Motivation and emotion/Book/2021/Developmental changes in emotion regulation

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Developmental changes in emotion regulation:
What developmental changes occur in emotion regulation?

Overview[edit | edit source]

Figure 1. A range of emotions depicted through colourful clipart faces.

Emotions and emotion regulation are vital to an individuals' everyday life and functioning. The ability to regulate emotions is highly dependent on the developmental stage of the individual. For example, infants rely heavily on their caregivers for regulatory support, while adults are generally autonomous in their emotion regulation. Despite significant research focussing on understanding emotion regulation in different stages of life, psychology as a science lacks a lifespan model of emotion regulation development. This book chapter aims to summarise the developmental changes that occur in emotion regulation across the lifespan.

Focus questions:

  • What is emotion regulation?
  • Why is emotion regulation important?
  • How does emotion regulation develop across the lifespan?

What is emotion regulation?[edit | edit source]

The term emotion describes the psychological state of an individual which may be triggered by internal processes, ie. physiological, cognitive or affective changes, or external stimuli (Gendron & Feldman Barrett, 2009). There are approximately six basic emotions; fear, anger, joy, sadness, disgust, and surprise (Gu et al., 2019). These emotions are fundamental to survival and give the individual the tools to engage in everyday tasks. While there are many other emotions (See Figure 1), ie. confusion or excitement, these are more complex and develop as the individual becomes more cognitively advanced (Gu et al., 2019).

As an individual learns and develops, it is important that they establish strategies to rationalise and moderate their emotions. This involves the process of emotion regulation; the complex process of monitoring, evaluating and modifying emotional responses to significant life events (Thompson, 1991). Emotion regulation involves both, intrinsic and extrinsic processes (Thompson, 1991). For example, intrinsic emotion regulation may involve physiological processes such as hormone release, while extrinsic emotion regulation may involve behavioural responses. Humans naturally develop the ability to regulate their emotions as they advance cognitively, however, developing emotion regulation skills may also be heavily influenced by the external environment and social learning processes (Martin & Ochsner, 2016). Therefore, emotion regulation is an adaptive process, with the end goal of reducing emotional distress or arousal (Picó-Pérez et al., 2017).

Figure 2. Lateral view of Brodman's brain areas with the prefrontal cortex highlighted in yellow.

Neurological underpinning of emotion regulation[edit | edit source]

Evidence for the evolution of emotion regulation in humans surrounds the development of higher-order cortical functions with inhibitory and excitatory controls of the subcortical emotive processes within the brain (Thompson, 1991). These controls predominantly reside in the prefrontal cortex (See Figure 2), which is located at the most anterior part of the frontal lobe, behind the eyes and forehead (Dixon et al., 2017). The prefrontal cortex is been associated with a variety of executive functions, including planning and decision making. While the relationship between the prefrontal cortex and emotion regulation is a growing area of research, the ventromedial and dorsolateral regions of the prefrontal cortex are considered regulators of negative emotion via top-down inhibition of the limbic system, in particular, the amygdala (Banks et al., 2007). The limbic system is associated with emotionally motivated behaviours, ie. sexual activity, and consists of the hypothalamus, hippocampus, olfactory bulb, amygdala and cingulate gyrus. Emotional responses to stimuli are controlled by the limbic system through the release of hormones. Activity in these areas have been found to have a positive linear relationship with age (Sharma et al., 2013). Moreover, cortical-subcortical connectivity, ie. the amygdala-prefrontal cortex connections, also increase with age and facilitate better emotion regulation (Wu et al., 2016). Damage to these brain regions has been associated with a variety of mood, anxiety and stress related disorders, therefore supporting the theory that these brain regions are essential to regulating emotions in a neurotypical way (Picó-Pérez et al., 2017). While there are many other brain regions associated with the emotion regulation, they are beyond the scope of this chapter.

