Emotion Regulation and Later Adaptation

In this section, we explore some implications of our model of emotional self-regulation for later adaptation. Included are possible links between early emotion regulation processes and later social competence, coping, and psychopathology.

The attainment of a reasonable level of emotional self-regulation can be considered a major developmental task of toddlerhood and early childhood (Kopp, 1989). Consistent with the developmental psychopathology perspective, effective negotiation of this issue should predict competence on develop-mentally salient tasks in later stages. Such continuity can be explained by the need for self-regulatory capacities for other processes such as task engagement, concentration, and maintaining interchanges with others (Shields, Cicchetti, & Ryan, 1994). Thus, emotion regulation may serve as a foundation for maintaining the homeostasis that allows individuals to engage with their environments and with others. Children who do not develop these abilities therefore would be more likely to develop intra-and interpersonal problems (Calkins, 1997b; Eisenberg & Fabes, 1992).

One of the key developmental tasks of the early childhood years is the engagement with peers in cooperative, mutual play. In line with a recent focus on intersystem connections (Cicchetti, Ackerman, & Izard, 1995), studies have examined relations between emotion regulation abilities and children's social competence. Calkins (1997a) looked at patterns of emotion regulation in preschoolers indexed physiologically through vagal tone. She also rated children's play patterns in the preschool including solitary, social/active, and reticent behavior. The results of her study indicated that children who engaged in high levels of solitary play were more regulated in their affect as indexed by greater vagal suppression (decrease in vagal tone from baseline to affect-eliciting episodes) relative to those who engaged in more social/active (including aggressive) or reticent behavior. This author concluded that physiological regulation makes possible immersement in solitary activity and the negotiation of one-on-one interactions with peers. Fabes and Eisenberg (1992) found that frequent displays of anger were related to lower levels of social competence in children, and Raver (1997) found that toddlers' emotion regulation strategies were related to social competence above and beyond measures of attentional control.

Further evidence connects early self-regulation with behavior problems. Emotion dysregulation has been described as the common dimension of most categories of psychopathology (Cole, Michel, & Teti, 1994). Cole, Michel, and Teti (1994) described emotional dysregulation as emotional patterns that disrupt other processes such as attention and social relations. Similarly, Cicchetti et al. (1995) defined emotional dysregulation as existing control structures that operate in a maladaptive manner and direct emotion toward inappropriate sources. Researchers have described pathological consequences of both overcontrol (e.g., internalizing behavior, depression) and undercontrol (e.g., externalizing behavior, aggression). Children with undercontrolled behavior problems tend to show difficulty with emotion regulation in the laboratory (Calkins & Dedmon, 2000) and children's emotion regulation has been linked to externalizing behavior in school (Eisenberg et al., 2001; Chang, Schwartz, Dodge, & McBride-Chang, 2003). Preschoolers with behavior problems have intense and prolonged distress and protest during separations (Speltz, Greenberg, & DeKlyen, 1990). Cole, Teti, and Bohnert (1997) examined 4- and 5-year-olds in emotionally challenging situations and coded facial expressions as inexpressive, modulated, or full blown. Inexpressive children reported more symptoms of anxiety and depression.

While these studies provide links between emotion regulation processes and social competence, measures taken in these studies were concurrent. Thus, it is difficult to know whether behavior problems or difficulties in interacting with others were apparent before affect regulation problems or whether they were a consequence or concomitant of them. Longitudinal studies addressing whether early emotion regulation is related to later social outcomes are beginning to examine cross-time links. For example, emotion regulation in preschool predicts symptoms in the school years (Cole, Teti, & Zahn-Waxler, 2002)

Beyond finding links between emotion regulation and later adjustment, some studies have begun to delineate the processes through which relations between emotion regulation and social difficulties might occur. For example, Kobak and Cole (1994) conducted such a process-oriented study with adolescents in which they argued that links can be found between social withdrawal and the dampening down of undesired emotions. Specifically, they claimed that deactivating attachment strategies divert attention from attachment needs and cues. These strategies are used by the adolescent to dampen undesired emotions. This dampening is then linked to social withdrawal. Such process-oriented studies help us to understand how emotion regulation relates to social outcomes.

Possibly more direct are potential links between emotional self-regulation and coping in children and adults. Coping has been defined as strategies directed at managing or altering problems causing distress or emotional responses to problems (Lazarus & Folkman, 1984). Coping strategies, such as avoidance or denial, can be directly linked to attentional emotion regulation strategies described above. Altshuler and Ruble (1989) examined age-related (ages 5 through 11) changes in children's suggested coping strategies. Children were given scenarios involving a child having to wait (e.g., to receive a large candy bar) and asked to suggest strategies that the child might use. The results of their study showed that avoidance/distraction type strategies were most frequently named by children of all ages. At the same time, there was an increase with age in cognitive types of distraction (i.e., thinking about something else) and a decrease in escape strategies. The developmental component of these coping strategies provides a potential link between emotional self-regulation and this coping work, and several questions regarding the origins of coping strategies and emotion dysregulation in early emotion regulation processes become relevant. For example, are children who are able early to use attention deployment strategies more able to use cognitive strategies as they become older? What sorts of caregiver influences impact on individual differences in the use of coping strategies? When does the use of less autonomous strategies become emotional dysregulation? What roles do temperament and caregiver styles play in extreme forms of dysregulation? How early are these difficulties evident? In addressing these and other questions, the study of emotion regulation promises to provide important insight into the development of problem behaviors and clinical disorders.

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