Today is World Suicide Prevention Day. It might come as a shock to you, but despite a relatively significant improvement in terms of quality of life worldwide, suicide rates have been increasing in many countries. The Atlantic reports that there’s a Millenial mental-health crisis and that experts are concerned it will get worse because of the COVID-19 pandemic. As a matter of fact, QJM: An International Journal of Medicine states that:
Social isolation, anxiety, fear of contagion, uncertainty, chronic stress and economic difficulties may lead to the development or exacerbation of depressive, anxiety, substance use and other psychiatric disorders in vulnerable populations including individuals with pre-existing psychiatric disorders and people who reside in high COVID-19 prevalence areas. Stress-related psychiatric conditions including mood and substance use disorders are associated with suicidal behavior. COVID-19 survivors may also be at elevated suicide risk
Why is this happening now more than ever? The objective of this piece is not to go over the causes of anxiety, depression, and other related conditions. We will focus on what we can do as educators and parents to help children cope with these especially difficult times. In short, what we want kids to be able to develop can be summarized in two terms that have been widely referred to in the specialized literature: emotional intelligence and self-regulation.
Exactly 25 years ago, the author who would become a world best seller, Daniel Goleman, published the book entitled Emotional Intelligence. This work has sold millions of copies and has been translated into dozens of languages precisely because it addresses such a relevant subject that is related to practically all areas of human life: the ability to recognize and manage one’s emotions as well as those of others. However, in times of remote teaching and social isolation, how can we help children become more emotionally intelligent?
We are all going through a very unusual moment. The sudden transition of many to remote work, the demand to create new work and study routines, in addition to the physical distance from our loved ones as well as the constant presence of children at home are more than good reasons to cause some unbalance in our emotional state (read my text about it here). However, it is safe to assume that children and adolescents can experience all of this more intensely. How many times have you heard (or even said yourself) that young people are impulsive, negligent, reckless and emotional? Is this just adult talk or is there actually a reason behind that?
Well, reasons do exist. The apparent emotional lack of control and impulsiveness of children have a lot to do with a region of the brain called the prefrontal cortex, which begins its development around pre-adolescence and only completes the process around the end of our third decade of life (Arain et al. 2013). The good news is that we are teenagers until our late 30s, but the bad news is that during this period of brain maturation we are not very good at managing our emotions. In other words, the younger, the less emotional intelligence we have.
The reason for underdeveloped emotional intelligence in childhood is quite simple. It is related to the lack of development of one of the central executive functions of our brain: inhibitory control, responsible for preventing impulsive behaviors (Arain et al. 2013). I remember watching a Brazilian TV show, which featured one of the most well-known Brazilian neuroscientists, Suzana Herculano-Houzel, explaining how we should act when we want a child to stop doing something potentially dangerous. Picture the following scene: a child standing on a wall about to jump. Suzana said that if we shout, “Don’t jump!”, It is very likely that the child will jump, almost as if their brain could not process the DON’T.
Can you relate with the scene described above? How many times have we tried to prevent or control dangerous or inappropriate behavior of a student or our own children which yielded the exact opposite results? What should we do then? Before I give you any tip, it’s important to understand the concept self-regulation as well:
Self-regulation has been conceptualized as an overarching construct that includes control over a variety of processes, including emotional experiences and expressions (i.e., emotion regulation), approach/withdrawal behavior (i.e., effortful/behavioral control), and cognitive or mental processes (i.e., executive function).
After several decades of research, scholars have come to the agreement that self-regulation is a “cornerstone of children’s development”
(Phillips & Shonkoff, 2000)
A self-regulated person can cope with different social situations with the appropriate emotional-behavioral balance/response. Self-regulation starts developing in childhood and it goes on until we become adults. The problem is that if we neglect it, when a child becomes an adult, it might be too late to change their behaviors and attitudes. Even worse, throughout childhood and adolescence, individuals who are not self-regulated will be more susceptible to developing anxiety and depression.
How can we help children and teenagers become more self-regulated and be more emotionally intelligent? Here are some important thoughts and tips:
1. Working on emotional intelligence and self-regulation is like working on any other skill: It requires awareness and practice. Help the child reflect on their emotions and understand why they happen. You can read my text on the neuropsychology of misbehavior here
2. Do not promote what psychotherapist Leo Fraiman (2019) calls Emperor’s Syndrome in his book. A child with this syndrome throws tantrums for anything. They are highly spoiled and can’t deal with any frustration in life. They are incredibly difficult to deal with. We must remember that life is made up of successes and frustrations and that we all need to learn to deal with both. If you satisfy the child’s every whim and / or distract them from negative emotions with gifts, games, travel, etc., you are damaging the child’s ability to lead a functional adult life in society.