Why is emotion regulation important?[edit | edit source]

Emotion regulation is essential to the everyday functioning of humans as it impacts on various aspects of quality of life. Good emotion regulation has been linked to numerous positive life experiences and overall wellbeing (Côté et al., 2010). Furthermore, adaptive emotion regulation is also associated with better quality social interactions and emotional intelligence (Lopes et al., 2005). This is extremely important as social interaction is a basic human need and failure to meet these needs can result in a range of health issues, including mental and physical illnesses. Therefore, it is not surprising that good emotion regulation reduces risk of developing a range of psychopathology, including addictions (Young et al., 2019).

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1 The lateral and medial regions of the prefrontal cortex have been identified as regulators of negative emotions:

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2 Emotion regulation involves intrinsic and extrinsic processes:

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Emotion regulation in infancy[edit | edit source]

Figure 3. Infant-parent attachment depends on the parents' response to emotional stimuli.

To develop an understanding of the developmental changes in emotion regulation it is important to consider the innate cognitive functions. Infants are born with the ability to display the basic emotions and more complex emotions evolve as the infant grows and learns (Izard, 1994). As a result, the research on emotion regulation in infancy is based predominantly on positive and negative affect, rather than emotion.

Despite having the ability to display emotion, infants are not born with the ability to regulate emotion (Abney et al., 2021). Some basic emotion regulation skills develop extremely quickly; for example, self-soothing behaviours such as sucking on fingers or a dummy generally develop within the first four months of life (Burnham et al., 2002). However, other emotion regulation skills take significantly longer to develop. This is largely attributed to underdevelopment of the brain regions involved in regulating emotion. Therefore, it is no surprise that infants are heavily dependent on their caregivers to provide regulatory support in order to satisfy the infant's needs (Zeegers et al., 2018). In fact, research suggests that infants are so dependent on their primary caregivers' for regulatory support that they begin to mimic the caregivers emotional responses to stimuli, ie. facial expressions, in a process known as emotional contagion (Prochazkova & Kret, 2017).

As a result of dependence on their primary caregivers, infant-parent attachment style may also impact their ability to regulate emotion (See Figure 3). Infants with secure attachments develop expectations based on learned experience that their emotional states will be responded to by their caregiver (Lindblom et al., 2016). On the contrary, infants with insecure attachments tend to display less reliance on their primary caregiver for regulatory support, as they are unable to develop the same expectations due to inconsistent responses from the caregiver (Lindblom et al., 2016). This effect has been replicated in research comparing the emotion regulation of infants of depressed and non-depressed mothers (Manian & Bornstein, 2009). One study employed the still-face paradigm to test the infants' emotion regulation skills. Infants of non-depressed mothers employed attentional regulatory strategies, or distractions, to mitigate the effects of negative emotions, therefore showing more adaptive emotion regulation and coping strategies (Manian & Bornstein, 2009). In comparison, infants of depressed mothers resorted to more primitive modes of emotion regulation, such as crying and arching back and distractions were less likely to work on these infants (Manian & Bornstein, 2009). While the the psychological state of the mother does not cause an insecure infant-parent attachment style, these variables are highly correlated, suggesting that the depressed mother's own negative emotions prevent her from fully committing to the emotions of her infant (McMahon et al., 2005). Consequently, interfering with the infants development of complex regulatory strategies.


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1 Infants are born with the capacity to display emotion but are unable to self-regulate their emotions:

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2 Studies using the still-face paradigm have found that infants of depressed mothers utilise more complex emotion regulation strategies:

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Emotion regulation in childhood[edit | edit source]

Figure 4. Children's social interactions can affect their emotion regulation.

During childhood, individuals develop more complex emotions and regulation skills. This is largely attributed to the high rate of brain development that occurs throughout childhood, allowing for increased functioning and activity in the brain regions associated with emotion regulation (Sharma et al., 2013). These cognitive advancements are evident in the childs' behaviour. For example, Grolnick et al. (1996) found that by the age of two, children are able to employ basic strategies to manage emotions, ie. move away if something upsets you. Emotion regulation is also influenced by the development as other functions, such as language, to assist in their emotion regulation by increasing the likelihood of successful emotion regulation (Eisenberg et al., 2005).

