Emotional Well-Being and Self-Control Skills of Children and Adolescents: The Israeli Perspective



Corey L.M. Keyes (ed.)Mental Well-Being2013International Contributions to the Study of Positive Mental Health10.1007/978-94-007-5195-8_10© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2013


10. Emotional Well-Being and Self-Control Skills of Children and Adolescents: The Israeli Perspective



Michael Rosenbaum  and Tammie Ronen2


(1)
Schwartz Research Center for Health Behavior, Department of Psychology, Tel-Aviv University, Tel Aviv, Israel

(2)
Renata Adler Memorial Research Center for Child Welfare and Protection, The Bob Shapell School of Social Work, Tel-Aviv University, Tel Aviv, Israel

 



 

Michael Rosenbaum



Abstract

Emotional well-being (EWB) is defined in terms of feeling good and energetic (i.e., positive affect and happiness). EWB is of cardinal importance for social and academic development and is not viewed as the obverse of mental illness and negative feelings. We trace and explain the reduction of EWB from early childhood to adulthood as a function of changing socialization practices and of life goals (i.e., from hedonic present to future hedonic goals). The role of self-control skills and social factors in enhancing children’s and adolescents’ EWB is explicated. We describe the dynamic triad that links self-control, EWB, and social relationship. Each of these processes is assumed to be reciprocally influenced and shaped by each other. In our studies with adolescents, we have found that the more they have self-control skills, the higher is their EWB, and both factors develop in the context of social relationship. The strength of the relationship among these factors is in part a function of sociocultural factors.


“People who learn to control inner experience will be able to determine the quality of their lives, which is as close as any of us can come to being happy” (Csikszentmihalyi 2002, p. 2). In almost every human society around the globe, parents want their children to be happy and satisfied with their lives. Yet, it is quite surprising that there is relatively little research on the factors that enhance children’s happiness and emotional well-being (Diamond and Aspinwall 2003; Roberts et al. 2005). The dearth of research in this area is probably due to two main reasons. First, young children (in contrast to adolescents) are expected to be happy and satisfied because little demands are put on them, and second, because, in general, researchers in psychiatry and psychology are mostly interested in studying problems and disorders rather than studying the factors that enhance children’s well-being.

From a developmental point of view, it appears quite justifiable to focus on the psychological factors that seem to produce ill well-being in children who were happy and relatively problem free in their first years of life. Indeed, extensive research has shown that both acute and chronic negative emotions in children and adults impede the development of effective social and psychological functioning (Fox and Calkins 2003). But, on the other hand, research suggests the many benefits of positive affect may be crucial for healthy psychological and social development (Diamond and Aspinwall 2003; Frederickson 2009). As children grow up, societal demands and pressures increase, and consequently, there is a continuous reduction in emotional well-being from early childhood until adulthood (Chang et al. 2003; Greene 1990). Whereas nearly half of the children ages 12–14 have been defined as flourishing (the highest level of mental health, Keyes 2006), at the ages 15–18, only about 40% adolescents have been described as flourishing (Keyes 2006). Among the adult population, less than 20 % of the people were found to be flourishing (Keyes 2002). Klingman (2001), who studied Israeli youth, also found that seventh and eighth graders have more positive feelings (relief, joy, and optimism) than ninth through eleventh graders. Although different self-report measures were used for the different age groups, the current data suggest that there is a decline in positive emotions among young adults compared to adolescents but that there are increases in positive affect with age in samples ranging from 25 to 74 years (Mroczek and Kolarz 1998). As Charles (2010) has noted in a recent article: “Even when age-related upturns in negative affect or downwards in positive affect have been observed, the oldest adults still report better subjective well-being than the youngest adults…” (p. 1071). Although we could not find a longitudinal or a cross-sectional study that assessed well-being from early childhood to old age, it appears that there is a U-shape relationship between age and well-being: The highest points are at early childhood and older adults (however, not for very old people). Nevertheless, there is no evidence for parallel changes in mental illness from early childhood to old age. Twenty one percent of American children and adolescents meet the diagnostic criteria for mental disorder (Novotney 2010), and about 20 % of the adult population has some kind of mental illness and is in need for professional help (Regier et al. 1993). Thus, previous studies suggest (a) that changes in well-being are, at least in part, a function of the person’s developmental stage and (b) that it is important to study well-being apart from mental illness.

