Emotional contagion infects kids with bad behavior and learning problems
adhd - School is where many ADHD problems appear
As the family has degenerated, schools, media, peers, the legal system and government have taken over parental roles. And, specifically, criticizing the educational system — teachers, curriculum, funding, etc. — has been a current national pastime.
The monster we criticize, though, was created by the surreal and incompatible demands we place on schools. As the culture has progressively redefined the task of schools, it has increasingly become their responsibility not just to teach the 3R’s but to direct this socialization process.
It is the difficulty in shouldering this socialization task, not teaching the 3R’s, that has led to our current predicament with public education. One of the problems with this migration of responsibilities is that we have not equipped schools to handle it. We require the schools to be parents without authorizing schools to use the same range of contingencies that parents have traditionally employed.
The Effects of the Broader Cultural Context
The behavior problems of the ADHD child do not happen just because of the interpersonal reactions that come their way from their immediate environment such as school and family. Psychological and cultural forces effect behavior in profound ways. We will look at the function, mechanisms, intensity and quality of the socialization process and its affect on the ADHD problem.
Emotional Contagion: a Mechanism for Socialization
I remember my first observation of emotional contagion. It was in 8th grade. A high jump pit was built on the playground. A handful of the athletic boys would take turns jumping over it, one after the other. The rest of us nerds would stand around in a group and watch intently.
One day I noticed that almost all of the spectators would synchronously raise one leg a few inches above the ground as each jumper leaped over the bar. I also noticed how hard it was not to raise my leg in time with each jumper.
If I did not consciously and specifically inhibit the response, if I let my mind wander, my leg automatically went up — just the way it did with 30 other boys. In fact, it was a rather funny sight, watching 30 kids standing around in a group simultaneously, repeatedly raising one leg every few minutes.
Just like the kids raising their leg, and contrary to current rhetoric, the causes of our feelings are broader than just our own responsibility. Many of our feelings arise from our interactions with those around us. We are as much a reflection of our group and culture as we are of our own self-determination. Emotional contagion is one of our most basic social processes and is at the root of much of our feelings and behavior. We can see this from our earliest social engagements. (In ADHD: Drug-free and Doin' Fine, I discuss how mirror neurons are the neural mechanism that drive emotional contagion and the Darth Vader Effect.)
From a few months after birth through the first year of life, studies have shown, infants react to the pain of others as though it were happening to themselves. Seeing another child hurt and start crying, they themselves begin to cry, especially if the other child cries for more than a minute or two.
The Contagion Effect of depression
Parents have an equally strong emotional effect on their children. “When a mother is distressed, if her body stiffens, the infant in her stiffened arms will also experience distress.”
Infants and toddlers of depressed mothers are at risk of depression themselves because of the depressed affect communicated to them. In the same vein, children who view adults expressing extreme anger become more aggressive toward their peers. Clearly young children respond to the depression and anger expressed by their parents.
These same effects have also been well-documented in interactions between adults. Talking to or living with a depressed person can make one more depressed.
In one such experiment, college men were asked to call and talk to a specific woman for 20 minutes. Unbeknownst to them, they were assigned to call either a depressed woman or a non-depressed woman.
This interaction had a clear impact on the men. After the conversation, men who talked to the depressed woman felt more depressed, anxious, and hostile than they had prior to their conversation, especially when compared to the men who talked to a non-depressed woman.
In another, rather disturbing experiment, college students were assigned either a mildly depressed or non-depressed roommate. Those who lived with the depressed roommate became progressively more depressed over time.
Crowd behavior and mass hysteria are another powerful variation of the emotional contagion phenomenon. Throughout the world we see examples of this. Sometimes this contagious emotion is laughing and crying as has been observed in East African tribesmen.
In the New Guinea Highlanders, researchers have documented group acts of sexual acting out, giddiness, and anger. Physical symptoms such as seizures, trance states, screaming, crying, sweating, flailing of arms and legs, dizziness, numbness, and faintness spread among factory workers in Singapore in 1973.
Emotional contagion is a very primitive and powerful form of interpersonal communication.
Hatfield describes “emotional contagion [as] that which is relatively automatic, unintentional, uncontrollable, and largely inaccessible to conversant awareness.” “[It is] the tendency to automatically mimic and synchronize facial expressions, vocalizations, postures, and movements with those of another person and, consequently, to converge [with them] emotionally.”
How Emotional Contagion Works
Emotional contagion is accounted for by two mechanisms:
1) “People do tend automatically to mimic or synchronize with the facial expressions, vocal expressions, postures, and movements of those around them....”
