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Publication | Paper

Early signs for good mental health during adolescence: Emotional Intelligence matters

In a longitudinal study, Eichengreen and colleagues explored how the certain aspects of emotional intelligence impact the development of adolescents’ mental health, thus identifying potential warning signs and targets for intervention programs. Despite a higher risk for mental health issues and lesser access to socio-emotional learning opportunities, aspects of emotional intelligence in adolescents with hearing loss in mainstream education did not develop differently from their hearing peers, implying that their social environment might play a more important role in their mental health.

Adva Eichengreen, Evelien Broekhof, Yung-Ting Tsou, Carolien Rieffe
06 April 2022
European Child & Adolescent Psychiatry - Longitudinal effects of emotion awareness and regulation on mental health symptoms in adolescents with and without hearing loss

Your mental health is linked with how aware you are of your emotions, the situations that trigger them, how well you can regulate them, and which coping strategies you choose (i.e. emotional intelligence, EI). We mostly know about this through cross-sectional studies, where groups that differ in their mental health or emotional skills were compared at a single point in time. But how do emotional and mental health development influence each other over time, for different groups of people?

Eichengreen and colleagues from the research lab focused on the development of EI led by Prof. Carolien Rieffe (www. Focusonemotions.nl) conducted a longitudinal study over 18 months, during which they measured the emotional skills and mental health of 307 adolescents (aged 9-15 years) through self- and parent-reports, at three points in time. To be more specific, EI and mental health were split into several parameters: Emotion awareness consists of emotion differentiation (can you distinguish sad from angry?), communication of one's emotions to other people and awareness to bodily sensations. Emotion regulation was split into approach strategies (i.e. actively dealing with a situation to change it), avoidance strategies and worrying or “rumination”. Finally, in mental health we can differentiate between internalizing and externalizing symptoms: internalizing symptoms include depressive and anxiety symptoms, while externalizing ones include hyperactivity, defiant behaviors or conduct problems.

The study reveals that overall, as they grow older, adolescents increasingly use approach strategies and reduce their (maladaptive) worrying or rumination. Changes in their awareness of emotions and regulation skills were also related to the development of adolescents’ mental health. Adolescents with initially high or increasing levels of approach regulation strategies displayed a decrease in depressive and anxiety symptoms. Decreasing depressive symptoms could also be predicted by a high initial or increasing ability for differentiating and communicating their emotions, as well as using avoidant strategies. On the contrary, worry and rumination predicted that depressive, anxiety, and externalizing symptoms would increase over time. Knowing about these longitudinal relationships between EI development and mental health could help us better target intervention programmes and prevent the development of adolescent mental health problems.

The study also compared the development of EI and mental health in adolescents with and without hearing loss because previous studies showed that deaf and hard-of-hearing (DHH) adolescents are more likely to face mental health problems than their hearing peers. Throughout childhood and adolescence, a large part of socio-emotional learning happens in school and through interacting and observing interactions with peers. DHH adolescents often do not have full access to such interactions in auditory-oral environments like those in mainstream education, possibly negatively affecting their EI development and subsequent mental health.

Surprisingly, this study found that adolescents with hearing loss and their hearing peers in mainstream education developed EI in a similar way. Consequently, to understand what contributes to mental distress in adolescents with hearing loss, we need to look beyond factors within the child and instead consider aspects of their social environment, such as lacking accessibility or rejection from peers.

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