Evidence-Based Reviews

Incorporating positive psychiatry with children and adolescents

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The principles and practices of positive psychiatry can be readily adapted into routine practice.



The principles and practices of positive psychiatry are especially well-suited for work with children, adolescents, and families. Positive psychiatry is “the science and practice of psychiatry that seeks to understand and promote well-being through assessments and interventions aimed at enhancing positive psychosocial factors among people who have or are at risk for developing mental or physical illnesses.”1 The concept sprung from the momentum of positive psychology, which originated from Seligman et al.2 Importantly, the standards and techniques of positive psychiatry are designed as an enhancement, perhaps even as a completion, of more traditional psychiatry, rather than an alternative.3 They come from an acknowledgment that to be most effective as a mental health professional, it is important for clinicians to be experts in the full range of mental functioning.4,5

For most clinicians currently practicing “traditional” child and adolescent psychiatry, adapting at least some of the principles of positive psychiatry within one’s routine practice will not necessarily involve a radical transformation of thought or effort. Indeed, upon hearing about positive psychiatry principles, many non­professionals express surprise that this is not already considered routine practice. This article briefly outlines some of the basic tenets of positive child psychiatry and describes practical initial steps that can be readily incorporated into one’s day-to-day approach.

Defining pediatric positive psychiatry

There remains a fair amount of discussion and debate regarding what positive psychiatry is and isn’t, and how it fits into routine practice. While there is no official doctrine as to what “counts” as the practice of positive psychiatry, one can arguably divide most of its interventions into 2 main areas. The first is paying additional clinical attention to behaviors commonly associated with wellness or health promotion in youth. These include domains such as exercise, sleep habits, an authoritative parenting style, screen limits, and nutrition. The second area relates to specific techniques or procedures designed to cultivate positive emotions and mindsets; these often are referred to as positive psychology interventions (PPIs).6 Examples include gratitude exercises, practicing forgiveness, and activities that build optimism and hope. Many of the latter procedures share poorly defined boundaries with “tried and true” cognitive-behavioral therapy techniques, while others are more distinct to positive psychology and psychiatry. For both health promotion and PPIs, the goal of these interventions is to go beyond response and even remission for a patient to actual mental well-being, which is a construct that has also proven to be somewhat elusive and difficult to define. One well-described model by Seligman7 that has been gaining traction is the PERMA model, which breaks down well-being into 5 main components: positive emotions, engagement, relationships, meaning, and accomplishment.

Positive psychiatry: The evidence base

One myth about positive psychiatry is that it involves the pursuit of fringe and scientifically suspect techniques that have fallen under the expanding umbrella of “wellness.” Sadly, numerous unscientific and ineffective remedies have been widely promoted under the guise of wellness, leaving many families and clinicians uncertain about which areas have a solid evidence base and which are scientifically on shakier ground. While the lines delineating what are often referred to as PPI and more traditional psychotherapeutic techniques are blurry, there is increasing evidence supporting the use of PPI.8 A recent meta-analysis indicated that these techniques have larger effect sizes for children and young adults compared to older adults.9 More research, however, is needed, particularly for youth with diagnosable mental health conditions and for younger children.10

The evidence supporting the role of wellness and health promotion in preventing and treating pediatric mental health conditions has a quite robust research base. For example, a recent randomized controlled trial found greater reductions in multiple areas of emotional-behavior problems in children treated in a primary care setting with a wellness and health promotion model (the Vermont Family Based Approach) compared to those in a control condition.11 Another study examining the course of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) showed a 62% reduction of diagnosis among children who met 7 of 9 health promotion recommendations in areas such as nutrition, physical activity, and screen time, compared to those who met just 1 to 3 of these recommendations.12 Techniques such as mindfulness also have been found to be useful for adolescents with anxiety disorders.13 While a full review of the evidence is beyond the scope of this article, it is fair to say that many health promotion areas (such as exercise, nutrition, sleep habits, positive parenting skills, and some types of mindfulness) have strong scientific support—arguably at a level that is comparable to or even exceeds that of the off-label use of many psychiatric medications. The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry has published a brief document that summarizes many age-related health promotion recommendations.14 The studies that underlie many of these recommendations contradict the misperception that wellness activities are only for already healthy individuals who want to become healthier, and show their utility for patients with more significant and chronic mental health conditions.

Incorporating core principles of positive psychiatry

Table 1 summarizes the core principles of positive child and adolescent psychiatry. There is no official procedure or certification one must complete to be considered a “positive psychiatrist,” and the term itself is somewhat debatable. Incorporating many of the principles of positive psychiatry into one’s daily routine does not necessitate a practice overhaul, and clinicians can integrate as many of these ideas as they deem clinically appropriate. That said, some adjustments to one’s perspective, approach, and workflow are likely needed, and the practice of positive psychiatry is arguably difficult to accomplish within the common “med check” model that emphasizes high volumes of short appointments that focus primarily on symptoms and adverse effects of medications.

Core principles of positive child and adolescent psychiatry

Contrary to another misconception about positive psychiatry, working within a positive psychiatry framework does not involve encouraging patients to “put on a happy face” and ignore the very real suffering and trauma that many of them have experienced. Further, adhering to positive psychiatry does not entail abandoning the use of psychopharmacology (although careful prescribing is generally recommended) or applying gimmicks to superficially cover a person’s emotional pain.

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