Motivation and emotion/Book/2018/Emotion regulation in children

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Emotion regulation in children:
How do children learn to regulate their emotions?

Overview[edit | edit source]

Controlling and regulating our emotions can be extremely difficult when experiencing certain stressful or emotionally charged situations. The way we cope and handle ourselves in these types of situations in adulthood has already been acquired through our childhoods. It can be very challenging for a child to converse with an adult and effectively state what it is they want and/ or need. Many people are involved in assisting children to develop their ability to regulate their own emotions. These people include: parents, family members, pre-school teachers, and other peers. Being able to use helpful strategies to regulate emotions can allow children and adults to maintain control over their emotions and succeed in other areas, for example problem solving. Factors that decrease a child's ability to regulate their emotions include insecure attachment style, internalisation of symptoms, and learning difficulties.

Focus questions

  • What is emotion regulation?
  • What theories have guided researchers in the field of emotion regulation?
  • When and how does emotion regulation form?
  • How does emotion regulation function?
  • What improves emotion regulation?
  • What hinders emotion regulation?

Emotion regulation in childhood[edit | edit source]

Figure 1. Toddler displaying happy emotions

The definition and understanding of emotion regulation has been the cause of some debate, as researchers have come to understand and define it in different ways (Djambazova-Popordanoska, 2016). Some researchers suggest that emotion regulation occurs within the person, while others believe it is our emotional response to a certain social or environmental context (Djambazova-Popordanoska, 2016). This divide has caused complications within the study of emotion regulation. However, a common element that most researchers can agree upon is that emotion regulation is a process that is used to modulate, manage, and modify emotional reactions to achieve a certain goal (Djambazova-Popordanoska, 2016; Lindblom et al., 2016; Zimmer-Gembeck et al., 2017). A well-known definition of emotion regulation is by Thompson (1994) stating "the extrinsic and intrinsic processes responsible for monitoring, evaluating, and modifying emotional reactions, especially their intensive and temporal features, to accomplish one's goal" (Bauminger & Kimhi-Kind, 2008; Galyer & Evans, 2001; Loevaas et al., 2018). There is, however, a more specific version for emotion regulation in children. This version specifies that children adopt certain behaviours and strategies to communicate and control their levels of arousal, especially negative affect (Bauminger & Kimni-Kind, 2008; Zimmer-Gembeck et al., 2017). It is important that children experience and relate to both internal and external emotional sources, and learn how to regulate their responses (Eisenberg & Sulik, 2012).

Emotion regulation processes have been found to be conscious or unconscious, as well as automatic or controlled, and include the ability to monitor, evaluate, and modify emotional reactions (Sala, Pons, & Molina, 2014). Emotion regulation has the capacity to lower the intensity and/or frequency of emotional states but it also has the capability to generate and sustain emotions, generally pleasant emotions (Sala et al., 2014).

Figure 2. Children learn to regulate their emotions largely through social contexts, including through family and friends

The ability to regulate emotions is one of the most important things that a child can learn throughout their childhood (Loevaas et al., 2018; Silkenbeumer, Schiller, & Kärtner, 2018). This adaptive development plays a role in executive cognitive functions, social competence, as well as in the development of psychopathology (Loevaas et al., 2018). Children learn about their own emotions and how to regulate them largely through social contexts (e.g., parents, family members, teachers, and friends; Bauminger & Kimhi-Kind, 2008; Galyer & Evans, 2001; Silkenbeumer et al., 2018; Southam-Gerow, 2014). Self-regulation skills are developed during the early years of childhood through to adulthood,[grammar?] these skills predict a number of aspects that the child may develop, such as social appropriateness and maladjustment (Eisenberg & Sulik, 2012). Emotion regulation has been linked to numerous positive and negative outcomes, include mental and behavioural health, academic success, and social capability (Southam-Gerow, 2014). Although at times emotions are extremely hard to control and regulate, with understanding and experience children can learn to intentionally modify their behaviour and learn the cognitive strategies to do so (Dennis & Kelemen, 2009).

