Emotional resilience; learning to stave off social anxiety from rejection and other tribulations

shield the negativityThere comes a point in everyone’s life when we have felt the sting of rejection. Some people find it difficult to move past such an incident, while others are able to shrug the rejection off with what I will call emotional resilience. What exactly is emotional resilience, and how can it be learned? 

There are multiple ways to define emotional resilience, one definition is emotional resilience is an individual’s ability to resist peer pressure and having a hardened resolve by which they can rebound from rejections and all other social dilemmas. This is achieved in a multitude of ways. First, understand your personal limits and why it is that first impressions are instrumental in defining who you like and who you don’t. Everyone forms an initial judgement that determines who belongs to “Us” and who does not, a “Them”. Judgements about a person can be changed later through more interaction, but be aware that first impressions can be difficult to shake.

When we develop past early childhood, we have passed what psychologists call our narcissistic toddler state. The key change of this transition is the importance now placed on a group perspective. However, unlike fully grown adults, we will be far more inclined towards a first person perspective rather than a third person, or “outsider” perspective. For example, an adolescent went out on a first date that ended badly. That adolescent would be far more likely to ask themselves afterwards, “how might I have felt in her situation?” Rather than having asked the more useful third person, “how does she feel in her situation?” While the first question is still helpful for understanding what might have gone wrong, the third person perspective would be more helpful in understanding why that girl in particular might have been upset, as she would likely have a different perspective than the adolescent put in the same position. Children and teenagers’ brains are still developing; while they are able to understand how different circumstances can impact a person’s behavior, they are still working on their ability to understand a wider range of perspectives.

So, why should there be such importance placed on adolescents in particular to build emotional resilience? Adolescents are in a much more transitionally complex social realm than adults or children. As shown in a Temple University psychology study conducted in 2013, teens have an average of 400 social media friends or more, far more than adults. Moreover, teen sociality is mostly about one thing: belonging. The result of this need to belong is teenagers experience greater levels of anxiety and vulnerability, and they are therefore more receptive to peer pressure and emotional contagion. Neuroimaging studies show that adolescents have a greater level of sensitivity towards their peers’ responses over any other group. When the study asked adults what they imagine others think about them, two different but partially overlapping areas of the brain lit up: first, the prefrontal cortex (PFC for short), which is the most sophisticated and one of the last areas to develop in the brain. It acts as our reasoning HQ. Second, the limbic cortex: our emotional and regulatory center in the brain. In stark contrast, when the adolescents in the study were asked the same question, there was no PFC activity. This suggests that teenagers are more emotionally driven and they believe that their actions is the only thing that affects how others see them, prompting more group-based behavior.

So, how exactly do we go about teaching adolescents to instill emotional resilience with SEL? Rather than just providing a lifeless laundry list of the various theories and studies, I’d rather share one exemplary case involving study on social exclusion conducted by Naomi Eisenberger at UCLA. In this study, she created a computer game called Cyberball. The subject plays the game while lying in a brain scanner. During the game, the subject is told that they are playing against two other human players when in reality they are playing against a computer. 

Each player occupies a spot on the screen, forming a triangle. Each one gets a turn tossing the ball to one of the other two players. The subject picks the next player to throw to and in turn believes the other two are doing the same. The back and forth continues for a while, then the programmed behavior of the other two players changes to no longer throw to the main player. Almost immediately, brain scans show that an adolescent subject feels excluded. In adults, however, this was not the case. Instead, the following areas of the brain were activated: periaqueductal, anterior cingulate, the amygdala, and the insular cortex. These are areas in the brain that neurologists believe are central to pain perception, anger, and disgust. In short, the distinction between adults and teenagers is that in adults the prefrontal cortex is fully developed and allows for heightened activity in the brain. Unfortunately, the adolescent subjects struggled with this experiment of emotional resilience due to not yet having a fully developed PFC. As a result, this experiment can be viewed as a litmus test to judge whether our adolescents are struggling with emotional resilience.

learn sel through video gamesIn lieu of this, how can we possibly hope to train adolescents to learn emotional resilience when that part of the brain is not fully developed? Simply put, practicing emotional resilience with SEL will be all about having a viable long game. The process should be viewed as similar to any other kind of skill development. As adolescents are more predisposed to impulsivity, the odds of learning emotional resilience quickly is low. However, by being taught emotional resilience over several years and continuously working to develop their PFC, it is likely that one day we could have adolescents who could routinely pass Naomi’s Cyberball experiment. Even more importantly, instead of just “making the grade” in another subject students have to learn, we all stand to benefit from having adolescents who develop individuality and emotional resilience early on. Individuals who hone their emotional resilience will more likely to show greater social awareness and emotional control.

In conclusion, how exactly can we teach emotional resilience to students? First, there has to be work towards teaching adolescents about their still-developing brains. Then, we can begin to incorporate that into lesson plans with activities that challenge their emotional resilience by introducing moral dilemmas and then coaching them into meditative and thought provoking exercises so they can work through any initial impulsive thoughts or behavior. 

In addition, a key part of this would be to understand the impact that parenting plays into emotional resilience. There are four types of parenting styles that were named by Berkeley psychologist Diana Baumrind; in the typology, she addresses how understanding the various styles gives you a framework for how the adolescents may behave around their peers and why. While parenting is not as instrumental in determining a child’s adult personality as many people believe, it does give adolescents their first frame of reference on how to behave. Their interactions with their peers are shown to be more important for developing social skills.

By incorporating SEL into the lives of teenagers, they are more likely to improve their interactions with their peers and exhibit more emotional control. We all stand to greatly benefit by teaching SEL in schools, but it is the adolescents themselves that will benefit the most.

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