P Files 03-Jan-2013
Is Emotional Intelligence more important than Self-Esteem?
Asked what they hope for their child, most parents say they just want for them to be happy. It’s only in the fine print that we add, and healthy and smart and sociable and confident, and successful.
But perhaps these things are more related than we think?
Happiness is an elusive, unquantifiable goal. However, links have been made between high emotional intelligence, high self-esteem and greater levels of happiness and feelings of wellbeing. There is also a proven correlation between perceived parental love and happiness.
Since the ‘60s, when psychologist Dr Stanley Coopersmith asserted, “ability and academic performance are significantly associated with feelings of personal worth,” the focus of child development landed squarely on the importance of building up self-esteem and has gained traction in both parenting and education circles.
The idea is to build up a child’s self-esteem by mastering skills and gaining knowledge, which attracts praise, which makes a child feel good, happy, and confident within their self.
Boosting your child’s IQ has become big business, with education-based games and books and toys and flash cards and CDs and DVDs aimed at turning your child into a little Einstein, to give them an academic advantage and therefore boost their self-esteem.
Building blocks of self-esteem
The Australian Raising Children Network gives these age-related milestones in self-esteem development:
Babies don’t have a sense of themselves or self-esteem. They learn that they are loved and lovable because of the love and nurturing they receive.
Toddlers still don’t fully understand themselves; that their body and mind belong to them. Learning new skills adds to their sense of ability and who they are. When they say ‘no’, they learn that they are a separate person, but they see themselves through their parents’ eyes. If parents show and tell them that they are special and lovable, they will develop self-esteem. If they get messages that they are not lovable or are a nuisance, they will not easily develop self-esteem.
Preschoolers, by age 3, have learned that their bodies and minds are their own. They are more confident with time away from their main caregiver as they have an inner sense of self. They learn their self-esteem by comparing themselves with others.
For many Primary school-age children, self-esteem tends to fall due to coping with new expectations, children and rules. Self-esteem in these years is about how well children manage their learning, sport, friends, and appearance. Stresses such as parents fighting, having trouble with schoolwork, being bullied or not having friends, can all affect their self-esteem.
By High School, peers challenge parental influence. A study from the University of the Pacific, on the impact of self-esteem and emotional intelligence on risky behavior in teens and young adults, found that emotional intelligence and self-respect helps kids reduce their likelihood of performing risky behaviour, whereas self-esteem significantly increases the likelihood of risky behaviour.
The importance of Self-Esteem
There is sound reasoning behind the self-esteem movement, as research has proven that self-esteem is vitally important for a person to become a well-adjusted and high-functioning adult. A person’s self-esteem is heavily dependent upon how they are treated by their parents as children. And a healthy self-esteem is proven to play a crucial role in academic success.
Inversely, low self-esteem has been linked to emotional instability, anti-social behavior, poor academic performance and depression. Yet, new research has shown that an over-inflated self-esteem also leads to emotional instability, anti-social behavior and depression.
Interestingly, Professor Nicholas Emler argues from his research that whereas those with low self-esteem pose a danger only to themselves, those with high self-esteem pose a danger to society, as they are more likely to indulge in behaviour with negative effects on others.
It seems then, that we need to be aiming for the goldilocks band, where a child’s self-esteem is not too low and not too high, but just right, in order to ensure their emotional intelligence and therefore their ability to integrate well, socially.
The side-affects of over-inflation
Australian social commentator, Hugh Mackay, fears we could be making the transition into adult life harder for our children, by focusing on building up their self-esteem. He says, ''There's a lot of life that's just a hard grind. If we overemphasise self-esteem in kids, inevitably when they reach adulthood, early adulthood, even adolescence, they're going to find it very hard to cope with disappointment and failure.''
Professor Helen McGrath, senior lecturer in the School of Education at Deakin University, goes further, suggesting wider social ramifications of inflated self-esteem, "Parents and teachers always have the best interests of children at the heart of what they do and their involvement in the 'self-esteem movement' has reflected that. However, although well-intentioned, this movement is now seen by many researchers to have contributed to a stronger sense of entitlement and, in some cases, higher levels of narcissism."
Even more concerning, McGrath says, “New international studies were showing kids with inflated self-esteem were more likely to be ringleaders in bullying”.
Too much of a good thing
How do we cross the line from healthy self-esteem to an over-inflated self-esteem? Lisa Firestone, author of The Self Under Siege, thinks it happens when we get carried away with praise, saying: "Studies have shown that children offered compliments for skills they haven't mastered or talents they do not possess are left feeling as if they'd received no praise at all, often even emptier and less secure," she wrote in Psychology Today. "Only children praised for real accomplishments were able to build self-esteem. The others were left to develop something far less desirable — narcissism."