As a number of authors (e.g., Keyes 2009) have indicated, most research studies focus on mental illness and not on mental health. Mental health is often equated with the absence of mental disorders. Hence, to increase children’s and adolescents’ emotional well-being, parents, teachers, and mental health professional aim at diagnosing and treating psychological problems. It is often wrongly assumed that once the child is free of psychological problems, he or she is expected to feel good and to be happy. The heightened awareness of that which is negative and of the flaws of these children leads to greater emphasis on “curing” mental disorders rather than on promoting emotional well-being.

With the emergence of positive psychology in recent decades, it has become clear that mental health is not the obverse of mental illness.

Mental health is not merely the absence of mental illness, nor is it merely the presence of high well-being. Rather, we defined mental health as a complete state consisting of (a) the absence of mental illness and (b) the presence of high level well-being (Keyes and Lopez 2005, p. 48).

Whereas most individuals are more influenced by negative events than by positive events, there is accumulative evidence that people are also motivated to protect and enhance their self-concept by focusing on the positive (Hepper et al. 2010) and, consequently, on their well-being. Our basic assumption is that children and adults alike are highly motivated to increase their emotional well-being, at least as much as they are motivated to avoid negative feelings. What changes along the lifespan are the specific goals that individuals are trying to achieve at various stages of their lives and the social and psychological resources that are available for them to attain these goals.

In this chapter, we emphasize the role of self-control skills and social factors in enhancing children’s and adolescents’ emotional well-being. After we define emotional well-being, we will discuss the importance of emotional well-being for the healthy development of children and adolescents. This is followed by a discussion of the role of self-control skills and, in particular, learned resourcefulness in the ability to attain emotional well-being. Then we discuss developmental pattern of EWB as a function of socialization practices. Before we conclude, we will describe the dynamic triad that links self-control, EWB, and social relationship. Each of these processes is assumed to be reciprocally influenced and shaped by each other.


Emotional Well-Being (EWB) or Psychological Well-Being?


Ryff and Singer (2005) noted that the “…discipline of psychology has long been interested in what constitutes positive psychology functioning” (p. 542). Although positive psychology may not be a relatively recent development as is often stated (e.g., Carr 2004), nonetheless, clinical psychology and psychiatry still focus much more on psychological disorders than on psychological well-being. Whereas elaborated and highly complex diagnostic manuals were developed to assess mental illness, there is no widely acceptable diagnostic system to assess mental health. There are some exceptions. For example, Peterson and Seligman (2004) published a Manual of the Sanities in a volume titled “Character Strength and Virtues: A Handbook of Classification.” It consists of 24 positive strengths and virtues. It is not clear from this scheme how these virtues are related to one’s emotional well-being, if at all. For example, do you feel good because you have strengths and virtues?

Ryff and Singer (2005), Peterson and Seligman (2004), and Keyes and Lopez (2005) have adopted the eudemonic approach and relate positive human functions to the emergence of mental health and psychological well-being. Keyes and Lopez (2005) clearly stated that “complete mental health is the syndrome that combines high levels of symptoms of emotional well-being, psychological well-being, and social well-being” (Keyes and Lopez 2005, p. 49). These authors distinguish between emotional well-being and positive functioning. Whereas emotional well-being (EWB) is simply a measure of emotional vitality and good feelings, positive functioning consists of psychological and social well-being. Psychological well-being consists of six dimensions: self-acceptance, personal growth, purpose in life, environmental mastery, autonomy, and positive relations with others. Social well-being consists of social acceptance, social actualization, social contribution, social coherence, and social integration.

