Motivation and emotion/Book/2015/Domestic violence and emotion regulation in children

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Domestic violence and emotion regulation in children:
How does domestic violence affect children's ability to regulate their emotions?

Overview[edit | edit source]

Figure 1. A purple ribbon is used to promote awareness of domestic violence.

With several studies indicating high prevalence rates of children exposed to domestic violence (DV) (Harding, Morelen, Thomassin, Bradbury, & Shaffer (2013), DV is considered a major problem in our society. There is no standardised defintion of DV, although a shared understanding exists (Evans, Davies, & DiLillo, 2008; Tomison, 2000). Nevertheless, it has been proposed that DV is used as a broad term to encompass all violence within the family setting (Tomison, 2000). Two forms of DV that will be discussed in this chapter include intimate partner violence (IPV) and child maltreatment. According to Harding et al. (2013), IPV refers to a real or threatened emotionally, physically or sexually abusive action against a current or former partner. Child maltreatment, on the other hand, comprises all forms of violence against children. Child maltreatment is somewhat separate to DV, although it can overlap.

It has been well established that exposure to DV has significant consequences for children' social, psychological and emotional well-being (Harding et al., 2013). With specific regards to emotional well-being, research provides strong evidence that DV has a negative impact on children's emotion regulation (ER) (Katz, Hessler, & Annest, 2007; Maughen & Cicchetti, 2002). Children exposed to DV often are emotionally dysregulated and in turn, have poor socioemotional outcomes (Eisenberg, Cumberland, & Spinard, 2001; Katz et al., 2007).

This chapter will discuss the effects of DV on ER and the associated outcomes. In doing so, this chapter will hopefully shed greater light on the ways that DV-exposed children's emotional lives can be improved.

What is emotion regulation?[edit | edit source]

When a situation is perceived as significant, emotions emerge and give rise to a coordinated set of physiological, experiential and behavioural response types that as a whole, influence how a child reacts to perceived challenges and opportunities (Gross, 2002). Often, a child's emotional responses are in accord with the particular situational demands present (Gross, 2002). In such cases, emotions are helpful and adaptive. However, sometimes, a child's emotions are the wrong intensity, frequency, duration or type for a situation, making them harmful and somewhat maladaptive (Gross, 2015). It is these instances when our emotions appear to be ill-fitted to a given situation that we are motivated to regulate our emotional responses (Gross, 2002; 2015). It is these instances that bring us to the construct of ER.

Over the past decade, there has been a significant increase in the study and investigation of the topic of ER (Southam-Gerow & Kandell, 2002). With this increase, researchers have developed a wide array of terms to explain 'ER' making it somewhat difficult to pinpoint a definition of this construct (Gross, 2015). Nevertheless, recent work carried out by several researchers (Cole, Michel, & Teti, 1994; Gross, 2002; Thompson, 1994) has endeavoured to clarify the theoretical construct of ER, and it appears that a broad definition is emerging (Southam-Gerow & Kandell, 2002). Most simply, ER refers to the processes whereby people manage their emotions (Koole, 2009). More specifically, it is defined as 'the extrinsic and intrinsic processes responsible for monitoring, evaluating, and modifying emotional reactions, especially their intensive and temporal features, to accomplish one's goals' (Thompson,1994, pp. 27-28). According to Thompson's (1994) definition, ER involves both self-regulation (intrinsic) and regulating another person's emotions (extrinsic). The latter has been the main focus in the developmental literature, as in early life, children's emotions are largely regulated by caregivers (e.g. soothing; parent-child conversations) (Gross, 2015). This definition also asserts that a child can manage his or her emotions in order to maintain, heighten or inhibit emotional arousal (Thompson, 1994; Zeman, Cassano, Perry-Parrish, & Stegall, 2006). Overall, the ability of a child to identify and understand emotional information while simultaneously managing his or her behaviour to suit his or her personal (intrapersonal) and social (interpersonal) goals is the crux of ER (Zeman et al., 2006).

In contrast, 'emotion dysregulation involves difficulty modulating emotional experience and expression in response to contextual demands and controlling the influence of emotional arousal on the organization and quality of thoughts, actions, and interactions' (Cole et al., 1994, p. 85). Emotional dysregulation is also the inability to access the culturally or situationally appropriate emotion in a particular situation (Cole et al., 1994). An example of emotion dysregulation may be a child smiling when describing the violent way his/her father speaks to his/her mother, or laughing at another person's misfortune.

