Note: This paper is the justification of the emotional literacy curriculum I created for my HDFS 703: Child and Adolescent Development class.  You can find the program at “Naming His Feelings.” I encourage you check it out before reading this paper and leave comments if you have any advice or ideas. Thanks!

Naming His Feelings:

An Emotional Literacy and Regulation Curriculum

Anna Bohlinger

University of Wisconsin – Stout

Introduction

Emotionality is an element of the human experience that seems rife with culturally assigned truisms.  The experience of emotion is often summed up with “don’t bottle it up” or “grow up.”  Both of those platitudes do not leave room for middle ground, and as with most things, it is the space in between that individuals find health (Kennedy-Moore, 1999; Spinrad, 2006).  The unyielding demand of those extremes is especially evident when it comes to gendered emotional expression.  Through both actual and expected expression, women are perceived as highly emotional.  In the same way, men are perceived as restricted (Brody 1999).  Expected patterns of expression and nonexpression are associated with a number of outcomes, both positive and negative.  Emotional expression and nonexpression can both be healthy (Kennedy-Moore, 1999); at the same time, Axis I mood disorders are often diagnosed along gendered lines (Howell, 2005).  Are individuals experiencing and expressing emotions spontaneously in line with their particular temperaments?  Or are they simply expressing or not expressing in line with expected gendered norms?  Exploration of these questions and others on the gendered nature of emotional expression occurred throughout the creation of the emotional literacy and regulation curriculum “Naming His Feelings.”  The creation of the program began with a literature review including current conceptualizations of emotional experience and expression and both quantitative and qualitative research on emotionality.  Next, the program itself was conceptualized as a three month teaching module including a pre- and posttest of Emotional Intelligence.  Finally, limitations and further research needs are discussed.

Literature Review

Emotion is first and foremost, a brain process.  The human brain can be divided into three areas: the reptilian brain, the mammalian brain, and the rational brain.  The reptilian part of the human brain is the oldest and controls automatic and survival processes.  Moving up in the evolutionary ladder, the mammalian brain came next and encompasses more attachment and social processes, like seeking and providing nurturance.  Finally, the newest part of the brain, the rational part, includes the prefrontal cortex and is in charge of problem solving, decision making and planning.  None of these parts of the brain operate entirely independently from the rest of the brain.  When an individual encounters novel stimuli, the reptilian brain first assigns the safety or danger immediately evident in it and the rational brain mediates the “gut feeling” of the reptilian brain.  Without the reptilian brain, humanity would likely die out because we would not know to avoid or be wary of dangerous or unknown stimuli.  Without the rational part of our brains we would find ourselves controlled by “gut feelings” and find ourselves cortisol-scarred by the stressors of everyday life.   The mammalian brain is used for social seeking, soothing, and the normative processes that teach human young the safety found in others (Malchiodi, 2008).  Emotional processing depends on a complex network of neural pathways between the reptilian brain, especially the amygdala, and the newer parts of the brain, like the prefrontal cortex (Derntl, 2009).  Although there is some evidence that hemispheric specialization for processing fear differs between genders (Brune, 2006), the general emotional appears consistent (Derntl, 2009).

Emotionality is not only a brain process, but also a social process.  When a person experiences emotional stimuli, they first experience it internally.  Before a person is even aware of the emotion, they experience the “prereflective reaction” or gut response.  Next, the individual becomes aware of the response.  As soon as the individual recognizes that they are experiencing the reaction, they begin and labeling and interpreting it on a cognitive level.  It is also during this stage that they determine that the response is emotional, as opposed to physical, in nature.  The social processing begins next with the determining the value and morality of the emotional response.  Next, individuals determine the appropriateness of the experience and the social context, both in terms of how proportionate the reaction is to given stimuli and how appropriate it would be to reveal one’s feelings, given the environment (Kennedy-Moore, 1999).  Three things seem to contribute to the quality of emotions individuals choose to express: how well the individuals know each other, their own sex, and the sex to whom they are expressing (Brody, 1999).

In Western male dominated culture, the dominant parable of male strength is one of male silence (Shamir, 2002; Scheff, 2006).   In spite of this, emotionality is a part of the whole human experience.  Some emotional states, like surprise and fear, can be seen across cultures and languages.  Male silence may not be maladaptive, and in fact, may be an effective and prosocial emotional regulation technique.  Emotional expression or nonexpression may both be adaptive.  As Kennedy-Moore put it, expression exists on a continuum.  In spite of the culturally mandated and rigid norms about healthy emotion,

“What is important is not how much people do or do not express, but rather the degree to which they are able to integrate their thinking and their feeling, to draw upon their emotional experience without being driven blindly by it and to consider the interpersonal impact of their emotional behavior without discounting their own experience” (8, 1999).