In our studies of well-being, and in this chapter, we have adopted the hedonic approach (e.g., Diener et al. 2010). Although the term well-being has also been used to indicate psychological and social well-being, we reserve the term EWB to feeling good and energetic (i.e., high levels of positive affect). For example, individuals who have a purpose in life (a part of psychological well-being) and feel that they have something valuable to contribute to society (a part of social well-being, Keyes and Lopez 2005) are not necessarily happy and satisfied with their lives (EWB). As we will discuss later, in order to increase one’s EWB, one must have the necessary self-control and social skills as well as the active desire to achieve well-defined targets. Furthermore, in studying children and adolescents, it is not reasonable to expect that they have already reached the developmental stage subsumed under the terms of psychological and social well-being (Erikson 1959).

Another term that has been widely used is subjective well-being. It consists of a broad evaluation of one’s life (life satisfaction) and self-assessment of positive and negative affect (either momentary feelings or over a period of time). There were found to be two distinct factors that might be the result of different causes, for example, wealthy people might be satisfied with their lives but not feel good. However, people who feel socially acceptable and believe that they have skills to control their lives are likely to report high levels of emotional well-being (Lucas et al. 1996). Furthermore, Updegraff et al. (2004) report that positive affect is positively related to life satisfaction evaluations only among people who have high levels of approach-related motivation and not among people with avoidance-related motivation. These findings suggests an EWB self-maintaining cycle in which positive emotions influence positive evaluations of one’s life experiences and where these evaluations, in turn, reinforce good feelings (see also Fredrickson and Joiner 2002). The existence of this reciprocal feeding system is highly dependent on people’s disposition to actively pursue positive goals in life, in contrast to people who are predisposed to a defensive approach to life.


EWB Is Not a Luxury But a Necessity for Healthy Development


EWB is assessed by measuring positive and negative affect (PA and NA, respectively). In some cases, EWB is determined only by the level of PA and, in other cases, by the level PA in comparison to the person’s reported NA (either by subtraction of NA from PA or by the ratio between the two). Like any psychological construct, PA and NA are defined by the kind of instrument that is used to assess them. By far the most widely used instrument for assessing PA and NA is the positive and negative affect schedule (PANAS, Watson et al. 1988). The child (grades 4–8) version of the PANAS (PANAS-C, Laurent et al. 1999) is highly similar to the adult version, with the exception that it consists of 30 items instead of 20 items. Fifteen items assess PA, and 15 items assess NA. Watson et al. (1999), in a later article, preferred to refer to PA as pleasant activation and to NA as negative activation. However, they already emphasized the active aspects of PA and NA in their original publication of the PANAS, as can be seen in the following citation:

High PA is a state of high energy, full concentration, and pleasurable engagement, whereas low PA is characterized by sadness and lethargy. In contrast, Negative Affect (NA) is a general dimension of subjective distress and unpleasurable engagement that subsumes a variety of aversive mood states, including anger, contempt, disgust, guilt, fear, and nervousness (Watson, et al. 1988, p. 1063).

Happiness is an additional indicator of EWB and is also referred to as an active goal-oriented process: “[H]appiness is a characteristic of activities well performed” (Averill and More 1993, p. 620). NA and PA have distinctive functions that are closely associated with dispositional approach and avoidance motivations (cf. Carver and White 1994; Gable et al. 2003). NA has been associated with avoidance motivation. Avoidance motivation primarily serves to keep individuals away from danger. It is reactive in character and is activated when a person is threatened by aversive stimuli of different kinds (e.g., physical or social insult). On the other hand, PA is associated with approach motivation, which mobilizes the individual to obtain physical and social resources. Similarly, Watson et al. (1999) emphasized the motivating force behind PA and NA. For example, PA is both the cause and the effect of children and adults’ EWB. This cycle is maintained by the individual’s ability to set and pursue potentially rewarding life goals.

Since Watson’s et al.’s (1988) original publication, numerous articles have been published on the benefits of PA. Lyubomirsky et al. (2005), in an extensive review of the literature, concluded that happiness leads to success and not vice versa.

First, because happy people experience frequent positive moods, they have a greater likelihood of working actively toward new goals while experiencing those moods. Second, happy people are in the possession of past skills and resources, which they have built over time during previous pleasant moods (p. 804).