The type of attachment style that a child has with their parent (or caregiver) is one of the relationship factors that is particularly important in the development of a child's capacity to establish effective emotion regulation (Zimmer-Gembeck et al., 2017). The most difficult of parent-child relationships being classified as insecure-ambivalent or insecure-avoidant (Zimmer-Gembeck et al., 2017)[grammar?]. Child-parent relations defined as insecure-ambivalent result in the child developing strategies to over-display their emotions and to heighten their calls for help from others (Zimmer-Gembeck et al., 2017). Insecure-avoidant children are likely to suppress their emotions and restrict their calls for their caregivers to soothe them (Zimmer-Gembeck et al., 2017).

Theories used in emotion regulation[edit | edit source]

There are several theories or models used when attempting to explain the processes of emotion regulation. One of which is James Gross' (1998, 2002) process model (Strauss et al., 2013)[grammar?]. This theory is believed by many to be the most developed model of emotion regulation (Preece, Becerra, Robinson, Dandy, & Allan, 2018). This model proposed that emotions and responses evolve through a process of multiple components (Strauss et al., 2013). This occurs when a situation is brought to the attention of the individual, the individual then has the ability to make judgement upon whether there needs to be an emotional response, and finally a response by the individual is made (Strauss et al., 2013). Another theory used, is the functional emotion theory, which illustrates that emotions are the creators of behavioural actions, and that these serve as coping strategies with challenges within the environment (Dennis & Kelemen, 2009). This theory provides a useful insight into understanding children's view of emotion regulation (Dennis & Kelemen, 2009). The functionalist perspective on emotion regulation understands that maintaining a level of arousal that is both tolerable and flexible enough for the individual, provides the support for adaptive and acceptable behaviours (Galyer & Evans, 2001). Silkenbeumer and colleagues (2018) proposed the internalisation model of reflective emotion regulation. This model has determined three levels through which aspects of emotion regulation are conveyed to and expected from the child. Level 1, caregivers use and participate in all aspects of reflective emotion regulation without involving the child; level 2, is described by the caregiver giving specific prompts; level 3, is the caregiver using meta-cognitive prompts to help the child to further understand aspects of emotion regulation (Silkenbeumer et al., 2018).

The development of childhood emotion regulation systems[edit | edit source]

Possessing the ability to manage and regulate emotions is widely considered to be an essential element of positive mental health (Galyer & Evans, 2001). A fundamental aspect to consider in the development of emotion regulation skills is the person-environment situation, in that it serves to direct and redirect the individuals[grammar?] regulation on their emotions (Galyer & Evans, 2001). Parental (or caregivers[grammar?]) mental health has shown to influence a child's development of emotion regulation and strategies (Loevaas et al., 2018).

Infancy[edit | edit source]

Figure 3. Infants rely heavily on their parents (caregivers) for help with regulating their emotions

During infancy the child relies heavily on their parents (or caregivers) for assistance with regulating their arousal and distress levels (Bauminger & Kimhi-Kind, 2008; Eisenberg & Sulik, 2012; Lindblom et al., 2016; Silkenbeumer et al., 2018). It is due to the sensitivity and support that these individuals provide for their children that facilitates cognitive growth, such as attention and executive skills, which later benefits the child's emotion regulation abilities (Lindblom et al., 2016)[Rewrite to improve clarity]. Around the age of two years, children begin to show understandings of how emotions influence themselves and those around them (Dennis & Kelemen, 2009). Attachment style has been found to have a broad impact upon the child, as it is the foundation of development for the child's ability to regulate their own emotions and to be able to, later in life, cope under stressful circumstances (Bauminger & Kimhi-Kind, 2008; Zimmer-Gembeck et al., 2017).

