An eight-year-old child was murdered by her father. I got flooded with calls from parents who were concerned about explaining the death to their children. They couldn’t avoid it because details of the death were sweeping through the community and children were asking, “How could a father kill their own child?” It was unconscionable to them because it is unconscionable. Part of it was them wanting to make sense of it, but another more important concern, was them wanting to ensure their own safety and confirming that it wouldn’t happen to them.
I reassured parents to speak to the importance of ongoing self-awareness, emotionality, self-care, and general mental health. Parents could explain that this father had mental health issues. This included him having difficulty regulating his emotions which were not adequately being treated with medication and therapy. Within him, which is usually not the case with most individuals, it lead to extremely irrational, violent and aggressive behavior. The best way for them and those around them to secure rational thinking, a stable mood, and mindful decision making is to put consistent efforts into having self-awareness and working through their emotions and on their mental health.
This facilitated rich discussion between parents and their children around emotions and mental health. Discussion around emotions and mental health is not only important, but is also necessary given the level of stress, boredom, and lethargy that kids currently report and experience.
The Current State of Kids Mental Health
Teens routinely say that their school-year stress levels are far higher than they think is healthy and their average reported stress exceeds that of adults, per an annual survey published by the American Psychological Association.[i] On average, teens reported their stress level was 5.8 on a 10-point scale, compared with 5.1 for adults. Teenagers are reporting greater levels of stress than the parents that raise them.
The APA’s Stress in America survey found that 30 percent of teens reported feeling sad or depressed because of stress and 31 percent felt overwhelmed. Another 35 percent of teens reported that stress caused them to lie awake at night and 26 percent said that they are overeating or eating unhealthy foods in the past month. The pressures of schoolwork, family life, social life, sports, or other activities, combined with a relentless media culture, result in young people being more stressed than ever before and often adapting maladaptive coping skills to deal with it all.
Kids Are Adapting Maladaptive Coping Skills
Chronic stress can additionally impact teen’s mood. The cortisol that gets released during the stress response, can lead to a reduction of “feel-good” neurotransmitters such as serotonin. It can eventually lead to unstable moods (impacting motivation, level of anger and anxiety, etc.), somatic complaints (abdominal pain, headaches, muscular pain, etc.) and disrupted sleeping and eating patterns.
While good stress promotes a positive challenge and generally motivates them, promotes well-being, and enhances performance; bad stress induces hopelessness and can make kids physically sick, can weaken their immune system, and impair their performance.
A cycle of avoidance or distraction strategies often get instilled to cope with the bad stress. Kids negatively cope by drinking alcohol and using substances, overeating, underachieving, socially isolating, self-harming, becoming addicted to social media and gaming, etc.
Why Do Emotions and Emotional Intelligence (EI) Matter?
Emotions unequivocally matter. According to research, they are known to contribute to: (1) attention, memory, and learning, (2) decision making, (3) the quality of relationships, (4) physical and mental health, and (5) performance and creativity. There is a plethora of studies that support the need to integrate social emotional learning in schools and at home because of the long-standing positive benefits.[ii]
We also know that our mental and psychological health directly impacts on our physical health. Dr. John Sarno, who recently passed away, publicly talked about the mind-body connection in regard to healing back pain. Another physician and researcher, John Kabat-Zinn discussed the mind-body connection regarding relieving chronic pain. In my book, Free Your Child from Overeating: 53 Mind-Body Strategies For Lifelong Health, I speak about the impact of the mind-body connection in regard to overeating.
Many parents don’t feel comfortable and don’t know how to talk about and teach their children about the mind-body connection and about their health and mental health. It is difficult to talk about and explain, and in many instances, parents are challenged with their own communication because dialogue wasn’t entertained or encouraged in their own families of origin.
How to Nurture EI
Role modeling for children by facilitating discussion around feelings, and making connections between children’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors is essential. Facilitating an emotional climate is also critical. A parent can’t just infuse skills, they need to maintain a climate that is conducive for emotions to be expressed, accepted, and effectively worked through.
