Motivation and emotion/Book/2020/Emotion regulation and ageing

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Emotion regulation and ageing:
What is the impact of ageing on emotion regulation and what can be done?
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Overview[edit | edit source]

Figure 1. An image representing the various stages of ageing.

Throughout our lives, emotions can both consciously and unconsciously influence how we respond to the world around us. When we face positive experiences, we tend to feel more positive emotions (i.e., happiness, joy etc.). In contrast negative situations can induce adverse feelings, such as anger and sadness. Throughout our lives, we learn how to regulate our emotional reactions in order to maximise our positive emotions. However, we may also use negative emotional regulation strategies to avoid facing these adverse emotions. When using emotion regulation to avoid negative emotions completely, we can develop maladaptive emotion regulation strategies later in life.

Perhaps you have encountered a child crying when they are not allowed to have ice-cream. From this, you may also have witnessed an adult angry at their favourite sport team losing the grand-final. Now, imagine the roles reversed. You may find it harder to imagine an adult crying when they are not allowed to eat ice-cream. Although it is not out of the picture, we tend to believe that the adult may have a greater emotional regulation strategy towards a situation like this. Why do we tend to believe this? As we age, do we become better at dealing with our emotions?

This chapter focuses on how emotion regulation changes across the lifespan (see figure 1). The implications from how ageing affects emotion regulation are then discussed in a way that may help us promote positive emotion regulation development. This chapter firstly investigates the key theoretical underpinnings of emotion regulation across the lifespan. From here, the research surrounding emotion regulation within differing developmental periods is evaluated. Lastly, the research discussed is then applied to suggest possible actions that an individual may partake in to improve their emotion regulation as they grow older.

Focus questions:

  • What are the theoretical underpinnings of emotion regulation across the lifespan?
  • How does our emotion regulation change as we age?
  • What can be done to improve our emotion regulation for later life?

What are the theoretical underpinnings of emotion regulation across the lifespan?[edit | edit source]

Emotion regulation is an important ability that allows human beings to both consciously and unconsciously control their emotional experiences. Due to the wide variety of individual emotion regulation strategies and their impact on our subjective feelings, numerous theories have been suggested in order to conceptualise how human beings attempt to stabilise their emotions. Focusing on emotion regulation and ageing, this part of the chapter will briefly discuss the main theories surrounding emotion regulation and their application in life-span development.

Figure 2. The stages of emotion regulation, as suggested by Gross (1998) in the process model of emotion regulation.

Process model of emotion regulation[edit | edit source]

One key theory of emotion regulation is the process model of emotion regulation (Gross, 1998). Here, Gross (1998) suggests that emotion regulation has five stages within its process: situation selection, situation modification, deployment of attention, change of cognitions and modulation (see figure 2). Gross has modified and improved this theory over the past two decades, adding new components to enhance his theory of emotion regulation. Importantly, this theory is widely used to assess how individuals respond to emotional situations across the life span. For example, through a recent meta-analysis, Allen and Windsor (2017) suggest that older adults may partake in more situation selection and attention deployment when utilising their strategies. This means that older adults may be more effective in choosing more positive situations and shifting their attention to more positive aspects.  

Socioemotional selectivity theory[edit | edit source]

Socioemotional Selectivity Theory (SST) considers emotional and social regulation across the lifespan (Carstensen, 1993). SST proposes that ageing plays a considerable role in an individual’s emotional regulation within social contexts. It is put forth that as time passes, people report more positive emotional experiences and more meaningful social relationships. Supporting this theory, Carstensen (1993) investigated data from interviews with participants over 34 years. Here, it was found that an individual’s number of friends decrease as they get older, however, positive emotions increase due to greater emotional ties with those fewer relationships.

A main perspective within STT is future time perspective, whereby as an individual considers how much time they have left before they pass away. Therefore, an individual focuses more on positive aspects that are easier to achieve. Furthermore, SST is important to consider in how emotional regulation strategies may change over time. This is suggested as when individuals get older, they are more likely to engage in present-oriented goals over future-oriented goals (Löckenhoff & Carstensen, 2004). To support this, it is thought that uncovering meaning in one’s life may be related to greater increases in positive affect (Hicks et al., 2012). Hicks et al., (2012) found that when compared to younger participants, older adults tend to report greater positive affect relating to finding meaning in life. These findings contribute to the understanding of SST and why ageing may include more positive emotional experiences.

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Test your knowledge on theory!

