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Helping Kids Invest Their Emotional Currency

Written by: Nadine Wilches, LCSW, CIMHP, Executive Contributor

Executive Contributors at Brainz Magazine are handpicked and invited to contribute because of their knowledge and valuable insight within their area of expertise.

 

What is Emotional Investment? Think of your mind as having two jars. One jar holds meaning you gain ‒ your savings account. The other jar holds the meaning you give ‒ spending account. Emotional investment can be understood as the level of energy we expend in relationship to the meaning we assign to our thoughts, feelings and behaviors. This may lead us to value meaningful thoughts, feelings and behaviors negatively or positively and conversely to label unworthy thoughts, feelings and behaviors positively or negatively. Once we assign something a value, we expend or reserve a certain amount of emotional energy on those thoughts, feelings and behaviors just the same way you spend tangible money.

Therapist and child solving psychological problems during therapy session at home.

Imagine that we expend our emotional energy in ways that give us meaning which immediately rebalances our accounts. This would mean that we would need to spend our time thinking about things that produce value, feeling things that produce value and behaving in ways that produce a return on our investment of energy.


If the opposite were true, we would be 1. overspending our emotional energy on things of little value, depleting our accounts or 2. underspending our emotional energy, creating an abundance in our accounts. Similar to financial insecurity, this creates emotional insecurity, leading to poor mental health often paired with unhealthy and counterproductive coping behaviors. Taking this a step further, we notice that we are assigning a measurement of value to our experiences, just as economically we assign a cost value to goods and services.


Children’s minds are DYNAMIC. This is known in the medical and therapeutic communities as ‘neuroplasticity’. We know that mood, behavior, and cognition can all be improved and that negative mental health symptoms can often be reversed. We can expose children to environments that condition a positive self-view, improving self-compassion, self-confidence and self-worth. All of these are essential for making good decisions, relating well to others and maintaining emotional self-control.


In this article, you will learn how we assign value to meaningful thoughts, feelings and behaviors and create experiences that expose children to positive self-evaluation and reflection such that they are able to learn to do this for themselves (self-determination).


‘Value’ in the Research


The meaning of life benefits from lifelong reflection, yet there are things we have learned from wellbeing research that can shape meaningful experiences especially when they are applied at a young age. When our everyday actions feel valuable, it shapes a positive self-image and creates momentum. In reflection of your own childhood, you may observe the people, thoughts, feelings and behaviors that influenced what you place a value on even to this day (time, relationships, money, giving back, religion, etc.). You may recognize that some of the things that were given a high value, were unhealthy and some were healthy that you carried forward into adulthood. We can reflect on how we may be assigning meaning and value to certain things and consciously make changes to fill the gaps and strengthen our healthy, value-driven behaviors.


At Mind the Class, we’ve examined thousands of research articles, and interviewed children, parents and professionals to find the key factors that support our well-being and then categorized those key factors into 5-Elements.


One of those elements we labeled as VALUE.


We discuss ‘value’ as a currency to get a return on our investment by spending our emotional efforts on things that provide us with fulfillment and improve our self-worth. This is different from happiness. Fulfillment is not just about creating joy. We found that fulfillment in the element of ‘value’ is about developing 6 positive psychological factors: 1. Worth 2. Self-Acceptance 3. Joy 4. Purpose 5. Character, and 6. Capacity. Those core psychological factors are influenced by how we assign value and, therefore how we invest our emotional energy.


Through positive behavior changes and modifying our environment, we can naturally reshape healthy thoughts and feelings. Below we share 6 key factor areas for behavioral and environmental reconditioning that improve a child’s self-worth through highly valuable behaviors in highly meaningful environments. We have found that these integrative behavioral factors are protective against chronic stress, and can prevent risks for mental and behavioral disorders in addition to the key factors in the other 4 elements identified in our research. We define integrative as solutions sourced from multifaceted resources including diverse scientific studies from a variety of disciplines, lots of lived experience interviews, and countless professional discussions.

We have the best chance at reversing the rates of mental illness by focusing on children’s health as most mental and behavioral disorders form by late childhood and children’s brains are most dynamic. Good psychological health in children improves the child’s physical health and improves mood, behavior and cognition. It also reduces caregiver stress thereby improving mental and physical health of the entire family unit. Research also demonstrates a positive impact on educator reports of wellbeing and school culture and climate.


At Mind the Class, we help youth communities discover what needs and services would reduce and prevent risk factors from becoming chronic mental and behavioral health problems by implementing value-based shifts as a proactive, preventive approach. These changes improve mood, behavior and cognition leading to better life-long outcomes, helping all children, including those underserved populations. Connect us with your local school or youth organization to protect children in your community!


