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updated 12/22/2011 8:15:20 AM ET 2011-12-22T13:15:20

Children as young as 5 years old understand that positive thinking can make a person feel better, according to a new study.

The researchers also found that kids' knowledge about the benefits of positive thinking is strongly influenced by their parents.

In the study, 90 mostly white children, ages 5 to 10, were read six illustrated stories in which two characters felt the same emotion after experiencing something positive (such as getting a new puppy), negative (such as spilling milk), or neutral (such as meeting a new teacher).

The children were then told how each character felt on a 7-point scale; the pictures on the scale ranged from a very sad face (0) to a neutral face (3) to a very happy face (6). For negative and positive events, the characters felt "medium bad" and "medium good," respectively, with those in the ambiguous scenario feeling "OK (not good or bad)."

Next in the story, one character has a separate optimistic thoughtthat puts the fictional event in a positive light. The other character has a separate pessimistic thought, putting the event in a negative light. At the end of these stories, the researchers asked each child to rate on the 0-7 picture scale how each character felt at that moment and why.

The young participants also completed surveys — modified for young kids — that measured their own individual levels of optimism and hope. Parents also reported on their own and their kids' optimism.

The results showed that children as young as 5 were able to predict that people would feel better after thinking positive thoughts than they would after thinking negative thoughts, showing the strongest understanding of this phenomenon in the ambiguous situations.

Children had the most difficulty understanding how positive thinking could boost someone's spirits in situations that involved negative events, such as falling down and getting hurt. When it came to coping with negative situations, the kids' levels of optimism and hope played a role in their ability to understand the benefits of positive thinking, the researchers observed.

As children grow older, they experience a "significant development" in their ability to understand the link between thoughts and feelings, according to the researchers. The study also showed that the parents' bright or gloomy outlook on life played a major role in their children's comprehension of the power of positive thinking. [ 5 Ways to Foster Self-Compassion in Your Child ]

"The strongest predictor of children's knowledge about the benefits of positive thinking — besides age — was not the child's own level of hope and optimism, but their parents,'" study researcher Christi Bamford of Jacksonville University, who led the study when she was at the University of California, Davis, said in a statement.

The researchers noted that their findings highlight parental influence in helping children learn how to use positive thoughts to feel better during difficult or negative situations.

"In short, parents should consider modeling how to look on the bright side," Bamford said.

The study is published today (Dec. 22) in the journal Child Development.

You can follow LiveScience writer Remy Melina on Twitter@remymelina. Follow LiveScience for the latest in science news and discoveries on Twitter@livescience  and onFacebook.

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