3. Be firm but fair. Children develop emotional self-regulation supported by co-regulation, that is, setting up rules together (with parents, primary caregivers). Don’t forget that little ones follow your steps, so if you don’t have emotional control in front of your children, it can negatively impact their lives. Keep your promises. Don’t give in all the time to their desires. It sends a negative message and they can pick up on that quite quickly.
4. Emotional responses can be separated from behavioral responses. Just because you feel frustrated, bored, or disengaged that doesn’t mean you can act in a disrespectful way. The same goes for kids. We need to teach them that there are obligations in life and they need to stay on task or at least be respectful to their peers and teachers.
5. Help children name their feelings and understand that it’s ok to feel negative feelings sometimes. It’s part of being human. These feelings come and go and we need to allow that to happen.
6. Use affirmative commands. Going back to the example of neuroscientist Suzana, we can take from that episode a simple solution : instead of using “Don’t jump!”, Use “Stop!” or “Come back”.
7. Lead a healthy life. Physical exercise is associated with high levels of dopamine, the neurotransmitter of motivation. You can also make kids stay more connected with nature. Help them start and/or keep a vegetable garden. Gardening is about love, patience, and care. It’s great for emotional intelligence
8. Mindfulness and play need to be part of kids’ daily lives. You can set up some moments to help them calm down and meditate – there are apps and music for that – and you can also make sure they get enough movement throughout the day. Time off their digital devices is vital as well. Make sure you keep them away from screens as much as you can.
9. Routines are essential. Make sure you have a plan and try to stick to it as much as possible. Children may feel overwhelmed and apprehensive when they don’t know what’s coming.
10. Human contact has to be kept somehow. How about setting up a virtual play date for the kids to interact with their friends? They can talk about their day, play games, show their vegetable garden or simply laugh at each other’s jokes.
Finally, I would just like to quote, as a good geek that I am, a film that brings a pertinent analogy. Have you seen Captain Marvel? If you haven’t seen it yet, watch out for spoilers.
Aviator Carol Danvers has an interesting journey. The film shows the many times she fell and got up in life and how she always liked speed. Her struggle was to try to fit into a male stereotype, considered more rational, cooler and less emotional, to occupy certain spaces, such as flying war jets. When she gains her powers and moves to the Kree planet, her military instructor constantly tells her that she needs to suppress her emotions in order to reach her full combat potential. However, it is only when she lets herself feel her emotions, in a controlled way, of course, that she attains phenomenal power (you can read my blog post about it here).
I think we have a lot to learn from Captain Marvel. After all, neuropsychologist José Ramón Gamo and the authors of “We feel, therefore we learn”, António Damásio and Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, already said that the brain needs the body-mind-emotion connection to learn. Emotions, positive and negative, are welcome, we just need to learn how to have emotional intelligence to recognize and manage our emotions, identify what others are feeling and have more empathy with those who live around us. This way we will be able to guide children in developing their own emotional intelligence.
I recommend that we all stop to reflect on the type of people we are raising for the world. We must start cultivating the emotional intelligence of children and help develop healthy and functional adults, who are self-regulated and think not only about themselves, but also about others. People who are able to manage their emotions to reach their goals. This way we can save many kids’ from developing chronic stress, anxiety, depression and other conditions that contribute to the sad suicide rates we see nowadays. We can actually save kids by teaching them to self-regulate and to become more emotionally intelligent.
What are your tips? I’d love to read them.
Arain, M., Haque, M., Johal, L., Mathur, P., Nel, W., Rais, A., Sandhu, R., & Sharma, S. (2013). Maturation of the adolescent brain. Neuropsychiatric disease and treatment, 9, 449–461. https://doi.org/10.2147/NDT.S39776
FRAIMAN, Leo. A síndrome do imperador: Pai empoderados educam melhor. Belo Horizonte: Autêntica Editora, 2019
Goleman, D. (1996). Emotional intelligence: Why it can matter more than IQ. Bloomsbury Publishing.
Immordino‐Yang, M. H., & Damasio, A. (2007). We feel, therefore we learn: The relevance of affective and social neuroscience to education. Mind, brain, and education, 1(1), 3-10.
Jahromi, B. Chapter Two – Self-Regulation in Young Children With Autism Spectrum Disorder: An Interdisciplinary Perspective on Emotion Regulation, Executive Function, and Effortful Control,
Editor(s): Robert M. Hodapp, Deborah J. Fidler, International Review of Research in Developmental Disabilities, Academic Press, Volume 53, 2017, Pages 45-89,
Sher, L. (2020) The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on suicide rates, QJM: An International Journal of Medicine, , hcaa202, https://doi.org/10.1093/qjmed/hcaa202
Shonkoff, J. P., & Phillips, D. A. (Eds.). (2000). From neurons to neighborhoods: The science of early childhood development. National Academy Press