Raising Lady Gaga: Cynthia Germanotta on Why It’s Time for an Emotion Revolution

Cynthia Germanotta, president of Born This Way Foundation and mother of Lady Gaga, writes about raising her unique daughter and the Emotion Revolution, launched with Yale.

04.15.15 9:20 AM ET

As a mom, it’s difficult to watch your child struggle. Whether the obstacles your child faces are physical, academic, or social, you want to do everything you can to help. But too often as a parent, you feel like you don’t have the tools you need to guide your child through the difficult experiences we all encounter growing up. This is particularly acute when the problems your son or daughter grapples with are emotional.

When my daughter Stefani—who most people know as Lady Gaga—was a child, she had to learn painful lessons about the dangers of cruelty and the importance of kindness. She was creative and unequivocally her own person, but her peers didn’t always appreciate the things that made her unique—and different. As a result, they would sometimes taunt, humiliate, or exclude her. It was hurtful for her to experience and heartbreaking for me to watch.

But this mean-spirited treatment did more than sting in the moment—it shook Stefani’s confidence. The persistent, thoughtless cruelty of her peers caused Stefani to question her identity and self-worth. That self-doubt, in turn, led to anxiety, depression, and destructive behavior. What in isolation may have been viewed as casually dispensed insults or “harmless pranks” accumulated over time, causing a ripple effect that ate away at her emotional well-being.

As difficult as those times were, however, they have enabled my daughter to bond with the millions of young people she has interacted with and impacted through her music. So many of these “Little Monsters” have endured similar situations and experienced similar feelings—from depression and loneliness to humiliation and frustration. We heard from young people around the country, and around the world, who felt like their voices weren’t being heard and their feelings weren’t being respected.

As with my daughter, too many of these young people were facing turmoil—at school, at home, or in their neighborhoods—that was impacting their emotional health and overall well-being. Again and again, we heard stories of depression, anxiety, and isolation hampering their ability to thrive personally and academically. Most worrying of all were the stories that included self-harm and suicide attempts.

That’s why my daughter and I founded Born This Way Foundation. Grounded in the belief that the world can—and must—be a kinder and braver place, our organization is working to inspire young people to lead the best life possible and empower them with the tools they need to get there.

We have reached out to young people—in their communities, on the road, and online. Over just a few years, Born This Way Foundation has directly connected with hundreds of thousands of young people around the country. Through the Born Brave Bus Tour and other initiatives, we have provided youth with a safe space to tell their stories and, through partnerships with more than 50 like-minded organizations, with access to resources and services in their communities when talking is not enough.

To support these efforts, the organization is also promoting robust scientific research. In 2013 and 2014, we worked with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, the National Council for Behavioral Health, and the National Association of School Psychologists to collect thousands of survey responses exploring young people’s opinions of mental health services.

This research, which was presented at the American Psychological Association, revealed that junior high and high school-age youth prefer to receive mental health services online or through texting. Service providers—such as New York City’s TXT ME pilot program—have begun to realize that the method of delivering such services is critical to their efficacy and that it is time to update our tactics. These findings informed our understanding of how to most effectively reach young people while reiterating the importance of basing our programming and approach on scientifically supported data.

That’s why Born This Way Foundation has partnered with the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence to launch the Emotion Revolution. Dedicated to building awareness of the central role emotions play in young people’s learning, decision-making, relationships, and achievement, the initiative is beginning with an unprecedented online survey of high school-age youth nationwide.

Available at EmotionRevolution.org or BornThisWay.Foundation, the survey provides an opportunity for young people to make sure their voices are heard and for researchers to study how young people actually feel, how they want to feel, and how to bridge the gap between the two. In just a few days since the survey launched, thousands of high-schoolers have already participated. This data will strengthen the scientific understanding of how to effectively build positive environments for young people and how to best equip them with the emotional tools they need to lead happy, healthy, and productive lives.

Results from the survey will be presented at the Emotion Revolution Summit this October at Yale University. My daughter and I will join Yale President Peter Salovey, the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, and hundreds of young people from around the country at this convening. The summit will serve as a platform to unveil the findings of the study as well as offer youth the opportunity to share their ideas for creating improved learning environments with key educators, academics, and policymakers.

It may sound cliché, but as an increasingly robust body of research is demonstrating, emotions play a critical role in overall well-being. From physical health to academic and professional success, how someone feels has a tremendous impact on many key aspects of his or her life. Similarly, research is also showing us that providing young people with access to adequate resources and support can make an immense difference in shaping these outcomes.

Mastering tools and strategies to flourish emotionally provides a solid foundation that can last a lifetime. While we rightly stress common core subjects such as science, math, and reading in our education system, these tools for emotional literacy are equally impactful on a young person’s long-term well-being and success. It is a skill set that will govern their ability to cope with adversity and interact productively with teachers, employers, friends, and family members.

As Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence Director Marc Brackett has said, “Research has shown us repeatedly that the skills of emotional intelligence profoundly impact a person’s ability to thrive—academically, personally, and professionally. The Emotion Revolution survey will allow us to take the emotional temperature of young people around the country, improving our understanding of how to best equip them with the tools they need to succeed in every facet of life.”

Combining Born This Way Foundation’s deep connections with young people with Yale University’s world-class researchers, this study will serve as a small but important step towards listening to youth and understanding what they need. It will help create schools and communities where youth feel safe, inspired, and empowered. It will help start an Emotion Revolution.