2) And, “People tend to experience emotions consistent with the facial, vocal and postural expressions they adopt.” “Evidence from a variety of disciplines, including animal research, developmental psychology, clinical psychology and social psychology [indicates] that such emotional contagion is pervasive.”
These responses are not under conscious control or awareness but are a function of basal brain structures. If this is the case, then emotions are not just an individual’s responsibility or a choice. We must address a wider array of causes that are responsible for our emotions.
Emotional contagion is clearly evident in our daily language. When we hear someone’s sad story we say, “I feel for you,” meaning I can empathetically feel some of your distress. When parents spank their children, they often say, “This hurts me more than it does you,” which translates as my cognitive knowledge of parenting dictates that I must do this to you, but to do it I must also feel your (the child’s) pain.
When someone is physically injured, observers will often say something like, “I could just feel how much that hurt.”
All of this sounds very similar to the empathetic discomfort, discussed above, that young children feel towards another child’s discomfort.
Children no longer live in little self-contained, controlled worlds where perceptions, values, feelings, and thoughts can be systematically distorted for the cultural good.
From their earliest years, they are bombarded with diverse and contradictory sets of values, emotions, religions, worldviews, and behaviors. These make it much more difficult for them to feret out a workable, culturally acceptable illusory system.
That’s because these conflicting inputs, images, and messages draw children, and adults for that matter, in a multitude of opposing directions. Without a few organizing principles to sort the meaningful from the empty, the useful from the wasteful, children chart a very jagged course.
This shows up in the incongruent behavior we see in children, particularly those labeled ADHD. One minute they will be having a rational, adult conversation with you, the next they are fighting and yelling. From their culturally socialized experience of continual incongruence, there is nothing of concern in this disjointed stream of behaviors.
Parents are Slacking Off
Parents often provide little guidance in developing these central-organizing principles. According to A.C. Nielson Co., “The average American parent spends 3.5 minutes per week engaged in meaningful conversation with his children. The average child, however, spends 1,680 minutes per week watching television.”
It is easy to see why, from the child’s perspective, input from television comes with as much or more validity and authority than a parent’s admonitions. If parents only spend 3.5 minutes per week in meaningful conversation with their children, we are wasting our time addressing child behavior problems by trying to change cultural parenting practices. It would seem that the only way to change the child’s values is to change television.
Of course, for the individual troubled child brought to therapy by concerned parents, I am making an exaggeration. But for the population at large, it is no exaggeration at all.
In general, parents are not performing their parental roles. The family television and the program producers and advertisers behind television are raising our children, i.e. a child’s behavior is often patterned after what the television models for him.
The Cultural Context of the Socialization Process
Our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are directed as much by our images as the realities they represent. Some of these images are carefully cultured illusions.
One of the most basic aspects of socialization, namely, the transmission of values, requires an elaborate and skilled exercise of make-believe on the part of children, who are the targets of the whole process. They must adapt to the illusion that the culture knows what is correct and right.
Children probably cannot enter their culture unless they master the intricacies of the rules defining its pattern of unrealities. It would appear, too, that the rigid impulse controls demanded by cultures require a cognitive “compartment,”
where illusory images can be generated.
One of those compartments is the hard plastic case of the television set. To interact with this compartment, little energy has to be expended. Nothing has to be generated. Only passive absorption is required. Nothing could be easier and more seductive. Given the conflicting values in his environment, what images of correct behavior should the child generate? The choice of what to pretend and what to do is diverse and inconsistent.
Does one identify with the illusion one sees on TV, what parents say, what parents do, what teachers say, what teachers do, what peers think...? Illusion is a useful mechanism if there is a culturally tested and prescriptive formula for what to pretend. Otherwise it is just another mechanism to pull the child in many contradictory directions.
Nevertheless, the ability to pretend is such an important activity for children that as a culture we should not abandon harnessing it as a powerful adaptive mechanism.
There are multiple research reports indicating that the ability to pretend and imagine is associated with the ability to be reflective rather than impulsive, to exercise self-control rather than seek immediate gratification. The capacity to create pretend fantasies apparently provides a buffer against immediate motoric expression of feelings and impulses. It has been observed that the more children can and do engage in pretend play, the more controlled [and] “law abiding” is their overt behavior.
However, this is not a simple linear relationship. The effectiveness of pretend-based control of impulsive behavior has its limits. Beyond a certain point, illusion becomes dissociation. Nothing is controlled because that which should be controlled is dissociated out of consciousness.
Once the impulse has moved beyond being directed into fantasy and on to separation from consciousness, there is little to contain it. Like many mechanisms there is an optimum mid-range value. High or low extreme values are dysfunctional.
Pretense provides an unusual opportunity for children to control their own emotional arousal and to maintain a level that is both comfortable and stimulating. The intrinsic motivation of pretense resides in its ability to convert external sources of motivation.