The review of the numerous published studies indicates that PA and happiness precede success in all major domains of life (i.e., work, love, and health). There is strong evidence that PA fosters the immune system, social skills, and psychological health. PA, in contrast to NA, fosters cognitive and creative functions according to Fredrickson’s broaden-and-build theory (Frederickson 1998; Fredrickson and Losada 2005). According to this theory, PA (in contrast to NA) broadens the array of thoughts and actions and encourages behavioral explorations. Also, it is the basis for positive psychological and social actions. PA encourages better knowledge of the environment and the various behavioral alternatives available. That is in sharp contrast to NA, which narrows individuals’ attention scope. Fredrickson’s research findings clearly suggest that effective child rearing and education should be based on PA and not on NA. Children and adolescents who are happy and high on PA are also likely to be good students in school and well liked by other children.

Although there is compelling evidence for the importance of PA as an active force for social and academic success among college students, there are hardly any published studies that test this hypothesis among school-aged children and adolescents. Reschly et al. (2008) tested aspects of Frederickson’s (1998, 2001) broaden-and-build theory of PA in the context of adolescents’ engagement at school with learning. As predicted, they found that PA is related to greater student engagement in school activities and more supportive relations with teachers. These factors probably contribute to greater academic success, yet the role of PA in predicting academic success is still not clear. Similarly, Gilman and Huebner (2003) found that life satisfaction evaluations of children and adolescents are highly related to increased social activities and to extraversion, but no evidence is reported on the relationship between life satisfaction and academic success. It should be noted, however, that evaluating one’s life as satisfying in general (i.e., global life satisfaction) is not synonymous to a self-report of PA (Diener et al. 2010). For example, Griffin and Huebner (2000) reported no differences in global life satisfaction between adolescent students with serious emotional disturbance and normally achieving adolescents. Individuals might report that they are satisfied with their life in general but still feel unhappy. However, the only area in which they reported being less satisfied was with peer relations.

After an extensive review of the literature, Diamond and Aspinwall (2003) concluded that PA is a crucial factor in human development. Helping children and adolescents to increase their PA is not a luxury but a necessity, often ignored by teachers and parents. According to these authors, children, from a very early age, have to learn how to control the intricate interplay between negative and positive emotional states. This is a never-ending life task from infancy to adulthood.

The optimal developmental outcome, therefore, is not maintenance of a stable set point, but rather an enduring capacity for flexibility and change –in one’s goals, one’s affective states, one’s use of different cognitive, behavioral, and social strategies, and one’s reliance on intrapsychic versus interpersonal process (Diamond and Aspinwall 2003, p. 149).

Thus, emotional control is a cardinal factor in enhancing PA and EWB.


Self-Control Skills in the Pursuit of EWB


The term emotional control comes under the general term of self-control or self-regulation. By self-control, we mean the process by which human beings control their emotions, thoughts, and behavior. In this chapter, we prefer to use this term because it more clearly carries the notion that individuals exercise control over themselves in order to reach specific targets or goals. Although the practical and theoretical study of self-control process began in the second half of the last century (e.g., Bandura 1978; Kanfer 1971; Thoreson and Mahoney 1974), it has only become a central topic in general psychology during the past two decades.

In the 1970s, self-control was primarily studied by behavior therapists as a self-guided behavior modification of behavior. The general principles of operant conditioning were applied to the process of self-control. Thus, Kanfer (1971) postulated that self-control proceeds through three stages: self-monitoring, self-evaluation, and self-reinforcement. Later, Kanfer and Hagerman (1981) proposed that the self-control process is initiated only if individuals believe that a situation can change based on their own behavior (i.e., self-efficacy expectancy, Bandura 1977). Kanfer and Gaelick-Buys (1991), in the best tradition of behavior therapy, clearly emphasized that self-control describes “a person’s actions in a specific situation, rather than a personality trait…” (p. 314). In fact, the proponents of behavior therapy strongly objected to conceiving of self-control as a stale personal disposition or as a set of skills and strategies. Rosenbaum (1980a) was among the first behavior therapists to propose that individuals acquire a repertoire of self-control skills and capabilities throughout their lives, which has labeled as learned resourcefulness (Rosenbaum and Ben-Ari 1985). This repertoire of self-control skills is considered by Rosenbaum (1980a) to be a basic repertoire of capabilities from which other skills develop, such as social and academic skills.