Childhood[edit | edit source]

Emotion regulation development research has shown that the preschool years are critically important as during this period children begin to have an understanding of emotion regulation strategies and learn how to use these to regulate their emotions (Dennis & Kelemen, 2009; Sala et al., 2014; Silkenbeumer et al., 2018). With the onset of children developing language and communication skills, parents (or caregivers) can assist the child to regulate their own emotions through verbal interactions via soothing or encouraging (Galyer & Evans, 2001). The successful development of emotion regulation depends highly upon the child's ability to adapt to changing situational demands, while this ability does develop throughout the individual's life, most children have acquired their main emotion regulation strategies by around the age of seven (Djambazova-Popordanoska, 2016; Eisenberg & Sulik, 2012; Loevaas et al., 2018)[grammar?]. The development of these emotion regulation strategies is complex and has many contributing components that interact (Loevaas et al., 2018). These components include genetics, biology, cognition, temperament, social environment, and learning abilities (Galyer & Evans, 2001; Loevaas et al., 2018). The literature on emotional development suggests that children by the age of three, experience the full range of emotions, however their ability to label and understand such emotions develops throughout their lives and is highly connected to their cognitive development (Sala et al., 2014; Suveg & Zeman, 2010)[grammar?]. Over this period, children become able to be more autonomous in the regulation of their emotions, as well as acquiring new skills such as the theory of mind (Sala et al., 2014). Through research it has been found that pretend play has the ability to encourage emotional and social play thus improving children's emotional knowledge and regulation (Galyer & Evans, 2001).

The function of emotion regulation during childhood[edit | edit source]

Figure 4. Children's emotional regulatory abilities may have a negative effect on their educational capabilities

There are many functions that an effective emotion regulation can maintain, including goal-directed behaviours, positive moods, and a sense of security (Lindblom et al., 2016). Emotion regulation has been attributable to the process in which individuals choose which emotions to portrays as well as how they experience them (Lindblom et al., 2016). Children who have well-developed self-regulation skills have the ability to recognise and change course of their own emotions effectively (Djambazova-Popordanoska, 2016). They have the capacity to emphasise with others, and make appropriate and sensible choices in regard to their behaviour choices and social interactions (Djambazova-Popordanoska, 2016). Studies have shown that the capacity which children have to regulate their own emotions, plays an important role in children's school engagement and their achievements within the school environment (Djambazova-Popordanoska, 2016).

Strategies used to regulate emotion[edit | edit source]

Figure 5. Individual's abilities to refocus attention has shown lower levels of frustration

There are many diverse strategies that have been found to regulate individual's[grammar?] emotions. Some that have been found to be used by children include asking for help, avoidance of certain situations, attention redirection, suppression of emotions, and problem solving (Loevaas et al., 2018). The capability to refocus and change attention focus has shown to be associated with lower levels of distress, frustration, and other negative emotions (Eisenberg & Sulik, 2012). As well as focusing on less emotion-provoking aspects of a particular situation, or by cognitively reassessing a certain situation to adjust the meaning of the circumstances (Lindblom et al., 2016)[grammar?]. Emotionally competent children also have the ability to generate and maintain positive memories, to elicit positive emotions, in a positive or negative mood (Djambazova-Popordanoska, 2016)[grammar?]. These regulation strategies endeavour to shift the individual's dominant emotion to a more desired behavioural response (Silkenbeumer et al., 2018).

Functionalist approach[edit | edit source]

The functionalist approach emphasises the importance of learning and understanding how to manage emotions in flexible and responsive ways, so as to be able to respond effectively to the demands of a certain situation (Suveg & Zeman, 2010). This competency has been considered a key component in effective emotion regulation (Suveg & Zeman, 2010). Research suggests that children do have some conceptual understanding of functional links between their emotions and their behaviours, and this understanding has shown support for social-emotional adjustment (Dennis & Kelemen, 2009).