Dr Jennifer Crocker, who has worked on a series of self-esteem studies at the University of Michigan, critiques the self-esteem movement from another angle, identifying the core problem as being that it bases self-esteem not on the self, but on external things.
Crocker‘s research found that, “students who based their self-worth on external sources: including appearance, approval from others and even their academic performance, reported more stress, anger, academic problems, relationship conflicts, and had higher levels of drug and alcohol use and symptoms of eating disorders.”
Because the resulting behaviours of inflated self-esteem lead to actions lacking in self-respect, it is worth examining the difference.
Shifting our focus
McGrath says we need to place more emphasis on self-respect than self-esteem. "We can work with parents to change their focus slightly and identify self-respect as a more useful goal rather than self-esteem," she says. "People who have self-respect have sound values that they use as a 'moral map' to treat others respectfully. They consider themselves equal to other people (neither inferior or superior) and work hard to try and achieve their goals. They are resilient, accept themselves as imperfect and continue to be self-accepting in spite of mistakes or failures. Although they enjoy receiving positive feedback, they are not dependent on it to feel okay."
Some experts are concerned that while we have been busy building up our children’s self-esteem, we have hindered their emotional wellbeing. This is because emotional intelligence is not only about taking a measure of our own emotions and learning to respond appropriately to the circumstances in which we find ourselves, but it is also about learning to read others and respond appropriately to them. In contrast, self-esteem is focused purely on the self.
EQ and self-esteem: what’s the connection?
Since the ‘90s, Emotional Intelligence has become the measuring stick to assess adaptability, resilience and social aptitude. Experts now suggest we focus less on our child’s IQ and achievements, and focus more on their EQ (emotional quotient), because it is important to teach children how to feel and to talk about and respond appropriately to their emotions, as well as teach them how to think.
According to research conducted at Armidale University, higher emotional intelligence is associated with better psychological functioning and greater wellbeing. It is also associated with less depression, greater optimism, the ability to repair moods, characteristic positive mood and high self-esteem, (opposed to inflated self-esteem).
High emotional intelligence is proven to have a positive impact on a child’s choices both socially and individually. McGrath says studies show that children with high self-respect and emotional intelligence “are more likely to help tackle the problem of bullying, as it builds an ability to empathise with others”.
The function of emotional intelligence
According to Dr Jeanne Segal and Melinda Smith, in their article on raising emotional intelligence, it builds five key skills:
• The ability to quickly reduce stress.
• The ability to recognize and manage your emotions.
• The ability to connect with others using nonverbal communication.
• The ability to use humour and play to deal with challenges, and
• The ability to resolve conflicts positively and with confidence.
While these skills are needed for all of life, the grounding for them needs to be established in the young years. Studies indicate that a greater perceived parental love is associated with higher emotional intelligence, with particular emphasis on the amount of love and warmth received from the mother. So the more love we show to our children, the greater their levels of emotional intelligence.
What should we avoid?
Psychologist, Dr Randall Grayson, says it is important to understand the parental responses that hinder a child in developing an emotional intelligence. He says parents should avoid:
• Dismissing their child’s emotions as unimportant
• Ignoring their child’s feelings
• Encouraging their child to stop expressing their negative feelings
• Distracting their child as a means of shutting down their emotional response
• Not teaching problem-solving skills
• Focusing on getting over the emotion, instead of understanding the meaning of the emotion
• Trivializing the problem so you can move on.
So how do we develop emotional intelligence?
Psychologist, Dr Laura Markham, says there are five practical ways we can show love and nurture emotional intelligence in our children:
• Acknowledge your child’s perspective and empathize. Feeling understood helps soothe your child’s feelings and helps them self-reflect on emotional triggers. It also helps them develop empathy for others.
• Allow expression of emotions, including disappointment and anger. Accepting your child’s emotional response helps them understand that we all experience the full range of human emotions.
• Listen to their feelings. When we teach children to express their emotions in an appropriate way, it helps them to avoid tantrums now and repressed anger later on.
• Teach problem solving. After children have learnt to express their feelings and they feel understood, it’s time to empower them by helping them find constructive solutions to their problems.
• Play it out. Emotionally healthy kids learn to understand and control their emotions through play. Sometimes role-playing out emotional responses with your child allows them to resolve their issue, in order to move on.
According to Crocker, the paradox of parenting is that if we want our children to be happy, with a healthy self-esteem and high emotional intelligence, we need to take the focus away from building their self-esteem and shift it to a wider, communal focus that contributes to others. She says, “It’s about having a goal that is bigger than the self.”