How Youth Assign Meaning


As children, we learn to assign meaning to things that hold value to us. We are easily influenced by feedback from all parts of our environment, which can be everything from subtle non-verbal reactions to praise, rewards and attention. That helps us assign a higher value to things that have social capital among our family, friends, teachers or others of influence. Our temperament as a child plays a role in this as well. A hyperactive child for example may be more easily influenced by physical motivators than a child with lower energy levels.


The emotional climate of the neighborhood and school can have a positive or negative influence on how much a child values healthy behaviors versus unhealthy behaviors. The security of our environment therefore is a strong predictor of how children will begin to assign emotional value and therefore how they will begin to build their emotional bank accounts.


For example, if unhealthy behaviors become highly valuable as a social capital, like antagonizing others, smoking/vaping/marijuana misuse, skipping class/school, video-tapping a fight, exposing someone’s secrets online, etc., children may engage in them more often. This is because relationships are meaningful and the most valuable are ones where we feel a sense of belonging and solidarity. Attention itself is the reward, regardless if the attention is positive or negative. Neuroscience supports this notion of social environments being a strong reward for children due to their mirror neuron networks, which activate areas of the brain responsible for imitation of others' emotions and behaviors for natural connection, even if those behaviors go against our family values of what is ‘right’.


Another way to think about this is in terms of supply and demand. What we are exposed to can influence our assignments of meaning and value. For example if we are exposed to people and content that frequently values complaining, our negativity bias supply is high and influences how much energy we spend on something negative. To understand this, we need to understand how we make decisions. Our research discovered such significance in decision-making to psychological health and wellbeing that it is an element of its own and requires a dedicated article.


It takes conscious effort to re-evaluate the meaning of our thoughts, feelings and behaviors and assign a value that we are proud of despite negative influences. This is learned through positive exposure and explicit teaching at progressively developmentally-appropriate levels. It requires ongoing assessment and work. Even in adulthood we find ourselves re-assessing the value of certain thoughts, feelings and behaviors that once held more or less importance.


Furthermore, how much emotional energy we are motivated to expend on valuable behaviors depends a lot on our neurobiology. However, this can be trained and re-trained, despite even serious emotional hardships, using our regulation systems and requires another dedicated article.


Essentially, what we value shapes the perspective of the children we support. The meaning of behaviors and even our thoughts and feelings have been shaped by the value they have been given by the people around us. Similarly, we shape the value of children’s behavior, thoughts and actions by giving meaning based on our perspectives. Furthermore, our perspectives are shaped by the culture of our upbringing and communities we have lived in, people of high influence to us, and belief systems around us. How we internalize this meaning, either by accepting or rejecting it, has shaped our values.


This may seem complex but simply ‒ when we are consciously aware of what we value, we can balance our emotional accounts easily by spending our energy on things that hold the most meaning. Visit this link for practical tips you can apply today.


Why is emotional investing an important skill for children to learn?


It is very important that we provide experiences that teach children how to balance their emotional spending and emotional savings so that they do not lower their value (their self-worth). If children don’t believe their efforts hold any value, they feel hopeless and helpless, leading to a depressed mood. Persistent depressed mood leads to vulnerability and often desperate actions requiring professional support, for example: self-harm, self-isolation, disordered eating, substance use, gaming misuse, gambling, gang involvement and sexual activities (porn misuse, sexual misconduct, sexual victimization) requiring professional help.

This requires us to really understand what behaviors hold genuine meaning and provide opportunities to experience the positive, natural value of those activities as healthy thoughts and feelings and encourage healthy behavior. This will increase the demand for positive experiences of higher value in mind. Given that children have their own unique temperaments, each child not only experiences the same situation differently from another child but they themselves experience the same situation differently each time.


How to Balance Emotional Accounts?


What if a child’s accounts are depleted?


When children’s emotional accounts are depleted, two things can happen:


1. Children can begin to place a low value on highly fulfilling thoughts, feelings and behaviors. This may result in avoidance of, or apathy toward, things they used to enjoy. This can make it hard for children to do things that require effort and persistence. This may be observed as depressed mood, lethargy, isolation, negative self-talk, risky behavior, outbursts and resistance to encouragement and help.


2. Children can begin to place a high value on every thought, feeling and behavior. This can make it hard for children to prioritize and organize, make decisions, and demonstrate an appropriate emotional response to challenges. This can result in irritability, negative self-talk, excessive worry, anxious thoughts or anxious mood, excessive failure aversion, perfectionistic behavior, seeking quick-fixes to avoid risk of not meeting unrealistic expectations and burnout.


Children can mask problems well particularly if they feel self-shame or self-blame or feeling guilty and worried about burdening others like family and friends. Small moments in which children’s feelings are minimized, rejected, discouraged or directed can lead to self-doubt and avoidance of emotional expression. When addressed early, we can help children rebalance their emotional accounts.