Effects of the family unit[edit | edit source]

There are many components that can effect[grammar?] the functioning of a productive emotion regulation system. Well-functioning family units have the ability to predict children's efficient emotion regulation (Lindblom et al., 2016). According to emotional security theory, children have the capacity to alter their emotional regulatory strategies to fit in with the quality of family relationships (Lindblom et al., 2016). Individuals' self-awareness of their own emotions has also showed to foster efficient emotion regulatory behaviours. Young children however, do not develop this capacity until later in life (Lindblom et al., 2016). However, even very young pre-school children have shown that they can understand that there are appropriate and effective ways to regulate their emotions (Dennis & Kelemen, 2009).

Self-esteem impacts[edit | edit source]

Research has found that individual's[grammar?] who are emotionally competent have higher levels of self-esteem (Djambazova-Popordanoska, 2016). This is believed to be because these individual's[grammar?] are able to withstand emotionally negative influences that may try to alter the positive self-image that they hold within themselves (Djambazova-Popordanoska, 2016). It has also been found that these individuals with higher self-esteem have control over their emotions, because they are able to express their feelings more appropriately and verbally (Djambazova-Popordanoska, 2016).

Arousal[edit | edit source]

Research has found that there are optimal levels of arousal within children and adults that allows facilitation of performance in certain situations (Suveg & Zeman, 2010). These findings have suggested that high levels of arousal can lead to over- or under-control of emotional control. Both of these have been inversely associated with social and emotional competency (Suveg & Zeman, 2010). Therefore, helping children to stabilise their arousal levels in high impact situations, may have beneficial effects upon their ability to control their emotional experience.

Negative impacts from poorly developed emotion regulation[edit | edit source]

Emotional competency is an essential component and life skill for all children to develop. However, when competency is not developed appropriately and effectively it has been shown to cause life long negative effects (Djambazova-Popordanoska, 2016). These include effects upon their mental health, as well as the child's ability to learn and achieve within a school environment, therefore placing them at risk of not achieving their full academic potential (Djambazova-Popordanoska, 2016).

Improvements on emotion regulation throughout childhood[edit | edit source]

Figure 6. Parents (caregivers) are a large contributing factor towards children developing an effective emotion regulation
Figure 7. Teachers can provide experiences to promote emotion regulation

Many people and elements contribute to a child developing effective emotion regulation (Silkenbeumer et al., 2018). Once children are helped to be made aware of their own emotions, they are able to acquire a collection of effective emotion regulation strategies (Silkenbeumer et al., 2018). Self-efficacy is another contributing factor that has been found to affect children's emotion regulation (Suveg & Zeman, 2010). Children with higher levels of self-efficacy are more likely to persevere in challenging situations (Suveg & Zeman, 2010).

Family and teachers[edit | edit source]

A large contributing factor for the effective development of emotion regulation are parents (caregivers), family members, and teaching staff (Silkenbeumer et al., 2018). These individual's[grammar?] are responsible for providing experiences that can either promote or hinder the development of emotion regulation (Silkenbeumer et al., 2018). Conversations with these important people, about emotions, can help increase children's awareness of their own feelings and emotions (Silkenbeumer et al., 2018). These individuals can then assist the child in labelling and relating their feelings and emotions to specific sources, expressions, behavioural inclinations, and possibilities for appropriate regulation (Silkenbeumer et al., 2018). Conversations that promote emotion regulation and intelligence are called emotion coaching (Silkenbeumer et al., 2018). Intervention studies that have looked at parents (caregivers) using emotion coaching training with their children, have found that the children had lower levels of negative emotionally and problem behaviours when compared to a control group (Silkenbeumer et al., 2018).