1 The Socioemotional Selectivity Theory suggests that as we grow older, we become more sad and frustrated.


2 Which of the following theories propose a five stage process of emotion regulation?

Socioemotional selectivity theory
Process model of emotion regulation
The amygdala

The effects of ageing on emotion regulation[edit | edit source]

Contrary to the stereotypes of ageing, growing older is generally a positive experience met with enhanced psychosocial development (Carstensen & DeLiema, 2018). To investigate how ageing effects us, research has been interested in how growing older can subsequently cause changes in our emotion regulation strategies (see table 1). Here, this part of the chapter will describe the key understandings of emotional regulation across different points of the human lifespan.

Table 1. Examples of emotion regulation strategies
Emotion regulation strategy Description
Cognitive reappraisal Involves changing one's perspective or outlook towards a situation. Can be used to positively look for better ways to address the situation. Does not supress emotions, but evaluates options.
Suppression Push emotions out of conscious awareness. Typically used to avoid facing negative emotions.
Self-soothing Self-soothing tries to slow down one’s thoughts and relax them. This strategy can involve engaging in a positive behaviour that the individual may enjoy. For example, even taking a warm bath or listening to music.
Attentional control Shift attention from negative aspects to more positive ones and vice versa.
Case study 1

Joel is a 15-year-old boy who has been feeling sad for a while and experiencing negative thoughts. He feels as though he can’t talk to anyone about these problems. Therefore, Joel keeps his emotions inside and pretends that everything is okay. Whenever he has negative thoughts, he decides to push them away because thinking about them is too stressful.

Would you consider this to be a positive or negative emotion regulation strategy?

Emotion regulation in infancy[edit | edit source]
Figure 3. A baby sucking on their fingers, a form of self-soothing in infancy.

Within early developmental stages, emotion regulation is mainly investigated through observation and physiological responses. Research investigating emotion regulation in infancy suggests that responses to frustrating situations are a key indicator of when infants attempt to regulate their emotions (Stifter et al., 1999).

Physical indications of emotion regulation in infancy include intense motor behaviours, self-soothing and distractions (Ekas et al., 2012). Ekas et al., (2012) conducted a longitudinal study, the findings of which suggest that self-soothing (e.g., thumb sucking) had the greatest effect at reducing negative emotions (see figure 3). However, intense body movements such as flailing showed increases in negative emotions. From this, attachment styles in early infancy aid investigations into the emotional regulation strategies seen in infants (Keller & Otto, 2009).

At around 6 months of age, an infant develops new strategies such as gaining the ability to voluntarily shift their attention away from negative stimuli (Braungart-Rieker & Stifter, 1996). From this, research suggests that infants who show greater ability in joint attention at 6 months of age, also show increased emotion regulation strategy at 24 months (Morales et al., 2005). This suggests that visual attention skills in infancy may promote effective emotion regulation strategies throughout development. This is supported by Mangelsdorf et al., (1995), whereby the report that at around 6 months of age, infants use strategies such as avoiding eye contact and fussing. Then, at 12-months, infants start to become more wary of strangers. At 18 months of age, infants may direct more attention towards strangers whilst furthering engaging in self-soothing and self-distraction strategies.

Emotion regulation in childhood[edit | edit source]

Within childhood, emotion regulation strategies become more advanced due to enhanced language abilities (Cole et al., 2009). Increases in language ability allow children to communicate their emotions and participate in self-report measures of emotion regulation strategies (Adrian et al., 2011). This allows for investigations into both positive and negative emotion regulation strategies in childhood (see figure 4). For example, emotional suppression can be seen to emerge as an emotion regulation strategy within childhood (Gullone et al., 2009).

Figure 4. Image of a child crying, expressing their emotions.

Importantly, emotion regulation strategies are strongly influenced from parental practices, especially as the parents are usually the primary care givers during crucial life-span development (Morris et al., 2017). Morris et al., (2017) suggest that due to parents modelling behaviour, parenting techniques and the general home environment play important roles in emotion regulation development for children.

Cole et al., (2009) found that when compared to three year olds, children who were four years old were able to generate greater strategies for dealing with anger. This study suggests that despite the small age difference, 4-year-olds were able to use greater language abilities to communicate their anger throughout frustrating tasks. Cole et al., (2009) suggest that the increase in language and theory of mind, allow for more positive emotion regulation strategies as children develop.

For negative strategies, Parsafar et al., (2019) suggest that children are more likely to employ disengagement strategies when facing negative emotions. Within disengagement strategies, distraction appears to be a crucial strategy for children (Parsafar et al., 2019). This can include diverting attention from negative stimuli and suppressing emotions (Gullone et al., 2009).  

Emotion regulation in adolescence[edit | edit source]
Figure 5. A teenager being frustrated, not knowing how to handle a situation.

