The Cost of Emotional Illiteracy

The title of this post is identical to the title of a chapter in Daniel Goleman’s book “Emotional Intelligence.” To get a sense of the cost of emotional illiteracy just watch the news or read the newspaper, and ask yourself, how many incidents were the result of a lack of emotional intelligence?

We have been, and we still are suffering from an emotional malaise. Consider children. Too many children are plagued by the following problems:

*Withdrawal or social problems: preferring to be alone; being secretive; sulking a lot; lacking energy; feeling unhappy; being overly dependent.

*Anxious and depressed: being lonely; having many fears and worries; needing to be perfect; feeling unloved; feeling nervous or sad and depressed.

*Attention or thinking problems: unable to pay attention or still daydreaming; acting without thinking; being too nervous to concentrate; doing poorly on schoolwork; unable to get mind off thoughts. Perhaps it is ironic that the new technology has contributed to thinking problems. Plugged in children are checking to see if they’re liked. They’re flitting from topic to topic; superficially processing and rarely engaging in detailed thinking.

*Delinquent or aggressive: hanging around kids who get in trouble; lying and cheating; arguing a lot; being mean to other people; demanding attention; destroying other people’s things; disobeying at home and at school; being stubborn and moody; talking too much; teasing a lot; having a hot temper.

Goleman writes, While any of these problems in isolation raises no eyebrows, taken as a group they are barometers of a sea change, a new kind of toxicity seeping into and poisoning the very experience of childhood, signifying sweeping deficits in emotion competencies. The emotional malaise seems to be a universal price of modern life for children.

Urie Bronfenbfrenner, the eminent Cornell University developmental psychologist who did an international comparison of children’s well being said: “In the absence of good support systems, external stresses have become so great that even strong families are falling apart. The hecticness, instability, and inconsistency of daily family life are rampant in all segments of our society, including the well-educated and well-to-do. What is at stake is nothing less than the next generation, particularly males, who in growing up are especially vulnerable to such disruptive forces as the devastating effects of divorce poverty and unemployment.

Bullying is a recognized problem. Moreover, technology has provided yet another means of bullying. This bullying has resulted in suicides of the bullied parties. Not all angry children are bullies; some are social outcasts who overreact to being teased or to what they perceive as slights or unfairness. The one perceptual flaw that unites such children is that they perceive slights where none were intended, imagining their peers to be more hostile toward them than they really are.

Depression should not just be treated, but prevented in children. Even mild episodes of depression in children augur more severe episodes later in life. Of course, every child gets sad from time to time; childhood and adolescence are like adulthood, time of occasional disappointments and losses large and small with attendant grief. The need for prevention is not for these times, but for those children for whom sadness spirals downward into a gloom that leave them despairing, irritable, and withdrawn—a far more severe melancholy.

The cost to children goes beyond the suffering caused by depression itself Kids learn social skills in their peer relations such as what to do if you want something and aren’t getting it, seeing how other children handle the situation and then trying it yourself. But depressed kinds are likely to be among the neglected children in a school, the ones other kids don’t play with much.

Depression can be short -circuited by stopping depressionogenric ways of thought. Just as with adults, pessimistic ways of interpreting life’s defeats seem to feed the sense of helplessness and hopelessness at the heart of children’s depression. Research has found that children are more prone to melancholy toward this pessimistic outlook before they become depressed. This provides a window of opportunity for inoculating them against depression before it strikes.

There was a study of low-level depression, which is depression not severe enough to say it was beyond ordinary unhappiness, at a high school in Oregon. Seventy-five of the mildly depressed students learned to challenge the thinking patters associated with depression, to become more adept at making friends, to get along better with their parents, and to engage in more social activities they found pleasant. By the end of the eight-week program, 55% of the students had recovered from their mild depression, while only about a quarter of equally depressed students not in the program had begun to pull out of their depression. A year later a quarter of those in the comparison group had gone on to fall into a major depression as opposed to only 14% of students in the depression-prevention program. The eight session program seemed to have cut the risk of depression in half.

Steven Asher, a University of Illinois psychologist has designed a series of “friendship coaching” sessions for unpopular children. He identified third and fourth graders who were least liked in their classes. Asher gave them six sessions in how to “make playing games more fun” through being friendly, fun, and nice.” To avoid stigma, the children were told that they were acting as “consultants” to the coach, who was trying to learn what kinds of things make it more enjoyable to play games. This mini course in getting along had a remarkable effect: a year later the children who’re coached—all of whom were selected because they were the least liked in class—were now solidly in the middle of classroom popularity.

Problems such as eating disorders, alcohol and drug abuse need to have special programs.

Goleman argues for no more wars on such problems. Rather a final common preventive pathway to prevention is needed. In a five-year project sponsored by the W.T. Grant Foundation, a consortium of researchers studied the research and distilled the active ingredients that seemed crucial to successful programs. The emotional skills include self-awareness, identifying, expressing, and managing feelings; impulse control and delaying gratification; and handling stress and anxiety. A key ability in impulse control is knowing the difference between feelings and actions, and learning to make better emotional decisions by first controlling the impulse to act, then identifying alternative actions and their consequences before acting. Many competencies are interpersonal: reading social and emotional cues, listening, being able to resist negative influences, taking others’ perspectives, and understanding what behavior is acceptable in a situation.

The next post will provide an answer to the question, “What would an education in emotions look like?”

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