Despite having the ability to regulate basic emotion, children remain highly dependent on their caregivers for regulatory support. Research suggests that in secure relationships, the presence of a caregiver can act as a buffer from negative emotions in childhood (Martin & Ochsner, 2016). Similar effects have been established in regards to risky decision making. This suggests that the presence of a caregiver moderates the affective value attributed to the stimuli, despite the child having the capacity to regulate their own emotion (Martin & Ochsner, 2016). Moreover, children learn about emotions through their caregivers, including learning appropriate responses to different emotions. It is well documented that caregivers with poor emotion regulation skills are more likely to raise a child with poor regulation skills (Manian & Bornstein, 2009). Parenting strategies have also been associated with this effect, whereby authoritative parents act as positive role models for emotion regulation by providing emotional security, support and autonomy, while negative parenting styles, ie. authoritarian parenting, appear to have the opposite effect (Morris et al., 2017).

Difficulty regulating emotions in childhood has been associated with some temperamental traits, in particular, shyness. Children are exposed to a range of developmental challenges, especially in the school environment where they are exposed to a range of people whom they would be unlikely to interact with in everyday life (See Figure 4). Despite social interaction being recognised as a basic need for all individuals, shy children experience increased physiological arousal in social environments, resulting in feelings of fear and anxiety which prevents the child from engaging in social behaviours, such as group play, and facilitates social avoidance (Hipson et al., 2019). It has been proposed that the heightened emotional and physiological arousal experienced by shy children is more difficult to manage than the arousal experienced by uninhibited children, thus resulting in emotion dysregulation (Hipson et al., 2019). Furthermore, shyness has also been associated with internalising cognitions and behaviours in late childhood, which in turn, are associated with increased risk of anxious and depressive disorders (Coplan et al., 2017).


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1 Children are able to fully self-regulate their emotions:

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2 Shyness in childhood is associated with feelings of happiness and good social adjustment:

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Emotion regulation in adolescence[edit | edit source]

Figure 5. Social learning is an important aspect of emotion regulation in adolescence.

Adolescence is arguably the most important life stage for the development of emotion regulation. This is because adolescence is characterised by cognitive, psychological, social, physiological and emotional development, with a specific focus on identity formation. Consequently, adolescence is a period of high emotional volatility which requires a significant amount of regulation (Young et al., 2019). During this emotionally challenging time, the adolescent strengthens their regulation abilities by increasing the use of adaptive strategies and reducing the use of maladaptive strategies (Schweizer et al., 2020). However, some adolescents struggle to actively engage in adaptive emotion regulation due to a lack of cognitive control (Schweizer et al., 2020). These adolescents are at increased risk of developing a range of psychopathology, in particular, reduced capacity for regulating negative emotions is associated with anxiety and depression (Young et al., 2019).

During adolescence the individual's emotion regulation becomes increasingly self-reliant. The development of autonomous emotion regulation can be partially attributed to advancements in brain functioning, including the further maturation of the brain, in particular, the amygdala (Sharma et al., 2013). Research suggests that the prefrontal cortex and its neural pathways are some of the last brain regions to fully mature, therefore providing some explanation for why autonomous regulation of emotions does not occur until the teenage years (Sharma et al., 2013). Difficulty regulating emotions has also been attributed to abnormalities or functional changes in the adolescent brain, especially related to the impairments in the amygdala and neural pathways (Young et al., 2019).

Figure 6. Adolescents often partake in risky behaviours, including drug-taking.