Rosenbaum (1983) borrowed the term learned resourcefulness from Donald Meichenbaum. Meichenbaum (1977), a pioneer of cognitive behavior modification, used this term to describe attitudes developed by clients following a stress inoculation training procedure. The major components of the stress inoculation program are (a) self-monitoring maladaptive thoughts, images, feelings, and behaviors; (b) problem-solving skills; and (c) emotion regulation and other self-control skills (Meichenbaum 1985). Meichenbaum (1977) found that persons who have acquired these skills will develop a sense of learned resourcefulness (i.e., the belief that they can effectively deal with manageable levels of stress).

The main instrument for the assessment of learned resourcefulness is the self-control schedule (SCS, Rosenbaum 1980a, b). The SCS was later adapted for children (the children self-control scale: CSC) and for adolescents (the adolescents self-control scale; A-SCS; Rosenbaum and Ronen 1991). The three scales tap the same psychological skills but use different wordings in an attempt to adapt it to children’s milieu and linguistic abilities. These are self-report questionnaires directed at assessing individual tendencies to apply self-control methods to the solution of behavioral problems (i.e., learned resourcefulness). It has been considered by some researchers as an intraindividual coping resource (White et al. 1996). It covers (a) the use of cognitive restructuring and self-instructions, (b) the use of problem-solving strategies, (c) the ability to delay immediate gratification, and (d) a general belief in one’s ability to self-regulate emotions, cognitions, and emotions (i.e., self-efficacy; Rosenbaum 1980a, b). In recent years, a number of researchers have attempted to shorten these scales (e.g., Zauszniewski et al. 2010). Such attempts have in the past proven to adversely affect the validity of these scales. Numerous studies have validated the SCS as measuring self-control skills in various areas of life, such as health behavior (Rosenbaum 1990; Zauszniewski and Chung 2001), behavior therapy for depression (Burns et al. 1994), addictions (Carey et al. 1990), academic performance under stress (Akgun and Ciarrochi 2003), and maintenance of exercise behavior (Kennett et al. 2009). Since learned resourcefulness was predictive of so many diverse areas of behavior that all share the characteristic of performing under stress and coping successfully with temptations and distractions, it became clear that self-control skills are the very basic skills needed for effective functioning in life. Baumeister and Vohs (2004) also echoed our view that “self-regulation holds a pivotal place in self theory and thus is the key to understanding many different aspects of psychological functioning” (p. 3). Furthermore, they expressed the belief that “…the evolution of self-regulation will prove to be one of the defining features of human evolution, contributing to some of the central abilities that have made human beings distinctively human” (p. 3, italics were added).

In spite of the extreme importance attached to the development of self-control skills, relatively few research findings have been reported in the social-developmental literature. Early studies of children’s self-control were dominated by the concept of delay of gratification and resistance to temptation (e.g., Mischel 1974). In our theory of learned resourcefulness, delay of gratification is only one of the five major self-control strategies (cognitive restructuring, problem solving, attention control, and self-efficacy). Children and adolescents who reported high levels of resourcefulness were able to more quickly learn how to control their aggression (Ronen and Rosenbaum 2010), to suffer less from depressive symptoms (Chang et al. 2007), and to better deal with the feeling of loneliness, as a result of having a sibling suffer from a serious illness (Hamama et al. 2000, 2008). Adolescents who scored high on the A-SCS were able to cope better with academic stress than those low on this scale (Akgun and Ciarrochi 2003) and were more successful in quitting smoking (Kennett et al. 2006) and in weight loss programs (Kennett and Ackerman 1995).

