The No1 skill every adolescent should learn and why

The period of adolescence is known for its trials and tribulations, and for good reason. It is during this life stage where so many developmental transitions take place in all dimensions–cognitively, emotionally, socially, and physically!
adolescents socialising

The period of adolescence is known for its trials and tribulations, and for good reason. It is during this life stage where so many developmental transitions take place in all dimensions–cognitively, emotionally, socially, and physically! You then add the complexities that modern technology brings with, and you are bound to have a field day, or two, or twenty. But there is hope, as parents, educators, and/or guardians, if you there is one skill that you can teach your adolescent that will improve his/her life (on all dimensions), as well as maintain your sanity as a parent, then the answer is emotional intelligence (EI), and I will tell you why.

What exactly is EI?

EI was first introduced by Salovey and Mayer in 1990, as the ability of individuals to perceive, identify, understand, and manage their own emotions and to be aware of, and react appropriately to, the emotions of others and their experiences (Petrides, 2011). The abilities associated with EI include: 

  • self-awareness
  • social awareness
  • self-regulation
  • motivation
  • empathy

What about IQ and EI?

Despite the misconception that EI and IQ are strongly related, the two concepts DO NOT go hand-in-hand. Having a high IQ does not equate to having a high EI, and vice versa. One similarity between IQ and EI is that both are multidimensional, meaning that several factors contribute to the overall level of IQ or EI. In the case of EI, it includes the following dimensions (Bar-On, R., Parker, J. D. A., 2012):

  • intrapersonal factors (awareness of one’s emotions, respect and consideration for oneself, self-realisation, and independence)
  • interpersonal factors (empathy, mutually positive interpersonal relationships, showing social responsibility)
  • adaptability (ability to solve problems, engage in reality testing, and flexibility)
  • stress control (ability to tolerance frustration and control impulses)
  • general state of affect (happiness, optimism)

Why is EI so important?

EI has shown to facilitate our capacity for resilience, motivation, empathy, critical thinking, decision-making, stress management, and communication, as well as our ability to read and navigate various social situations and conflicts. In short, EI matters, and unlike IQ, it is a skill that can be learnt. In the age of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, emotional intelligence is considered one of the most important skills to have.

When and where do you learn EI?

EI is cultivated from childhood. Children’s immediate family is their first “EI school” where they learn about emotions, both their own and that of others, through observing their parents’ or caregivers’ emotional expressions and reactions. Therefore, how parents react to emotions of others and show their own emotions, provide children with valuable information on how to control their impulses, identifying and express feelings, deal with difficult emotions, read the emotions of others, and react to these.

This “emotional training” which children are exposed to then creates the foundation for their level of EI going into adolescence.

Your emotions make you human, even the unpleasant ones have a purpose. Do not lock them away. If you ignore them, they just get louder and angrier!

~ Sabaa Tahir

Why is EI so important in adolescence?

Cultivating a healthy EI foundation in adolescence is essential for five primary reasons:

  1. Adolescence, classified by the World Health Organisation as the stage between the ages of 10 and 19, is a period of heightened emotionality. If the adolescents cannot perceive, understand, regulate and relate to their emotions it will leave permanent scars on their behaviour and personality.
  2. During adolescence, peer relationships become increasingly important, and if an adolescent is not well equipped with the necessary emotional and social skills to navigate these relationships, it will leave them vulnerable to the development of depression, anxiety, aggression, suicidal ideations, addictive and risky behaviours. 
  3. Adolescence is a period of identity formation. It is an extremely challenging transition in the developmental life span of individuals. It is during this period that adolescents start to individuate, distinguishing themselves from others, identifying their own values and beliefs, and ultimately, forming their own identity. 
  4. Those parts of our brain that is responsible for emotional and social intelligence are not yet anatomically fully matured in adolescents and because of neuroplasticity the adolescent brain will shape itself according to repeat experiences. Therefore, the adolescent brain is extremely receptive to being moulded according to emotional experiences during this period. 
  5. Adolescents spend between 6 and 8 hours on social media every day! Even though access to social media platforms can be a refuge for some adolescents, a place where they feel understood, easily connect with like-minded individuals, feel accepted, and be seen by others as they wish to, they can also use social media to hide behind images, distort reality, and fall victim to cyberbullying, self-harm and suicide. More importantly, online interactions do not provide the same relational experience that real-world interactions offer. Consequently, adolescents lose out on valuable relational experiences.

So, what can you do to enhance adolescents’ EI?

  • Acknowledge feelings: start this in childhood already, where you allow children to say what they are feeling. If they struggle, help them identify their feelings. 
  • Teach them the value of emotions: help your adolescent see emotions as valuable guides, like indicators on a dashboard. Emotions help you identify that something is going on and should be accepted and explored, not pushed away.
  • Model appropriate emotional regulation: how you as a parent react to your own emotions, and that of others, acts as a guide. Therefore, help to show adolescents how to appropriately handle negative emotions such as anger, sadness, frustration, etc. 
  • Reduce social media use: Limit the amount of time your adolescent spends online, more specifically, their time on social media platforms. During the early stages of adolescents, I would advise parents to monitor and check the social interactions of their adolescents–you are the parent, and you make the rules! This will prevent young adolescents from falling prey to online victimisation and bullying. 
  • Be a safe haven: let your adolescent know that you are always there to listen and comfort when they are experiencing difficult emotions. Do not make them feel bad for expressing negative emotions. Allow them to feel their emotions and help them deal with their negative emotions in a constructive manner. 

In my next blog post I will provide more detailed guidelines on how to nurture higher levels of EI, both within adolescents and adults. 

If you have any questions or comments, or concerns, which you would like me to address, please let me know in the comment box below, or email me directly at web@esmarildadankaert.com. You are also welcome to visit my website (click here) for more articles, resources, and practical guides. 

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