The way to teach EI is to focus on: (a) Recognizing emotion; (b) Understanding emotion – i.e., knowing the causes and consequences of emotions; (c) Expressing emotion – i.e., knowing how and when to express emotions with different people and in multiple contexts and under varied influences such as personality, gender, power, social norms (family/work), and race, ethnicity, and culture, and (d) Regulating emotion – i.e., the thoughts and actions we use to prevent, reduce, initiate, maintain or enhance emotions.
Here are some diagrams and exercises helping to make the connection for children regarding understanding and identifying their emotions:
(https://theinstitute.umaryland.edu/sefel/docs/social-emotional-tools/feeling%20chart2.pdf, http://www.sheffkids.co.uk/adultssite/documents/worksheets/feelings.pdf, https://www.cnvc.org/sites/default/files/feelings_inventory_0.pdf, and https://www.pinterest.com/pin/355080751841764365/), developing coping cards (when i ________, i feel ______ (also rate intensity of feeling from 1 (low) to 5 (high) because ________. What i need is _________________________. See http://www.pinterest.com/explore/mental-health-activities and http://www.pinterest.com/janetmilder/mental-health-activities for examples of activities to explore emotions.
Some other messages to convey regarding understanding and conveying emotions includes that:
- There are genetic or biological components to mental health and mental illness, the negative consequences can be prevented and minimized with support and intervention.
- You often cannot detect and “see” mental illness and it is not caused by doing something wrong or because of how intelligent someone is, it’s caused by a mix of what’s going on inside their body and what’s happening around them (here are short video explaining this: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=YeFl3l74QZA and https://youtu.be/gmwiJ6ghLIM).
- Mental health disorders impact all people, irrespective of their gender, race, religion, setting they live in, etc. There are genetic and environmental factors that make people more vulnerable for them. For example, regarding academic achievement, anxiety can show up differently. Someone can be overly perfectionistic, avoid class participation because of fear of embarrassment, or panic while test taking because of fear of failure.
- There is not a one-size-fits-all method for assessing and treating mental illness because they present variably from one person to the other (i.e., frequency, intensity, duration, etc.).
- There are inherent labels and stigmas attached to mental health disorders. One can get help respectfully and confidentially.
- Like health issues, mental health issues often can’t be easily recognized or noticed so there may be the expectations to “get over it” or “move forward” despite how a person’s feeling. If we would treat mental health issues like health issues we would hopefully be more compassionate and empathetic to those experiencing them.
- Negative emotions/feelings such as sadness, disappointment, frustration, anger, guilt, etc. are most often not dangerous, it’s just uncomfortable. The power is being comfortable with being uncomfortable and being able to be with those feelings, rather than distract or avoid them (for more see my blogs “Strengthen Your Frustration Muscle” http://www.michellemaidenberg.com/best-method-self-improvement/ and “Gaining Emotional Intelligence By Being In The “Yuck” http://www.michellemaidenberg.com/gaining-emotional-intelligence-yuck/).
- There are two sources of stress -- external triggers (e.g., an argument with a parent or receiving a poor grade) and internal triggers (placing high expectations on yourself or experiencing negative/self-deprecating self-talk). Both need to be addressed.
- Stress and sadness (and other negative emotions) are typical, anxiety and depression can reach such heightened states that intervention is necessary. With the right treatment, one can get the effective help they need.
- Parents and kids should be aware of the warning signs which can indicate the need to seek professional help (e.g., very sad or hopeless, socially isolates, or changes in eating or sleeping habits). For a more comprehensive list see: http://www.mentalhealthamerica.net/conditions/childrens-mental-health.
- Our thoughts lead to feelings which then impact our behavior. It is important to recognize and identify our thoughts and feelings so that we can be mindful to react and act on behalf of our core values, our best selves, and who we want to be (for more see my blog on “6 Tips For Making BEST Mindful Decisions” http://www.michellemaidenberg.com/making-decisions-why-its-so-challenging-what-to-do-about-it/).
- Psychological self-care needs to focus on sleep, stress management, self-confidence/self-compassion, connected relationships, physical activity/exercise, and nutrition.
- Compartmentalizing and problem-solving skills are essential to help break down tasks to reduce stress and pressure and additionally helps with organization and time management.
- Expressing emotion and communicating in an emotionally connected and relational manner is essential to role model to children. This includes familial communication (i.e., among partners, toward siblings, etc.), communication to friends, to others, and about others.