Both emotional expression and nonexpression can be healthy, but historical and emergent research in male development seems to indicate that a male pattern of nonexpression, may be more highly correlated with negative outcomes or greater symptomology.  In male children, significantly higher levels of externalizing behaviors are associated with a diagnosis of Conduct Disorder and/or Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (Herpetz, 2008).  Adult male inmates seem to demonstrate a significantly lower level of coping skills than members of the general population (Chen, 2009).  Proactive violence, in other words, violence that is premeditated and nonemotional is associated with a higher number of completed male suicides (Conner, 2009).  In middle adulthood, alexithymia, or the inability to verbalize emotional experience, is positively correlated with psychologically-related Erectile Dysfunction (Kennedy-Moore, 1999; Michetti, 2006).

Although none of these studies were causational, a lack of emotional expression or coping and negative effects are highly correlated across a range of domains, from behavioral to sexual dysfunction.  The seemingly gendered differences in emotional expression leads the informed clinician to consider the social and cultural constructs that affect expression or nonexpression.  As previously mentioned, the physical processing of emotion in the brain is very similar across genders in healthy individuals (Derntl, 2009).  If processing is occurring similarly, why are there such polarities in expression?

Troubled children and youth typically display externalizing or internalizing behaviors.  Females typically display internalizing behaviors, like ruminating or self-injurious behaviors.  Males typically display externalizing behaviors, like distracting or fighting (Brody, 1999; Leadbeater, 2009).   These behaviors are attempts to cope with internal emotional states and are often actually very effective with dealing with those states in the moment.  However, they are typically not prosocial or ultimately adaptive, and because of that, interventions are utilized to decrease those behavioral patterns.  Interventions addressed at strictly changing behavioral patterns have had mixed reviews (Gaines, 2009).  By addressing the underlying mechanism of anxiety and emotional management, “Naming His Feelings,” is not only an attempt to increase emotional literacy and regulation, but also to regulate behaviors.

The program is based on not only existing research on emotional development and models of emotional expression, but also has a strong theoretical basis.  Most obviously, its exploration of the social constructs that define masculinity clearly draws on Bronfenbrenner’s model of the interactive self.  An individual is never simply the whole of their internal self; they are instead, compiled from and with a series of interactions with their immediate and wider environment (Bronfenbrenner, 1979).  It also draws on Sullivan’s Ego Analytic theory in its emphasis on personality and function as a product of social situations (Engler, 2005).  Attachment theory is considered in its recognition of the need for both a secure base and emotional safety (Ainsworth, 1978).  Finally, it also considers Internal Family Systems theory and Object Relations theory in its consideration of an individual’s internal experience and the rarity with which that experience is homogeneous across the self (Engler, 2005; Mann, 2002).  Like both Object Relations and Internal Family Systems, an ultimate goal of this program is to contribute to integration of the self.

Rationale

Adolescent males seem to lack the same level of nuanced emotional vocabulary as females of the same cohort (Harrod, 2005).  “Naming His Feelings” is an emotional literacy and regulation curriculum designed to be delivered to adolescent males ages 11-15.  The focus of this program is towards males who are either self or systemically (via social services, school identification, ect) determined at-risk, as these youth will be the ones statistically most likely to suffer due in part to having low emotional intelligence (Spinard, 2006; Winstock, 2007).  An additional aspect of this curriculum will address the socio-cultural determination of what it means to be male, also focusing delivery on males with absent fathers may prove to be effective.

Tweens and teens ages 11-15 are at the beginning of Piaget’s Formal Operational stage.  At this time in development, they are beginning to grasp abstract thought, but their identities are still flexible and the question of “Who am I?” is salient.  That is a major part of the reason I have decided to gear “Naming His Feelings” for this age group.  One of the goals of the program is to make emotional identification and healthy regulation a stable part of participants’ identities.  Additionally, as brain development is an integral part to emotional experience, this program is also timely.  It is at the beginning of adolescence, approximately ages 10-15, that the brain begins to integrate more connections between the neocortex, specifically the prefrontal cortex, and the rest of the brain (Santrock 2007).

By introducing emotion as an element of effective problem solving, practitioners give developing brains ample opportunity to build connections between the reptilian brain and the neocortex.  Additionally, by increasing their familiarity and comfort with using words for emotion, practitioners would intuitively increase the emotional intelligence and regulation of program participants.  The program has incorporated a validated measure of Emotional Intelligence, the Schutte Self Report Emotional Intelligence Test (SSEIT) into the first and last session to measure program effectiveness.

Methods

The curriculum itself can be divided into three separate sections: “Why this Matters for Me,” “What this is,” and “How can I use it.”  “Why this Matters for Me” includes the first three weeks of lessons entitled: “Being Male,” “Being a Man,” and “A Man’s Feelings.”  “Being Male” covers basic physical development of males in adolescence and provides a brief overview of male puberty.  The reason I have decided to include puberty into the emotional development program is that, over my years of working with severely emotionally and behaviorally disturbed young men and women, I have found that there is an increasingly large number of them who are entirely unaware of normal pubertal processes for their gender.    The following lesson on “Being a Man” builds on the previous week by discussing how gender exists not only in the genitalia, but also in the social milieu.  It also begins to discuss the gendered nature of many emotions.  “A Man’s Feelings” expands on “Being a Man” by continuing to elaborate on the emotional content and context for male emotionality.