Secure attachment style and high autonomy[edit | edit source]

Studies have found that children who exhibit secure attachment styles towards their caregivers are more likely to show better control and regulation over their emotions (Bauminger & Kimhi-Kind, 2008; Southam-Gerow, 2014; Zimmer-Gembeck et al., 2017). These secure attachment relationships allow for more open and flexible communication between the child and parent (or caregiver) about a whole range of diverse topics, including emotion (Southam-Gerow, 2014). High autonomy within the family unit has shown to predict children's efficient emotion regulation (Lindblom et al., 2016). High autonomous parents are likely to show more emotional acceptance and be skilled in responding and supporting their child's emotion regulation development (Lindblom et al., 2016). These findings are in line with attachment theory research, as this has demonstrated the importance of the quality of care giving for children's emotion regulation development and attachment-related regulatory strategies (Lindblom et al., 2016).

Hindrances of competent childhood emotion regulation systems[edit | edit source]

There are several factors that can have a negative impact upon a child's emotion regulation. These factors can come from external or internal influences. The external influences include the child's parents (caregivers) and how they connect with the child as well as each other. The attachment style that is developed between the child and parent (caregiver), generally insecure attachment styles have negative impacts upon the child[Rewrite to improve clarity]. The internal influences involve the internalisation of symptoms by the child along with the child having a lowered sense of self-efficacy. Learning difficulties also play a role in the child under-developing their emotion regulation capabilities.

Insecure attachment style[edit | edit source]

Figure 8. Inter-parental conflicts and lowered parental autonomy can negatively impact upon a child's emotion regulation

Children who are securely attached to their parental figure are generally more able to be flexible in their ability to integrate both positive and negative emotions (Bauminger & Kimhi-Kind, 2008). However, children with insecure attachment styles are prone to either exaggerate or suppress their emotions, to ensure that the parent (caregiver) stays close, attentive, and protects them (Bauminger & Kimhi-Kind, 2008; Lindblom et al., 2016). The same has also been found true for adolescents, in that those with secure relationships with their parents (caregivers) are found to be less hostile towards peers, less anxious, and less helpless in difficult situations, as compared to insecure adolescents (Bauminger & Kimhi-Kind, 2008).

Parental figures and low autonomy[edit | edit source]

Studies observing the effects upon infants have shown that inter-parental conflicts increases the child's emotion dysregulation as well as increasing intentional avoidance of stress-provoking situations (Lindblom et al., 2016). Parental studies have also found that parents with lower levels of autonomy can be more fearful, distrustful, and intrusive in their interactions with the child (Lindblom et al., 2016). This then causing the child to defensively react and regulate their own emotions and experiences (Lindblom et al., 2016)[grammar?]. Lowered levels of marital intimacy has also shown to predict children's inefficient emotion regulation (Lindblom et al., 2016).

Internalising symptoms and lowered self-efficiacy[spelling?][edit | edit source]

Theoretically, children who are at greater risk of developing internalised symptoms are those who repeatedly fail to regulate their emotions according to the context and situation that they are in (Loevaas et al., 2018). The act of internalising symptoms may also increase the intensity of those certain emotions, thereby increasing the difficulty with which the child already has at regulating their emotions (Loevaas et al., 2018)[grammar?]. Lowered self-efficacy levels in children have shown that they are less likely to apply different strategies to manage emotionally arousing situations (Suveg & Zeman, 2010)[Rewrite to improve clarity].

Learning difficulties[edit | edit source]

Children with learning difficulties have shown that they may also experience difficulties with emotion regulation (Bauminger & Kimhi-Kind, 2008). These children may have poorer regulatory skills and this therefore interferes with them assessing emotionally confronting situation, as well as preventing them from having a comprehensive understanding of the situation (Bauminger & Kimhi-Kind, 2008). Early interventions for these children is necessary as these competencies are formed early in life and have life long impacts upon the child's development and lifestyle (Bauminger & Kimhi-Kind, 2008).

Quiz questions[edit | edit source]

Nuvola apps korganizer.svg
Topic Review: Quiz Time!