A functionalist theory of emotion and emotion regulation[edit | edit source]

The functionalist perspective of emotion provides a basis for understanding the significance of ER abilities and the influence of parent-child interaction in the development of these abilities (Shipman et al., 2007; Schneider, 2004). This theory emphasizes the governing function of emotions in organising and motivating behaviour, as well as the importance of children learning to regulate emotional experience and its expression in order to achieve both inter- and intra-personal goals (Shipman et al., 2007). According to the functionalist theory, children develop ER skills via interactions with caregivers (Schneider, 2004). Specifically, it is believed that the development of effective ER skills arises from supportive parental responses to children's emotions. In contrast, unsupportive parental responses to children's emotions (which are often found among parents of DV-exposed children) are believed to inhibit the development of adaptive ER skills (Shipman et al., 2007). Empirical findings discussed below are consistent with this perspective.

The role of the family in the development of emotion regulation[edit | edit source]


An emerging body of research in developmental psychology indicates that parents play a vital role in the development of their children’s ER and in turn, their children’s emotional competence (Katz, Hessler, & Annest, 2007). Specifically, a child’s ER development is influenced by his or her parent’s socialisation of emotion via several processes, three of which include (1) modelling/observation, (2) contingency reactions, and (3) emotion coaching mechanisms (Denham, Mitchell-Copeland, Strandberg, Auerbach, & Blair, 1997; Morris, Silk, Steinberg, Myers, & Robinson, 2007). Via these three processes of emotion socialisation, parents can either teach their children adaptive or maladaptive expressions of emotion, the latter being associated with exposure to domestic violence.

Modelling[edit | edit source]

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Click here to watch a short video of Albert Bandura's 'Bobo doll' experiment demonstrating the modelling hypothesis

One way that children's ER abilities develop is through observing their parent’s[grammar?] emotional expressiveness and interactions (Morris et al., 2007). Over the years, it has been well established that modelling is an important process through which children learn specific behaviours (Bandura, 1977). According to Morris et al. (2007) and Denham, et al. (1997), the modelling hypothesis proposes that parent’s own emotional expressiveness and interactions may implicitly instil in children which emotions are accepted at home, and how to regulate these emotions when experienced. For example, parents who display emotions of moderate frequency and intensity are more likely to teach their children adaptive information about emotion and ER (Morris et al., 2007). In contrast, excessive and intense parental negative emotional expressiveness has been found to have a dysregulation effect on young children’s emotion development and functioning (Morris et al., 2007). There is also evidence that children model their parent’s ER strategies (Parke, 1994, as cited in Morris et al., 2007). For families where DV occurs, negative emotions are more frequently displayed and and are more intense (Levendosky & Graham-Bermann, 1998). Further, parents who experience or are perpetrators of violence may have poor regulation strategies themselves (Levendosky & Graham-Bermann, 2001). Hence, the ER abilities of these children may be more dysregulated due to observing and modelling a poor example of ER.

Contingency reactions to emotion[edit | edit source]

The development of children's ER is also influenced by contingency reactions (Denham et al., 1997; Morris et al., 2007). Parents provide opportunities for their children's ER and then shape their future emotional responses through support, or punishment or minimisation (Zeman et al., 2006). Parents who are sympathetic, responsive and accepting of their children's positive or negative emotional responses have children who can cope more adaptively with their emotions and children who are well regulated emotionally (Gross, 2007; Zeman et al., 2006). Conversely, children whose parents minimise or punish their emotional expressiveness are less likely to discuss their emotions with others or acquire adaptive methods of ER (Zeman et al., 2006). Specifically, a study conducted by Eisenburg (1996) found that mothers who responded to negative emotions (e.g., sadness and anger) with minimising or punitive reactions tended to have children who were more likely to use avoidant strategies of coping, such as cognitive- or psychological avoidance-coping, than constructive strategies such as problem-solving- or support-seeking-coping. With reference to DV-exposed children, little research has been done on contingency reactions; however, one study has found that maltreating mothers provided less validation and support in response to children's negative emotional displays (Shipman et al., 2007). Again, parents who are victims or perpetrators of DV may not have the necessary skills to respond to children's emotional expression with support (Shipman et al., 2007).