One aspect of ADHD happens when this ability to pretend is taken to such an extreme that it begins to backfire.
Attentional avoidance initially helps children keep their emotional experience of the cultural demands in the classroom “at a level that is both comfortable and stimulating.” But a problem arises when this strategy interacts with the structured performance demands of the classroom. When the two meet, conflict, obviously, is created. This conflict eventually evolves into the detrimental Conditioned Attentional Avoidance Loop. see ADHD is a Conditioned Attentional Avoidance Loop . ADHD is a child’s extreme extension of their natural use of pretense to help them adapt to cultural demands.
The TV has ADHD Too!
Television, cartoons, movies, and comic books clearly and repeatedly enact all of the behaviors that we associate with ADHD — sudden, self-expressive movements; impulsive speaking out; angry affect; quick and aggressive movements; aggressively standing up for one’s rights, not simply assertively; and rebellion toward authority.
Strip ADHD of its medical-sounding language and these are apt descriptors for ADHD. The child does not have to invent antisocial behaviors. The media provides everything he needs to know about becoming ADHD, and the child has only to model what he sees. It is not just the child who has ADHD, the media does too.
Clearly, the effect of emotional contagion can be seen if we consider television programs. The child is only modeling what he sees beautiful, powerful, high social status, rich people doing. Isn’t that what most of us do?
Research proves that children exposed to these models are likely to adopt the characters’ antisocial ways of thinking and behavior as their own (Higgins, 1989). When one considers this, it is not surprising how many children act out in school — they are only continuing what they have seen in the media and at home. If their parents or the cartoon characters hit each other, interrupt in conversations, or yell, why shouldn’t they do likewise?
Teachers in an Impossible Emotional Bind
These cultural problems have had a negative influence on our schools that generations of children in the past did not have to deal with-especially those before the advent of TV.
Loss of Core Self Inhibitory Skills What relevance does this have to ADHD?
In the critical early years of development, children are not learning appropriate self-inhibitory skills. Core personality development necessary for effective functioning in this culture is not being developed. For example, today’s children have little reflexive respect for authority. A frown by an adult does not elicit the response it did fifty years ago.
My mother-in-law tells the story of weekly visits to her grandparents where she and her two sisters were required to sit on the piano bench in silence for two or three hours while the adults conversed. One cannot imagine such an event occurring in the 2000's. What makes it worse is that today’s child, because of exposure to the media, continues to absorb antisocial impulses to the exclusion of those internally developed inhibitions required by the school setting.
Unlike past eras, the culturally grounded, self-inhibition patterns are not instilled in the child, so the teacher cannot use them to control behavior and motivate performance. In effect, the teachers do not have the building blocks the child needs to assemble appropriate classroom behavior. Rather, the teacher’s standards run into conflict with the counter productive emotional training many of these ADHD children bring to school.
As well, the 6-year-old is confronted with the limitations of one adult teaching 20 or 30 children at a time.
And the school staff is saddled with the responsibility of controlling this rowdy mess of emotionally provocative children, but they are not allowed the tools that have been available to parents for thousands of years.
By some form of magic, teachers are supposed to do what the parents have left undone and the media has further provoked.
Teachers Have Narrow Options to Control Disruptive Behavior
When dealing with Inattentive or disruptive kids, the options teachers have to punish or reinforce are narrow. About all they can do is constantly tell the child to do his work and sit in his desk. If things really get out of hand, they can send the child to the counselor or principal to “have a talking to.”
This consistent, low-level nagging by teachers is one of the engines driving the development of ADHD. That’s because the ADHD child can easily tune out nagging.
To be truly effective, the teacher must either get the child’s attention or stop annoying him. The way to get his attention is through sufficiently strong punishment. Otherwise, his avoidance skills are just enhanced.
In fact, inducing occasional, well-timed unhappiness in their offspring is what good parents have been doing for millenia. And they know that can be a very effective parenting strategy.
But when the teacher has neither adequate contingencies at her disposal nor is able to tap into the child’s prior emotional conditioning, the result is ugly.
The child may simply drop out or be expelled from school if he is unable to inhibit the expression of antisocial values. If he can muster enough inhibition to remain in the school setting, then he may develop ADHD, Learning Disabilities or Behavior Disabilities.
Inspiration in the Classroom: Teachers in an Impossible Bind
There can also be a positive side to emotional contagion. We call it charisma and inspiration. Think about the teachers who inspired and motivated you. For me, they were the ones who expressed their own personal enthusiasm for the subject. Not only did they teach, they shared their excitement. And, through emotional contagion, we experienced their excitement.