The development of autonomous emotion regulation in adolescence is also influenced by social learning processes. As an adolescent grows, they rely less on their caregivers for regulatory support, instead they seek support from their peers (See Figure 5) (Morris et al., 2017). Consequently, the adolescents' emotion regulation is heavily influenced by that of their peers. This is evident in the behaviours that many adolescents typically engage in. For example, risk-taking behaviours are common in adolescence, in particular, drug and alcohol consumption and unsafe sexual practices (See Figure 6) (Deng & Zhang, 2019). High rates of these behaviours are linked to poor emotion regulation and high reactivity to emotional stimuli (Deng & Zhang, 2019). In some cases, engaging in risky practices may be a maladaptive coping mechanism for emotional stress (Young et al., 2019). In addition, an adolescent is more likely to partake in risk-taking behaviours if their close friends are also engaging in these behaviours due to fear of rejection (Sharma et al., 2013). Therefore, the combination of peer pressure and poor emotion regulation can significantly increase the likelihood of the adolescent partaking in risk-taking behaviour.

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1 Difficulty with regulating emotion during adolescence has been associated with impairments in the amygdala:

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2 Risk-taking behaviour has little relation to emotion regulation and peer group norms:

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Emotion regulation in adulthood[edit | edit source]

Figure 7. Attachment to caregivers in infancy can affect the individuals' attachment to their own offspring.

Despite continuing development during early adulthood, brain development ceases around the age of 25 (Sharma et al., 2013). As a result, emotion regulation capacity remains relatively constant throughout adulthood. However, in cases where poor emotion regulation is impacting negatively on the daily functioning of the individual, professional intervention can assist the individual in developing more adaptive regulation strategies (Nielsen et al., 2018). For example, Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) can improve an individual's coping mechanisms and emotion regulation (Nielsen et al., 2018). Furthermore, emotional reactivity and regulation may decline in older age. In particular, reactivity to positive emotion appears to decline and capacity to down-regulate negative emotion is also impaired (Schweizer et al., 2019). This may explain the high rates of anxious and depressive disorders in elderly people, however, more research is required to better understand the physiological underpinnings of this decline in cognitive functioning.

Poor regulation of emotion in earlier life stages can continue into adulthood, impacting other aspects of the individuals' life, in particular, parenting. Insecure attachment to caregivers in infancy has been found to have repercussions for adjustment and emotion regulation in adulthood (See Figure 7) (Moutsiana et al., 2014). This is evident in the altered neural functioning of insecurely attached infants and has been suggested to form a severe intergenerational cycle of regulatory problems when there is no intervention (Moutsiana et al., 2014). Furthermore, maladaptive emotion regulation can affect parenting style, with difficulty regulating emotion associated with authoritarian or neglectful parenting styles (Rutherford et al., 2015). As discussed previously, this can impact the child's own adjustment and emotion regulation and can perpetuate the intergenerational cycle of poor emotion regulation. While these findings provide good evidence for an intergenerational cycle, more longitudinal research is required to better explain this phenomenon.


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1 Emotion regulation capacity continues to develop throughout adulthood:

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2 Maladaptive emotion regulation in parents can have numerous implications on their offspring, including impacting on the future generations' regulation ability:

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Conclusion[edit | edit source]

The development of emotion regulation is a complex process whereby an individual undergoes a variety of emotional challenges which typically occur throughout infancy, childhood and adolescence. These challenges facilitate the transition to more autonomous emotion regulation in adulthood through a variety of psychological, emotional, cognitive, social and physiological changes which allow the individual to engage in more adaptive emotion regulation strategies. When an individual is fails to use adaptive strategies, there may be significant effects on their well-being and that of their future offspring. This is evident in the effects of negative parenting and insecure attachments on emotion regulation capacity, which can have huge implications for the adjustment, health and overall well-being of individual and future generations. However, more longitudinal research is required to better understand the intergenerational effects of poor emotion regulation. This research would also be useful in developing a lifespan model of emotion regulation which is necessary to better explain the developmental changes that occur throughout the lifespan.

See also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

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External links[edit | edit source]