Parent-child emotional conversations[edit | edit source]

Finally, parent-child conversations also play a major role in the development of a child’s ER ability. Conversations about emotion can provide children with the means of increasing their awareness of their emotions as well as their understanding of how they can influence and manage their emotional experiences (Gross, 2007). These conversations can also provide children with a way of acquiring an understanding about the cultural and social expectations for ER (Zeman et al., 2006). Unfortunately, not all parents are able to effectively coach their children about emotions and ER. According to Gottman, Katz and Hooven (1996, 1997), children have parents who are either emotion-coaching or emotion-dismissing.

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Figure 2. Parents who talk about emotions with their children are more likely to have emotionally regulated children

Emotion-coaching parents:

  • Talk about emotions
  • Teach their children how to appropriately display emotions
  • Model soothing strategies
  • Validate and empathize with children’s negative emotions, and
  • Interact confidently and comfortably with their children when they are emotional

(Gross, 2007).

Research has shown that children with emotion-coaching parents who engage in open discussion about emotions are more able to regulate their negative emotions and have better skills in emotional awareness and understanding (Denham, Cook, & Zoller, 1992). Moreover, Gottman et al. (1996) found that parents who engaged in emotion-coaching rather than emotion dismissing when discussing anger and sadness had children who were more socially competent. Thus, it appears that by providing support, empathy, and guidance for the regulation of emotions, emotion-coaching parents promote the growth of their children's ER development (Gross, 2007).

In contrast,

Emotion-dismissing parents:

  • Are less aware of both their own and their children’s emotions
  • Are uncomfortable and even unempathic when their children are expressing emotion
  • Lack a comprehensive language of emotions which makes it difficult for them to label emotions verbally, and
  • Believe that negative emotion is harmful, and thus, tend to disapprove of or dismiss their children’s negative emotional displays.

(Gottman et al., 1996, 1997; Morris et al., 2007; Zeman et al., 2006).

With respects[spelling?] to parent-child conversations in homes where DV occurs, research has found that some parents from domestically violent homes find it difficult to engage in emotion-coaching (Katz & Windecker-Nelson, 2006). This study found that fathers who were victims of aggression had difficulties coaching their children about fear, and mothers who were aggressors were less likely to talk to their children about fear and anger. These researchers suggested that parents in domestically violent homes may be emotionally dysregulated themselves or may not possess the ER skills required to coach their children (Katz & Windecker-Nelson, 2006). Although further research is needed, these findings are important, as the frequency and content of parent-child conversations about emotion is associated with a child's ability to recognize and label emotions, acquire culturally appropriate display rules for emotion, and regulate negative emotions (Zeman et al., 2006). If a child is exposed to DV, he or she may not have emotion-coaching parents, and thus, may have difficulties with ER (Katz et al., 2007).

Overview of the developmental outcomes[edit | edit source]

Emotion regulation (normative development) Emotion dysregulation (non-normative development)
Children who are emotionally regulated: Children who have deficits in emotion regulation:
Possess emotional awareness (e.g. are able to verbally label emotions) (Zeman et al., 2006) Lack emotion awareness (e.g. have difficulties identifying and verbally labelling their own emotions) (Katz et al., 2007)
Are more able to manage negative emotions
  • React to situational and emotional demands with a broad range of coping methods that are both flexible and in line with social expectations (Cole et al., 1994)
  • Regulate the intensity they experience and/or display when faced with a difficult peer interaction (Fabes, Hanish, Martin, & Eisenberg, 2002)
Are less able to regulate negative emotions
  • More likely to display extreme emotional reactivity (anger, aggression) and/or extreme emotional inhibition (suppression of emotion) when in a negative mood state (Cole, Zahn-Waxler, Fox, Usher, & Welsh, 1996)
  • More likely to show contextually and culturally inappropriate emotional responses (Kim & Cicchetti, 2010)
Are more socially competent with peers as a result (Eisenberg, Fabes, Nyman, Bernzweig, & Pinuelas, 1994) Are more likely to experience internalising and externalising problems, psychopathy, and problems with peers (Harding et al., 2013; Katz et al., 2007)

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The effects of domestic violence on children's emotion regulatory abilities[edit | edit source]

Research examining the effects of DV on ER have found that exposure to DV can lead to detrimental consequences for children's regulatory abilities. The majority of studies in this area of research have focused on DV either in the form of child maltreatment or intimate partner violence IPV (see overview). Although there are slight differences in the effects on ER depending on the subtype of DV, generally, DV appears to interfere with normative processes central to the development of ER (Katz et al., 2007).

