One of our CGGS Counsellors, Beth Sarlos, has prepared an article to help highlight the importance of the range of emotions experienced by young people in their development.
It is an important reminder of the complexity of our emotions and the importance of teaching and supporting our children in how to manage them.
If you have any queries or would like to discuss this further please don’t hesitate to contact Beth Sarlos, SarlosB@cggs.vic.edu.au or Paula Kolivas, firstname.lastname@example.org, our two School Counsellors.
With best wishes,
Developing Emotional Agility and Emotional Management
Recently I watched the 2015 animated children’s Pixar movie ‘Inside Out’ with my 8 year old nephew. For anyone who has not seen it, the movie tells the poignant story of an 11 year old girl, Riley, who has to move from her home town of Minnesota to San Francisco and the film documents her emotional experiences as she navigates this major transition. The audience gets to see inside Riley’s head and introduced to her various emotions, personified as characters, Anger, Disgust, Sadness, Fear and Joy. The film addresses issues of loss, growing up, loss of friendships, loss of childhood, loss of the known and all the emotions associated with these losses. One of the major struggles in the movie occurs between Joy and Sadness. Joy, the ‘control freak’ emotion, is always positive and upbeat. Joy furiously tries to suppress Sadness, the gloomy, negative and down in the dumps emotion and keep her in control. Outside of Riley’s head, her parents are also wanting her to be happy and to put on a brave face through this difficult transition. They are unable to recognise that what Riley probably needs is validation of her feelings and the opportunity to feel sad, to feel hurt and out of control and to miss her friends back home.
The movie made me think about the messages society gives us about happiness, the push to focus on being happy, to stay positive and the pressure to avoid negative feelings of sadness, anger, regret, shame, envy and anxiety. Yet, despite this push towards feeling happy, in western society we are seeing escalating rates of depression and anxiety in our young people.
Ask any parent what they want for their child, and the answer they would offer is that they wish their child to be happy. Parents naturally want to protect their children from suffering and hardship. It is difficult to see our children upset, to see them sad, crying and emotionally out of control. It taps into our own fear of being out of control, it raises our own anxiety and we feel the need to fix it for them and to make them feel better. As parents we have difficulty sitting and tolerating their negative emotions. How many times do we tell our children to, “cheer up”, “don’t cry”, “don’t be sad”, “don’t worry”. We have an urge to make our children feel better and to attempt to quickly find solutions if we or our children feel depressed, stressed, anxious or overwhelmed.
However, psychologists believe that in overprotecting and shielding children from negative emotions, they cannot fully develop, they don’t understand and are unable to tune into their emotions or know what to do when difficulties or problems arise. Teaching children and adolescents to sit with negative and emotionally out of control feelings, validating these emotions and teaching them to tolerate that feeling, assuring them it won’t last forever, and teaching them to learn techniques to manage it, is important. Essentially, we need to teach them to self soothe, a skill which will be beneficial through their whole life and which makes them feel more able to tackle stressful situations and consequently become better problem solvers.
In the movie, it was only after Riley’s sadness was acknowledged and validated by her parents and at the same time Joy realised the importance of Sadness and moved aside, that Riley was able to move forward. Riley learnt that it was OK to feel sad.
A recent study found that society’s focus on overvaluing positive emotions and undervaluing the negative ones, as well as regarding sadness and anxiety as maladaptive, may have an unintended consequence. Rather than reducing depression it may inadvertently make it worse.
If we are to be emotionally healthy we need to be in touch with our negative emotions and need the validation of these feelings from people around us that all emotions are valuable.
This of course does not mean that someone in distress needs to accept these feelings and not do anything about it. If distressing or depressive feelings are persistent and completely overtake one’s life and prevent them from doing things they previously enjoyed, then a referral to a psychologist, GP, counsellor or other helping professional is important. It is vital to let children and young people know that there is nothing wrong with how they are feeling, but know that there is help available.
Recently, psychologist Dr Susan David, has introduced the term, ‘Emotional Agility’ to describe emotional acceptance and tolerance. According to her, Emotional Agility is “being aware and accepting of all your emotions, even learning from the most difficult ones”, to not be frightened of emotions and in the process become better at navigating life’s ups and downs.
Here at CGGS, we actively promote the development of emotional agility, within our curriculum and some examples of this include:
> In Year 7 English, there is acomprehensive study of short films where the exploration of emotions both positive and negative are analysed.
> In Year 7 & 8 Wellbeing,the students learn about key concepts around emotional intelligence, including valuing personal strengths, naming, communicating and valuing emotions and empathy and help seeking
> In Year 7 – 12 Mental Fitness Training, studentsinvestigate practical approaches to valuing a range of emotions including building positive emotions whilst validating negative emotions
> In Year 7 – 10 Health, key concepts explored include transitions, positive and negative self-talk, strategies to promote positive mental and physical health, support services and help seeking
As humans we are constantly faced with good times and bad, pleasurable times and painful times. In life, for both adults and children, we sometimes encounter obstacles and problems and in facing these obstacles we are likely to feel a range of emotions which are negative and need to be perceived as normal levels of sadness, depression and anxiety.
We don’t need to be happy all the time. We don’t need to always overate positivity at the expense of neglecting all the other negative emotions which are equally as important. In doing so we can help our children develop the life-long skill of moving through moments of fear, anxiety, sadness, and other difficult emotions, as opposed to denying their existence.
Susan David sums this up well, “When we talk about agility, diversity and inclusion, all the trademarks of the modern, innovative world, we must begin with our emotions. Diversity isn’t just people, it’s also about what’s inside people, including diversity of emotion”.
Dejonckheere, E., et al,(2017, April), Perceiving Social Pressure not to feel negative effects predicts depressive symptoms in daily life.
David, Susan, (2016) , Emotional Agility: Get Unstuck, Embrace Change, and Thrive in Work and Life.