Today, we want teachers to offer the same inspiring and dynamic experience for our students’ academic and emotional development. But, because of the generalized inhibition required in schools, we put the teacher and the student in an impossible double bind.
We require them to inhibit their emotional responsiveness, which forces them into being professional robots. They are forced into the contradiction of being emotionally inspiring machines.
Generalized Inhibition in the Classroom
Inhibition is not selective enough to permit emotionally dynamic and inspiring teaching while, at the same time, forcing teachers to restrain their negative emotional responses that ADHD students chronically provoke. In a classroom of diverse children, the emotional responsiveness necessary to inspire some, at the same time, will trigger acting out in other children.
Therefore, while inspiring higher performing children, the teachers are likely to be stimulating feelings of failure in those who cannot perform at that level. Conversely, if the teacher is trying to inhibit the ADHD child, it will be very difficult to inspire the more productive child. Besides trying to respond to children’s needs in this emotionally jumbled collage, teachers have to be constantly, consciously, self-monitoring to make sure that they do not violate one of the school’s rules of “liability reduction” — don’t yell, don’t touch, don’t get angry, don’t work them too hard, don’t give too much homework, don’t be affectionate, don’t hug, don’t be too stern, don’t make any parent angry.
Teachers always have to be their own observer. To do this, they must remain a little dissociated from the situation. This dissociation further emotionally distances them from genuine emotional communications with their students.
After teachers are emotionally sanitized, they are given no significant reinforcers or punishers. Yet, through some sort of voodoo, they are supposed to keep 30 children happy, learning, and in their seats. Some of these 30 children need tender loving care and support, others need intellectual inspiration, and others need firm discipline.
These children require and stimulate a wide range of emotional responses from the teacher. It is an impossible demand to ask the teachers at one moment to be attentive, caring, and tender to one child and the next minute to be sternly disciplining to another child.
Being an instantly changing emotional chameleon does not work for the teacher or the child. The teacher has to dampen his emotional responding at both ends of the spectrum. The child receives washed out, flattened, overly modulated responses from the teacher. This shadow of a response carries little emotional contagion with it and, therefore, has little impact, good or bad, on the child. We are asking things from our teachers that are far too difficult, and because of this, we set them up to fail.
This emotional flatness often overflows into the teacher’s personal life. Some teachers become what Joseph Campbell called “fillet fish”. They cognitively edit everything they say for non-offensiveness and political correctness. They end up being pleasant, but vanilla, passionless people who neither please nor offend. Their spouses sometimes grow bored with this and leave.
Dynamic, inspiring teaching is incompatible with the situational demand for self-inhibition. But, in fact, we do demand both from our teachers. This is grist for the mills of those preoccupied with our national pastime of criticizing the schools. We have engineered an educational Catch-22 situation, which then becomes a basis for criticizing the schools for not taking a more aggressive posture on both sides of the double-bind conflict.
We ask, “Why aren’t our kids learning more?” and “Why do they let kids get away with that?” Teaching, as we culturally expect it, may be an impossible task.
Generalized Inhibition Harms Children Too
This inhibition of emotional expression, particularly anger, that we require of teachers and children, is costly. Inhibitory responses are non-specific and, therefore concurrently, effect everything from heart rate to arithmetic memory. Inhibition affects thoughts, feelings, pulse, gastric motility, fingertip sweating, muscle tension, etc. This means that it is difficult to inhibit the expression of any emotion without also inhibiting a variety of other emotional and physiological responses.
Math, reading, and spelling, which require sequencing and unbroken attention, are very common hurdles for ADHD children because they are more vulnerable to generalized inhibition than are art or music.
Also, the more acquired or learned a skill, the more vulnerable it is to generalized inhibition. This further explains why many children have more difficulty with math, reading, and spelling, which are more learning dependent, than with subjects such as art and music, which are grounded in more expressive and inherent(domain-specific) abilities.
Because it is global in nature, self-inhibition can also affect children motivationally. We want them to be motivated by their schoolwork, while at the same time we want them to inhibit the forces of hyper-agitation endemic to our culture. We can either have motivation (emotional responsiveness), or we can have behavior control(emotional inhibition). We cannot have both in the same situation from the same child.
This situation would seem to call for an innovative strategy. There are severe constraints here too. One has to be innovative without making anyone unhappy. This is both impossible and undesirable. Real innovation invariably makes someone unhappy somewhere. Disgruntled parents and/or their lawyers often challenge the occasional innovative strategy, which is demoralizing for the innovator.
The alternative for the teacher is to suppress, inhibit, and not make waves. The most effective way to do this is just to do nothing, to be as vanilla as possible. If one looks at our educational system, it is obvious that these contingencies have created the vanilla, politically correct tenor of our schools.
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