Intimate partner violence (IPV)[edit | edit source]

Emerging evidence suggests that exposure to IPV has a significant negative affect on children's ER abilities, typically leading to dysregulation (Rigterink, Katz, & Hessler, 2010). IPV-exposed children have been found to be less descriptive of their emotional experiences and the related cognitive and physiological sensations, such as feeling hot in the fact when embarrassed, less able to regulate negative emotions (i.e. need more maternal assistance to calm them down when upset), have greater difficulty distinguishing one emotion from another (e.g. fear vs. disgust), and are more likely to be unaware of the causes of their emotions (Katz et al., 2007). Further, greater instances of inappropriate emotional display as well as higher levels of negative emotions and their display have been discovered among children exposed to IPV (Graham-Bermann & Levendosky, 1998; Harding et al., 2013). Like child maltreatment, IPV disturbs the normal development of children's ER skills, which as you will learn next, can lead to severe social and behavioural problems.

Child maltreatment[edit | edit source]

With regards to child maltreatment and children's ER, several studies have found that maltreated children are also more likely to be emotionally dysregulated (Kim & Cicchetti, 2010). Across studies, maltreated children have been found to display fewer situationally appropriate emotional responses, lower levels of emotional awareness and empathy, and greater and prolonged levels of negative emotion throughout provocation and recovery (i.e. greater difficulty down-regulating negative emotions) (Shackman & Pollak 2014; Shipman et al., 2007). Further, Maughen and Cichetti (2002) found an associated between child maltreatment and the dysregulated ER patterns (EMRP) identified by Cummings (1987), which include U/A (under-controlled/ambivalent) and O/U (over-controlled/ under-responsive). Specifically, these researchers found that close to 80% of maltreated children in their study exhibited either U/A or O/U after witnessing a simulated angry exchange (Maughen & Cicchetti, 2002). That is, compared to children from normative populations, children who were exposed to maltreatment either showed elevated and prolonged levels of emotional reactivity in response to witnessed anger, or low levels of emotional reactivity (i.e. flat or absent emotional response) in response to the angry exchange.

In sum, exposure to IPV and maltreatment in the early family unit poses a significant threat to a child's capacity to process and regulate emotions adequately (Maughen & Cicchetti, 2002).

Child outcomes[edit | edit source]

[Provide more detail]

Socioemotional adjustment[edit | edit source]

There is an abundance of research that has used normative samples to examine and demonstrate the link between ER and poor child outcomes. For example, Cole et al. (1996) demonstrated that poor ER skills in children were associated with aggressive and other under controlled behaviours during social interactions. Moreover, Eisenberg et al. (2001) discovered that children, who exhibited internalising symptoms such as anxiety and depression, also had deficits in emotional awareness and regulation. In contrast, only a few studies have examined this link using children exposed to DV. From the few available studies, the results suggest that emotion dysregulation is an important variable for understanding the links between DV and socioemotional adjustment (Kim & Cicchetti, 2010). For example, Katz et al. (2007) found support for the role of emotion dysregulation as a mediator between both social problems and internalising/externalising symptomatology, and DV. In this study, children who had deficits in ER had more social problems (e.g. teasing, fights, rejection by peers), more symptoms of internalising (e.g. withdrawal, anxiety, inhibition and depressive symptoms) and externalising (e.g. aggression, disruption and hyperactivity) problems, and were less able to establish closeness with a best friend. These results are consistent with other study findings in this area of research (Harding et al., 2013; Kim & Cicchetti, 2010). Furthermore, Maughan and Cicchetti (2002) found that the maladaptive EMRP, U/A, was associated with anxious/depressed symptoms and more instances of aggression. Finally, there is also evidence that adults who were exposed to DV as children are more at risk for current adjustment problems such as anxiety, and conduct disorder (Henning, Leitenberg, Coffey, Bennett, & Jankowski, 1997), suggesting that there are long-term negative outcomes for children exposed to DV. Thus, it appears that DV is associated with emotion dysregulation, which in turn is related to poor quality social interactions and greater levels of behaviour problems.