1 Do parents who have undergone emotion coaching effect[grammar?] the child’s behaviour?[Rewrite to improve clarity]


2 Thompson (1994) defined emotion regulation as: The ___ and ___ processes responsible for monitoring, evaluating, and modifying emotional reactions, especially their intensive and temporal features, to accomplish one's goal.

intrinsic; lasting
extrinsic; intrinsic
extrinsic; lasting

3 Where[grammar?] do children learn how to regulate their emotions the most?

social context

4 Children with this attachment style with their parents are more likely to have better emotion regulation.


Conclusion[edit | edit source]

Children learn the ability to regulate their emotions largely through social contexts (parents, family members, teachers, and friends). Infants rely mostly on their parents for helping them to regulate their own emotions. Attachment styles between the child and parent plays an important role in the child's ability to regulate their own emotions. Effective emotion regulation has been associated with better emotional health and well-being. Facilitators of effective emotion regulation within the child include secure attachment styles, parents (caregivers) with training in emotion coaching, and high autonomy. Some hindrances of effective emotion regulation include insecure attachment styles, internalising symptoms, and learning difficulties.

See also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

Bauminger, N., & Kimhi-Kind, I. (2008). Social information processing, security of attachment, and emotion regulation in children with learning disabilities. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 41, 315-332.

Dennis, T. A. & Kelemen, D. A. (2009). Preschool children’s views on emotion regulation: functional associations and implications for social-emotional adjustment. International Journal of Behavioural Development, 33, 243-252.

Djambazova-Popordanoska, S. (2016). Implications of emotion regulation on young children’s emotional wellbeing and educational achievement. Educational Review, 68, 497-515.

Eisenberg, N. & Sulik, M. J. (2012). Emotion-related self-regulation in children. Teaching of Psychology, 39, 77-83.

Galyer, K. T. & Evans, I. M. (2001). Pretend play and the development of emotion regulation in preschool children. Early Child Development and Care, 166, 93-108.

Lindblom, J., Punamӓki, R., Flykt, M., Vӓnskӓ, M., Nummi, T., Sinkkonen. J., Tiitinen, A., & Tulppala, M. (2016). Early family relationships predict children’s emotion regulation and defense mechanisms. SAGE Open, 6, 1-18.

Loevaas, M. E. S., Sund, A. M., Patras, J., Martinsen, K., Hjemdal, O., Neumer, S., Holen, S., & Reinfjell, T. (2018). Emotion regulation and its relation to symptoms of anxiety and depression in children aged 8-12 years: does parental gender play a differentiating role? BMC Psychology, 6.

Preece, D. A., Becerra, R., Robinson, K., Dandy, J., & Allan, A. (2018). Measuring emotion regulation ability across negative and positive emotions: the Perth emotion regulation competency inventory (PERCI). Personality and Individual Differences, 135, 229-241.

Sala, M. N., Pons, F., & Molina, P. (2014). Emotion regulation strategies in preschool children. British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 32, 440-453.

Silkenbeumer, J. R., Schiller, E., & Kärtner, J. (2018). Co- and self-regulation of emotions in the preschool setting. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 44, 72-81.

Southam-Gerow, M. A. (2014). A consideration of emotion regulation in the treatment of children and adolescents. Psychotherapy in Australia, 20, 68-79.

Strauss, G. P., Kappenman, E. S., Culbreth, A. J., Catalano, L. T., Lee, B., & Gold, J. (2013). Emotion regulation abnormalities in schizophrenia: cognitive change strategies fail to decrease the neural response to unpleasant stimuli. Schizophrenia Bulletin, 39.

Suveg, C. & Zeman, J. (2010). Emotion regulation in children with anxiety disorders.Journal of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology, 33, 750-759.

Zimmer-Gembeck, M. J., Webb, H. J., Pepping, C. A., Swan, K., Merlo, O., Skinner, E. A., Avdagic, E., & Dunbar, M. (2017). Review: is parent-child attachment a correlate of children’s emotion regulation and coping? International Journal of Behavioural Development, 41, 74-93.

External links[edit | edit source]