Adolescence is a period of important emotion regulation development. Adolescence is seen as a period where controlling emotions is difficult and individuals experience identity crisis. In contrast to strategies in childhood, research suggests that emotion regulation strategies within adolescence change to more emotion-specific situations (Zimmerman & Iwanski 2014). Zimmerman & Iwanski (2014) also suggest that adolescence brings forth more adaptive strategies when addressing emotions such as fear and anger. For example, emotions that precede specific events are easier to analyse and select appropriate strategies (Gullone et al., 2010). This is seen as adolescents begin to use more cognitive reappraisals rather than emotional suppression (Gullone et al., 2010). However, despite greater developments in emotion regulation, adolescents may also have reduced ability to divert attention (see figure 5) from more negative emotions (Schwizer et al., 2020). Therefore, adolescents who utilise more cognitive reappraisals, show greater life-satisfaction and positive affect (Verzeletti et al., 2016). In contrast, adolescents who engage in expressive suppression show more negative effects (Verzeletti et al., 2016).

Due to the general view of adolescence as a period of emotional dysfunction, it would be thought that poor emotional regulation strategies lead to mental illness. However, Larsen et al., (2012) found that suppression of emotions did not necessarily lead to depressive symptoms, but that depressive symptoms lead to increased suppression. Factors that may influence decreased emotion regulation strategies include inadequate sleep. Decreased amount of sleep may occur during adolescence due to school nights and studying (Baum et al., 2013). Therefore, inadequate sleep may impact on adolescence and their selection of regulation strategies.

Emotion regulation in adulthood[edit | edit source]

Research indicates that adulthood bears greater emotional well-being and positive affect (Nakagawa et al., 2017). Interestingly, Nakagawa et al., (2017) suggest that older participants generally report an overall decrease in negative affect. As we grow older, positive cognitive reappraisals increase and subsequently enhance the frequency of positive emotions. This is supported by Charles & Carstensen (2003), whereby advances in emotion regulation may be related to a combination of increased positive affect and decreased negative affect. Interestingly, some findings suggest that as we get older, we may also employ more disengagement strategies, such as distraction to avoid negative stimuli (Scheibe et al., 2015). However, distraction in adulthood is utilised in a more positive way. This is due to adults having a greater consistency in the strategies they employ across emotionally influencing situations (Eldesousky & English, 2018). Thus, growing older may not refer to a change in specific regulation strategy, but rather a greater grasp of appropriate regulation strategies. Supporting this, adults may be more capable at persisting through negative emotional states and be able to get out of them at a faster rate to adolescents (Hay & Diehl, 2011).For example, adults can more efficiently employ strategies to ensure that negative situations do no escalate in severity (Blanchard-Fields, 2007). This can be seen as adolescents may employ wrong strategies when conflicted, worsening situations and subsequent emotions (Blanchard-Fields, 2007).

Case study 2

Tim has recently been enjoying living in the moment and focusing on his small close relationships. He has realised that he no longer worries as much about the future. He enjoys the closeness he shares with his few friends.

Which developmental stage is Tim most likely to be in?

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Test your knowledge on ageing and emotion regulation!

1 .Thumb sucking in infancy can be used as an emotion regulation strategy


2 What is one reason that we see developments in emotion regulation within childhood?

Use of cognitive reappraisal
Eating ice cream
Increased crying
Increased language ability

What can be done to improve emotion regulation for later life?[edit | edit source]

As seen above, emotion regulation strategies change across the lifespan as we learn from our own individual experiences. Certain strategies can lead to more positive emotional experiences whilst other methods can induce negative outcomes. Therefore, researchers are interested in how we can consciously practice emotional regulation techniques to ensure more positive emotional experiences in life. Emphasising this, Quoidbach et al., (2010) conducted a study that compares the effects of positive and negative strategies on individual’s well-being. Importantly, they identified that employing a wide range of strategies for differing contexts was more effective than specific strategies.

To improve emotional regulation, it is important to understand that this does not necessarily mean changing the quality of emotional experience (Tugade & Fredrickson, 2006). Improving emotion regulation can refer to a maintenance of positive strategies, rather than completely avoiding negative situations. This is seen as suppressing emotions can induce both positive and negative emotions, depending on how it is utilised (Le & Impett, 2013). As aforementioned, emotion regulation can be seen to positively develop as we age. However, it is crucial to point out when emotion regulation is positive and what occurs during negative emotion regulation strategies. This provides an outline as to how individuals can actively employ positive strategies, whilst avoiding negative ones.