- Having good mental health is not just a matter of just “thinking happy thoughts” or “getting the thoughts out of your head.” We are taught to believe that we can make that happen. The thoughts tend to come back and often can come back even more intensely. This facilitates a cycle of disappointment, frustration, and negative self-deprecating messages (for more see my blog on “Please STOP Preaching Happiness, Gratitude & Positive Affirmations” http://www.michellemaidenberg.com/please-stop-preaching-happiness-gratitude-positive-affirmations/). What is helpful is learning the value of all emotions and how they can be helpful, how to label emotions, connect them to feelings that are getting evoked, test out the thoughts or initiate problem solving, and act in accordance with our core values.
- Mindfulness, meditation, stress management, and other present moment activities and exercises helps with mood and emotional regulation (for more see my Huffington Post blog “Going From Autopilot to Mindfulness” http://m.huffpost.com/us/entry/us_58d1ce01e4b099c777b9dd02, “The Effects of Anxiety On Our Youth and What To Do About It” http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/589f9ba5e4b0e172783a9d2d?timestamp=1486955010569, and Dr Andrew Weil’s breathing exercise https://www.drweil.com/videos-features/videos/breathing-exercises-4-7-8-breath/).
Educating kids on emotions and acquiring emotional intelligence is just as important as teaching your child about their health, safety, and moral compass. Acquiring emotional intelligence and understanding the mind-body connection can no longer be denied or overlooked. Our children’s future is dependent on it.
I unfortunately see many adults in my practice who are being first introduced to these concepts and skills in adulthood. They are inhibited from living their best life and the life they want to be living.
There are no excuses, if you don’t know how to teach it, attempt to learn it. If you’re uncomfortable teaching it, then work toward learning to be comfortable with being uncomfortable (please see the book recommendations to help you with this personally and directly with your child(ren). Let’s work together to introduce, develop, and instill emotional intelligence. We can be conduits for enhancing the lives of the children we so dearly love and cherish.
Boys of Few Words: Raising Our Sons to Communicate and Connect by Adam J. Cox
Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ by Daniel Goleman
[i] American Psychological Association. (2014). Stress in America: Are Teens Adopting Adults’ Stress Habits? Stress in America Survey. 1-38.
[ii] Durlak, J. A., Weissberg, R. P., Dymnicki, A. B., Taylor, R. D., Schellinger, K. B. (2011). The Impact of Enhancing Students’ Social and Emotional Learning: A Meta-Analysis of School-Based Universal Interventions. Child Development, 82(1), 405–432.
Greenberg, M. T., Domitrovich, C., & Bumbarger, B. (2001). The Prevention of Mental Disorders in School-Aged Children: Current State of the Field. Prevention & Treatment, 4(1). Article ID 1a. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/1522-37188.8.131.52a.
Malecki, C. K., & Elliot, S. N. (2002). Children's Social Behaviors as Predictors of Academic Achievement: A Longitudinal Analysis. School Psychology Quarterly, 17(1), 1-23. http://dx.doi.org/10.1521/scpq.184.108.40.20602.
Payton, J., Weissberg, R.P., Durlak, J.A., Dymnicki, A.B., Taylor, R.D., Schellinger, K.B., & Pachan, M. (2008). The Positive Impact of Social and Emotional Learning for Kindergarten to Eighth-Grade Students: Findings from Three Scientific Reviews. Chicago, IL: Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning.
Slad, M., Diekstra, R. De Ritter, M., Ben, J., and Gravesteijn, C. (2012). Effectiveness of School-Based Universal Social, Emotional, and Behavioral Programs: Do They Enhance Students’ Development in the Area of Skill, Behavior, and Adjustment? 49(9), 892–909. doi:10.1002/pits.21641.
Taylor, R. D., Oberle, E., Durlak, J. A. and Weissberg, R. P. (2017). Promoting Positive Youth Development Through School-Based Social and Emotional Learning Interventions: A Meta-Analysis of Follow-Up Effects. Child Dev, 88, 1156–1171. doi:10.1111/cdev.12864.
Zins, J. E., Weissberg, R. P., Wang, M. C., Walberg, H. J. (2004). Building Academic Success on Social Emotional Learning: What Does the Research Say? Teachers College Press: NY.