Emotional Fragility in Students – Does it Increase during their Secondary/High school years?

As the founder and facilitator of the EnQPractice Circles of Empowerment EQ workshops, I work with groups of student leaders at both primary/ middle school (12/13-year-olds) and high school (17/18-year-olds) level. I have noticed a trend presenting itself quite differently in the progression from the younger to the older age group over the past few years, which I will be exploring in this article – the first in a series of three. I am generalising and this doesn’t apply to every individual, but it does seem to apply to the majority.

The trend I refer to is Emotional Fragility.

When working with the 12/13-year-old students I experience them mostly as openly diverse individuals in the making, not afraid to stand out and comfortable to explore and debate their opinions. They present themselves from the start of the workshop as open to learning and eager to make a difference to those within their influence, as emerging young leaders.

When working with the 17/18-year-old students I experience a group of individuals who enter the room with a façade of toughness, arrogance and at times, indifference. These students appear more self-absorbed about the benefits of a leadership role. They take longer than their 12/13-year-old counterparts to expose themselves to self–examination and to openly expressing and debating their thoughts.

The Circles of Empowerment Workshops are run over a period of 4 hours. The content and the learning process is designed to teach young leaders how to separate their emotions from their reactions, and to leverage their natural personality styles to lead effectively – individually and collectively. As the facilitator, I function in a very dynamic space to achieve this as I have to be hyper-aware of when I should encourage and when I should challenge. My professional knowledge and experience of the personality types aside, each individual brings their own unique traits to the training space which cannot be pre-prepared for. More and more in the older age group, I find myself staying in an encouraging space than a challenging space, which limits the growth experience of the individuals and the leadership team and I wonder why this is. What lies behind the facades of toughness and indifference referred to above in the older age group?

Emotional Fragility is what I think.

By Emotional Fragility, I mean a heightened sensitivity to the personal feelings that accompany the self-awareness learning process, as well as an oversensitivity to classmates and their judgements, perceived or real.

I am concerned because Emotional Fragility is an unstable foundation from which to build effective emotional and leadership intelligence and it would be beneficial to our future leaders if this was addressed more consistently between the ages of 12 and 17.

Over the past months, I have been collaborating the work of other researchers and authors to shed some light on the possible causes of this trend and have developed The EnQ Leadership Enabling Model. This model outlines my theory on why this emotional fragility is happening and deepening through the teenage years – how it affects the development of Leadership skills, and what we as academic educators and leaders can do about it.
There are three key contributors to emotional fragility. These are Emotional ResilienceEmotional Intelligence and Emotional Safety.

Emotional Resilience – represented by the red circle on the left and a key ingredient to leadership success and business leadership ability. Emotional Resilience refers to a student’s ability to “build a bridge” i.e. – emotionally adapt to circumstances, navigate environments of challenge and change and come back from setbacks with a sense of increased emotional strength and insight.

Emotional Resilience is also directly related to Emotional Intelligence, the yellow elongated circle at the bottom. Emotional Intelligence refers to a student’s ability to manage their emotions and respond appropriately to challenging and stressful situations. Having a high level of Emotional Intelligence comes from a level of deep self-awareness, effective communication skills and conflict management skills.

Emotional Intelligence skills enables Emotional Resilience and together they create a stable foundation for powerful leadership skills to be developed and honed.

The big green circle on the right is what American psychologist and author, Jean Twenge refers to as  “Emotional Safety”, in her book iGen: Why Today’s Super Connected Kids are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy – and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood – and What That Means for the Rest of Us.  More on Twenges research in Article Two in this series, but for now;

The green circle of Emotional Safety clearly dominates the model in size and infringes on both Emotional resilience and Emotional Intelligence in terms of the focus given to each area in an average 17/18-year-old student’s headspace. What is most significant about the size of the focus on Emotional Safety is that it effectively disables Emotional Resilience – a dynamic that encourages Emotional Fragility to prosper.

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