martinez says.
Martinez emphasizes that it is important for parents, counselors and community members to work together to provide safe, comfortable places for teenagers, thus helping them to develop a positive sense of well-being.
Tom Spiwak, the guidance counselor at Eli Whitney Elementary School in Enfield, Conn., says it is equally important to promote steps to positive well-being early in life so that the mind-set will already be established by the time the student reaches his or her teens. Spiwak, an ACA member who also counsels middle schoolers and high schoolers in his private practice, has already seen examples of this where he lives.
“We had just started to see students in high schools who had counseling experiences in elementary school, but juniors and seniors had not,” he says. “And when they [the younger high school students] were having problems, instead of looking to their peer groups, we found more of them were going to their counselors. Even those who had only been in elementary school counseling for a year, we noticed they were more willing to talk.”
Spiwak says these students saw the value in a non-biased opinion, and many of his former elementary school students have returned to him for counseling upon reaching their college years. “They seem very happy to reconnect and have that relationship,” he says, “which I think definitely says something.”
Spiwak says his school and some others in the area have begun a self-referral method for counseling in which children can schedule time with a counselor if they feel they need it. He believes keeping the lines of communication open at such a young age will help the youths maintain a positive sense of well-being throughout their teen years.
“They understand they have this resource and they can use it,” he says.
Heather Rudow is a staff writer for CT Online and Counseling Today. Contact her at email@example.com.