The theory of learned resourcefulness and the idea of self-control skills was developed 30 years ago (Rosenbaum 1983), when the psychopathological model prevailed. The basic assumption was that most people do not succumb to the various interpersonal and intrapersonal factors that lead to mental disorders. People acquire basic self-control skills that help them to effectively cope with various stressors during their lifetime. In more recent years, the focus has shifted, in part, to the study of positive aspects of human behavior (positive affect, happiness, etc.). The question now arises: What is the relationship between the use of self-control skills (or learned resourcefulness) and happiness and emotional well-being? Are self-control skills effective mostly because they minimize the adverse effects of negative emotions or because they increase positive affect and EWB? Or both? Although currently there is ample evidence that suggests that people who score high on the self-control scale (Rosenbaum 1980a, b) cope better with various life adversaries compared to people who score low on this scale, the psychological mechanisms behind these findings are not completely clear.


Learned Resourcefulness and Emotional Well-Being


In the last two decades, there has been an upsurge of research on positive and negative emotions and how they are related to self-control. In a recent review of the literature, Charles (2010) strongly asserted that EWB is tied to how well people regulate their emotions (a subset of self-control skills). It should be noted that people usually control their emotions via controlling their thoughts and their behavior (Baumeister et al. 2007). Diamond and Aspinwall (2003) have cogently argued that because positive and negative emotions are governed by different neuropsychological mechanisms, “it makes sense to model their regulatory development separately” (p. 139). PA and NA are different from each other in the way they can be self-controlled.

Unhappiness comes about on its own, but we have to work for happiness. While fear, anger, and sadness are responses to dangers from the external world, our feeling of pleasure has been developed by nature to lure us into desirable situations (Klein 2002, p. 28). Whereas NA is an automatic self-reaction against real or perceived threats to one’s physical and psychological well-being (such as receiving a personal insult), PA is a proactive emotion that energizes the organism to pursue happiness and satisfaction in life.

In a number of studies, we investigated the effects of learned resourcefulness as a repertoire of self-control skills on children’s and adolescents’ PA and NA. For example, Aran (2006) compared the emotional well-being of adolescents who suffer from type 1 diabetes with a healthy group of adolescents. She found that there were no differences in PA between the two groups, but unexpectedly, the healthy adolescents reported higher levels of NA than the diabetics. Whereas among the healthy adolescents, the higher the level of learned resourcefulness, the higher the levels of PA and the lower the levels of NA; among the diabetics, learned resourcefulness was only associated with lower levels of NA but not with higher levels of PA. It is interesting to note that among the diabetics was perceived parental support related to higher levels of learned resourcefulness, but not among the healthy group. Ronen and Seeman (2007) also found that the higher one’s learned resourcefulness, the higher one’s PA. The participants in this study were adolescents who resided in boarding schools in Israel during the waiting period before the American invasion into Iraq in 2003. During this period, the population in Israel was getting prepared for a missile attack from Iraq, a repeat of the 1991 Gulf War.

In a recent study by Shachar (work in progress, 2010), evidence has surfaced that learned resourcefulness skills minimize NA and enhance PA at the same time. The participants in Shachar’s study were elementary school students (third to sixth graders) who were trained in self-control skills using sport activities as a medium for such training. The children were assessed at the beginning of the school year (and the beginning of the training) and at the end of the school year that coincided with the end of program. The major goal of this study was to reduce aggressive behavior among the children through the use of sport activities as a tool for training in self-control skills. Compared to the control group, the experimental group significantly exhibited less aggressive behavior by the end of the program than the no treatment control group. NA and PA were also measured. Increases in PA and decreases in NA by the end of the program were associated with decreases in aggressive behavior, but only among children who reported increases in learned resourcefulness. The findings of this study do not suggest that emotions such as NA and PA cause behavior but that PA and NA are affected by individual differences in self-control skills (i.e., learned resourcefulness). Those children who were able to control their aggression by self-control methods were likely to feel more efficacious. Perceived self-efficacy of self-control over one’s behavior is likely to increase children’s EWB (Caprara et al. 2006; MacDonald 2008). Children who are happy and satisfied are less likely to aggress toward other people.

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