Figure 3. A model summarising the research findings of the effects of domestic violence on children's emotion regulation

A theoretical explanation[edit | edit source]

[Provide more detail]

The emotional-security hypothesis[edit | edit source]

Figure 4. Maslow's hierarchy of needs: Security is an important human need

Embedded in the functionalist theory of emotion, the emotional security hypothesis (ESH) was proposed by Davies and Cummings (1994). ESH builds on attachment theory and underscores the importance of emotion and ER in understanding the linkages between a child’s response to DV and his or her adjustment outcomes (Gross, 2007; Maughen & Cicchetti, 2002). According to this theory, feelings of emotional security support a child’s ability to cope successfully with environmental stressors and the task of ER (Davies & Cummings, 1994). In contrast, feelings of emotional insecurity contribute to less adaptive coping styles and higher emotional and behavioural dysregulation when dealing with environmental challenges (Davies & Cummings, 1994).

ESH proposes that emotion security is largely determined by the quality of familial relations (i.e. parent-child relationship) (Maughen & Cichetti, 2002). It also posits that within the hierarchy of human needs, safety and security are among the most important needs (see Figure 4) (Davies, Winter, & Cicchetti, 2006). Unfortunately, for many DV-exposed children, familial interactions often comprise of insensitive, unpredictable and aggressive exchanges, often leading to a child’s decreased sense of emotional security (Maughen & Cichetti, 2002). In order to regain the emotional security that they have lost via conflict or violence, children intervene in parental conflict and monitor parental moods to anticipate impending conflict (Gross, 2007). As a result, DV-exposed children often display heightened sensitivity to parental conflict, have greater difficulty managing strong negative emotions, and exhibit internalising symptomatology (Gross, 2007; Thompson & Calkins, 1996). Recurrent exposure to DV, which is usually the case, may induce chronic elevation of emotional arousal and consequently, overwhelm children’s emotion regulation abilities (see adaptive-cost hypothesis) (Cummings & Davies, 1994).

Interventions to improve children's emotion regulation[edit | edit source]

Emotion coaching[edit | edit source]

Empirical findings suggest that the way parents talk to their children about emotion greatly determines their children's ER development. In families where DV occurs, parents are often emotion-dismissing, making it harder for children from these homes to effectively regulate their emotional experience and expression. Thus, an intervention program for DV-exposed children that involves teaching parents simple steps on how to talk to their children about emotion as well as addressing parental attitudes and beliefs regarding emotion would be expected to be effective (Katz & Windecker-Nelson, 2006).

A great example of such an intervention program is the emotion coaching video program from the Gottman institute [1]. Through this video program, Dr. John Gottman and Dr. Julie Gottman can educate parents about emotion coaching in five simple steps.

School-based intervention program[edit | edit source]

Another intervention that can be used to improve DV-exposed children's emotion regulation abilities and thus, their socioemotional outcomes, is a school-based intervention program. Specifically, an emotion regulation skills program called Skills and Tools for Emotions Awareness and Management (STEAM) has been implemented in several schools for this purpose (Betty, 2013) STEAM. Children who have difficulties regulating emotions can be identified and then included in the program. A study by Westhues, Hanbidge, Gebotys, & Hammond, (2009) examined the efficacy of this intervention program and found that children involved in the program demonstrated significant long-term improvements in emotional awareness, coping skills, and expression management compared to children in a control group.

In sum, emotion coaching and school-based interventions such as STEAM can be used to help parents and children in domestically violent homes improve their emotional functioning and outcomes.

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

In summary, empirical research illustrates that children's ability to regulate emotions is central to positive outcomes in later life. Children exposed to DV often exhibit disturbed emotion regulation as a result of feelings of insecurity and poor parental emotion socialisation, further resulting in poor socioemotional outcomes. Although two interventions were presented, further research examining effective methods of enhancing DV-exposed children's ER is essential to the future well-being of many members of our society.

See also[edit | edit source]

Domestic violence

Emotion self-regulation

Emotional dysregulation

Regulation of emotion

References[edit | edit source]

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Zeman, J., Cassano, M., Perry-Parrish, C., & Stegall, S. (2006). Emotion regulation in children and adolescents. Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics, 27, 155-168. doi:10.1097/00004703-200604000-00014