Rebalance with 6 Factors that produce HIGH emotional value


Our research at Mind the Class identified the following 6 key behavioral factors that lead to high levels of psychological value previously discussed to increase children’s self-worth and meaning of life.

  1. Interest

  2. Time

  3. Cohesion

  4. Meaningful Impact

  5. Relationships

  6. Feedback

Helping children to make healthy emotional investments to improve mood, behavior, and cognition requires ongoing coaching from healthy adult and peer influences. However, there are very specific, effective behaviors proven to help both children and adults assign value to meaningful things that shape good mental health. Our visuals are nautical elements at Mind the Class, therefore we call our protocols, Navigators, because they serve as a pathway to success. Access the Value Navigator protocol here.


Our navigators are designed to provide a sample of preventive solutions. However, each community has a unique set of needs. Research has shown that sustainable development requires diversity in participatory strategic planning and implementation. Additionally, circumstances of hardship, insecurity, and safety issues can present unique challenges to application; however we can all increase support communities in awareness building, access to information and resources and in developing partnerships that address resource scarcities and inequities. For more on inequities in mental health, read “The Deepest Well” by Nadine Burke Harris. Sustainable development requires a shared responsibility for the most vulnerable. Reach out to us for customized strategic planning with your youth community.


Activity


Reflect on daily behaviors by using small objects. Place emotional expenses in one jar as a spending account and emotional gains in the other jar as a savings account. Notice which behaviors did not rebalance the savings account and which have a high return on investment. Take an emotional pulse (does the child feel valued or not valued?). Participate with the children as a model noticing where you feel emotionally fulfilled and where you feel emotionally depleted. When the savings account is depleted, discuss ways to refill the account with activities that are replenishing. Discuss ways to increase the value of tomorrow’s emotional currency. Consider the above 6 key protective factors for value-based investing. Take an experimental mindset to fulfillment. Notice how the meaning we assign to different activities changes over time and will do so throughout our lives, but the skill of conscious value-based investing is what helps us maintain balanced accounts.


Also check out Henrik Pettersson’s article on Mental Budgeting


Persistent Emotional Imbalance


If children’s mood, behavior or cognition begins to negatively impact their normal functioning, follow SECONDARY PREVENTION RECOMMENDATIONS. Early detection and early intervention at the first sign of mental health symptoms prevents chronic problems.


Follow these steps:

  1. Assess (Obtain a psychological and medical assessment and child’s experience)

  2. Refer (Refer children to aligned therapies, treatments and community supports)

  3. Collaborate (Develop a communication and treatment plan with providers and families)

  4. Monitor (Look for signs of improvement or worsening symptoms and replan)

You can get more information by calling SAMHSA’s National Helpline, 1-800-662-HELP (4357) (also known as the Treatment Referral Routing Service), or TTY: 1-800-487-4889. Or visit https://www.samhsa.gov/find-help In a crisis, text or call 988.


5 Tips and Reminders for Emotional Investing with Kids


The key factors that are most valuable to a fulfilling life that improve mood, behavior and cognition, prevent mental and behavioral disorders. By exposing children to these key factors regularly, teaching them to reflect, and experimenting with value jars, they learn to emotionally invest responsibly and balance their accounts, feeling a high level of self-worth. As professionals and parents, we can support children by maintaining our own emotionally balanced accounts, sharing our stories and staying engaged in their process.

  1. What is focused on gains value. Focus forward on what is in the child’s control.

  2. Valuable activities create a positive view of oneself, uplifting mood and acts as a stress buffer.

  3. Provide opportunities for children’s self-determination by allowing experimentation, curiosity and creating healthy exposure opportunities.

  4. Adult’s who are able to balance emotional bank accounts provide a healthy model and are more likely to improve the child’s overall well-being and reduce adult stress burden.

  5. Regularly depleted accounts need secondary prevention support.

Let’s Collaborate


Are you interested in working together to architect a proactive protective environment for children that improves mood, behavior and cognition?


Reach out!



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Nadine Wilches, LCSW, CIMHP, Executive Contributor Brainz Magazine

Nadine Wilches is a leading expert in child mental and behavioral health. She dedicated her career to crisis intervention to support the most vulnerable children and families, which led her to uncover the key wellbeing factors that help children thrive despite deeply challenging hardships. She has since developed an evidence-based wellbeing framework to help others architect protective environments for children that are proven to improve mood, behavior, and academic performance. Nadine is the Founder of Mind the Class, shifting from reactive to proactive solutions to reduce risks and reverse rates of mental and behavioral disorders using data driven insights.

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