Increasing positive strategies[edit | edit source]

Practising positive cognitive reappraisal strategies throughout day-to-day routines can lead to increases in positive affect and decreased negative affect (Brockman et al., 2016). Cognitive reappraisal strategies include reframing one’s perspective towards any given emotion eliciting situation (Troy et al., 2018). As cognitive reappraisals become more common in later life, it may benefit our development to begin incorporating them earlier in life.

An individual can further practice focusing on the positive parts of an experience, which may elicit more positive emotions (Quoidbach et al., 2010). This may include living in the moment and focusing on more present-oriented goals over future-oriented goals (Löckenhoff & Carstensen, 2004). Worrying about the future can induce anxiety, with negative thoughts about the future clouding our judgment. Therefore, an individual may benefit from implementing more present-focused thoughts and enjoying the positive experiences as the occur in front of them.

Another positive technique is employing more mindful strategies. Mindfulness strategies are easy to partake in and can slow down one's irrational thought processes (Garland et al., 2015). This can include simple breathing exercises or counting down from a certain number. From this, mindfulness can be achieved through relaxing behaviours and activities, such as physical exercise or meditation (see figure 6).

Figure 6. Mindfulness strategies such as meditation can help regulate our emotions.

Lastly, having strong communication with friends and social supports is important to help us express and understand our emotions. Talking to others actively removes the suppression of emotions and allows individuals to confide in those they trust. The SST theory shows strong support for these socioemotional experiences in later life (Carstensen, 1993). Therefore, developing social supports earlier in life may benefit the development of our emotion regulation.

Decreasing negative strategies[edit | edit source]

Suppressing emotions is suggested to be used in more adverse forms of emotion regulation (Roemer & Borkovec, 1994). Roemer & Borkovec (1994) found that participants who expressed their emotions about a situation reported greater habituation, while participants who suppressed their emotions did not. This suggests that expressing emotions, over suppressing them, allows for a greater understanding of the emotional situation. However, suppression may be utilised to be more positive. In situations of sacrifice, emotion suppression may benefit an individual’s well-being (Le & Impett, 2013). This suggests that it is possible to decrease negative strategies by transferring them into a positive strategy within the right contexts.

Another negative emotion regulation strategy involves focusing on only the negative aspects of a situation (Quoidbach et al., 2010). When an individual only attends to negative aspects of a situation, negative emotions and thoughts are more likely to occur. Therefore, decreasing this focus through shifting attention to more positive aspects may be beneficial. For example, employing more optimistic thoughts may improve one's attitude to a situation.

Lastly, avoiding behaviours that decrease our overall well-being are crucial. For example, avoiding the usage of mind-altering substances (i.e., alcohol or cocaine) in order to reduce negative feelings. Engagement in these behaviours have imminent effects on how we regulate our emotions.

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

Overall, this chapter discussed the key theoretical understandings of emotion regulation across the lifespan. Firstly, the most utilised theory for emotion regulation is the process model of emotion regulation which suggests five parts within emotion regulation. From this, the most prominent theory that discusses emotion regulation and ageing is the SST. The SST theory proposes that emotion regulation improves as we age because we develop smaller but more meaningful social contacts. From this, changes in emotion regulation across each developmental period was evaluated. In infancy, emotion regulation is mainly seen through avoiding negative stimuli and self-soothing strategies (i.e., thumb sucking). In childhood, language ability improves and allows for more expression of emotions, with the main strategies involving greater communication and emotional suppression. In adolescence, emotion regulation strategies become more adaptive and emotion-specific. Lastly in adulthood, individuals are able to utilise more positive emotion regulation strategies such as cognitive reappraisal and focus more on the present. Answering the question of what can be done to improve our emotional regulation, practicing more positive strategies whilst also decreasing negative strategies shows great support to positive emotion regulation development. Therefore, the take home message from this chapter is to practice positive emotion regulation strategies to enhance lifespan and emotional development. This can include employing more cognitive reappraisals, mindfulness techniques, focusing on the present and communicating with social supports. Decreasing negative strategies may include avoiding a suppression of emotions, shifting attention to positive aspects and engaging in more beneficial health behaviours.

See also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

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Allen, V., & Windsor, T. (2017). Age differences in the use of emotion regulation strategies derived from the process model of emotion regulation: A systematic review. Ageing & Mental Health, 23(1), 1-14.

Baum, K., Desai, A., Field, J., Miller, L., Rausch, J., & Beebe, D. (2013). Sleep restriction worsens mood and emotion regulation in adolescents. Journal Of Child Psychology And Psychiatry, 55(2), 180-190.

Blanchard-Fields, F. (2007). Everyday problem solving and emotion. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 16(1), 26-31.

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External links[edit | edit source]