The second series of lessons focuses on learning about a variety of broad emotional states, in other words, “What this is.”  “Comfortable Feelings” and “Uncomfortable Feelings” ask the group to define specific emotional states that feel comfortable and uncomfortable and determine what they can do when they are experiencing those feelings.  It does not ignore that emotions rarely seem to exist alone, in its lesson on “Mixed Feelings.”  The final lesson in this section is about stress responses and is entitled “Being a Caveman.”  The reason for this nomenclature is that when individuals experience acute stress, the evolutionarily older parts, or reptilian brain, activates.  These older parts of the brain, like the limbic system and amygdala, intensify the flow of adrenaline throughout the brain and body and individuals experience common responses: fight, flight or freeze.  During times of limbic activation, the individual may feel their fists tighten, heart rate increase, sweating increase, and shoulders tighten.  That response may be characterized as a fight response.  A different individual may begin to lose sensation in parts of their body, may begin to feel emotionally or cognitively detached, or feel the physical urge to run away.  That response may be characterized by flight.  By framing those normal responses to acute stress as being old responses our cavemen and cavewomen ancestors used for survival, what the human body does naturally is seen as healthy, normal and safe (Malchiodi, 2008; Ogden, 2005).

The third and final series of lessons is on problem solving using emotions, or “how I can use this.”  From the case study of Phineas Gage to current research on socioemotional development, emotions’ involvement in effective problem solving is well documented (Kennedy-Moore, 1999; Santrock, 2007; Spinrad, 2006).  The first lesson focuses on using emotions to solve interpersonal problems, specifically focusing on using empathy skills.  The second lesson introduces the “Wise Mind” concept from Dialectical Behavioral Therapy.  “Wise Mind” is the result of using both logic and emotion to solve problems (Linehan, 1993).  The curriculum wrap-up involves low ropes team initiative activities.  Team initiative activities were chosen because of their lack of front-loaded emotional content; participants experience the fear, trust, and excitement of team problem solving in-vivo, and thus regulate it in-vivo.

Nearly all of the lessons contained in this program contain physical activity as an element of programming.  I felt that ignoring the activity needs of preteens and early adolescents in lesson planning would be counterintuitive.  Additionally, a minority of people actually learn through traditional auditory means.  By embracing kinetic learners in the curriculum, I make the learning more accessible for a wider range of youth.  Additionally, for the significant number of youth who demonstrate acting out behaviors as attempts to cope with trauma, kinetic activities bring them back into their bodies.  By reconnecting them with the safety of their skin, “Naming His Feelings” brings them back to a secure base that will remain present as long as life (Ogden, 2005; Ainsworth, 1978).

The curriculum itself is presented through a WordPress webpage located at: http://maleemodevelopment.wordpress.com/.  An online presentation was chosen due to the wide accessibility of the Internet and the opportunity to utilize social media to maximize the wisdom in the practitioner community.  One unique and especially social media-minded element of the webpage is the “Adaptations” section.  The creator of the program recognizes that the experts on the program participants is not and will not be the creator it, but instead, is and will continue to be the practitioners and facilitators who work directly with the youth served.  In light of this, the Wikipedia model inspired the “Adaptations” section of the webpage.  By making potential adaptations publically edited with moderation by Webmaster, the creator facilitates discussion, disagreement, and the evolution of the program.  By utilizing public editing, youth will be better served.

The program includes multiple opportunities for feedback from both participants and facilitators.  The last lesson is specifically geared towards receiving feedback from participants including discussion questions like “What did you learn?” and “What do you wish had been covered?”  Multiple opportunities also exist for facilitators to share their experience with the program.  In addition to the capacity to publically edit the “Adaptations” section of the webpage, facilitators can either access an online anonymous survey, or leave a comment on the “Evaluate ‘Naming His Feelings’” section of the webpage.

Limitations

There is some evidence that mental health trainees may overestimate differences in emotional expression across the genders and then inadvertently reinforce those differences (Vegel, 2006).  In the creation and administration of this program, practitioners may inherently reinforce the expectation that males emotionally restrict.  This program has not been run with any groups, pilot or otherwise.  There is currently no evidence that this program increases Emotional Intelligence.  Due to the emphasis on physical activity as an aspect of the program, this program would require adaptations to be effective with a differently-abled population.  The program also depends on some ability to engage with abstract processing and may not be appropriate for children who have not yet began to gain a grasp on abstract concepts.

Further Research

Research that contributed to the creation of this program did not expressly focus on heterosexual or Caucasian clients, but due to the lack of evidence in the reported samples for minority participants, existing research may not generalize.  Notably, an inclusion of transsexual clients in research on emotional regulation was woefully lacking.  Research indicates that traditional masculinity and femininity are two polarities on a continuum.  Research that contributed to this program did not expressly explore androgyny’s effect on emotional regulation.  In general, a greater intentional focus on diversity in study samples is needed in studies of emotional regulation.

Research that contributed to this study generally focused on emotional regulation among persons dealing with existing behavioral and/or systemic issues.  Rather or not emotional regulation issues are correlational or causational to those issues is inconclusive from existing research.  Research that explores emotional regulation skills among children and youth who are not currently identified as at-risk and functioning adults is needed.

References

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