Emotional Responsiveness and Self Regulatory Strategies

We posit that the capacity for emotional self-regulation is composed of two interrelated processes: emotional responsiveness and emotional self-regulation strategies (Grolnick, Bridges, & Connell, 1996). Emotional responsiveness represents the degree to which an individual responds both expressively and experientially to arousing events. This process is evident in characteristics of an individual's emotional expressions, such as intensity, latency to respond, and duration. Emotional self-regulation strategies are the various behaviors that can be used to modify or alter emotional responses. Certainly these two processes are intertwined and empirically are extremely difficult to untangle. For example, the emotional expression we see in a child represents both the emotion and the regulation of the emotion. Though we recognize its difficulties, in our work we have elected to operationally separate emotion expressiveness from strategy use so that we can explore the links of particular strategies to emotional expressiveness within and across contexts (Grolnick, Bridges, & DeCourcey, 2004).

Consistent with the self-determination framework outlined above, we conceptualize the development of these processes as involving movement from more passive, stimulus-bound, and other-reliant strategies to more active, autonomous forms of regulation. In our work, we have identified strategies that young children use to regulate distress in mildly stressful situations. These strategies are viewed as lying along a continuum from passive, reactive, and stimulus-bound to more active, proactive, and reorienting strategies. Below, we describe three sets of strategies from which six specific strategy codes are derived.

Our first set of strategies involves shifts in attention away from arousing stimuli. Attentional processes play an important role in modulating arousal from infancy onward (Rothbart & Posner, 1985). Voluntary or executive attention, its neurophysiological bases, and developmental progression has received much recent attention (e.g., Posner & Rothbart, 1998). The newborn is equipped with rudimentary mechanisms for disengaging from stimuli (Kessen & Mandler, 1961) and overstimulating interactions (Gianino & Tronick, 1988), although the more voluntary shifting of attention begins to occur between 3 and 6 months (Rothbart, Posner, & Boylan, 1990). Further shifts in voluntary attention occur between 9 and 12 months—for example, in studies of reaching along the line of sight in order to retrieve an object from a box, at 9 months the line of sight dominates attention, with children reaching according to what they see. By 12 months, infants can look at a closed side but reach through an open end, showing their capacity for cognitive control (Diamond, 1991). Posner and Rothbart (2000) used the Stroop procedure to study further developments in attention in the 2nd and 3rd years of life. Children were presented pictures of objects and a key to press that either matched or did not match the stimulus. The key could be on the same side of the stimulus or the opposite side. The child was to press the key that matched the object regardless of location. Performance at 2 years was perseverative and much better on compatible (i.e., object and key on the same side) than incompatible trials. By the second half of the 3rd year and first half of the 4th year, children performed with high accuracy on both compatible and incompatible trials. Redirection of attention away from a distressing stimulus and toward another object, person, or event is a strategy used frequently by older infants, toddlers, and their parents (Grolnick, Kurowski, McMenamy, Rivkin, & Bridges, 1998).

While particular strategies can be seen as ranging from those that are more passive and stimulus bound to those that are more active and autonomous, it is important to note that any type of strategy can be more or less active and sustained. Redirection of attention can be conceptualized in this way. It can range from brief looks away in the newborn period (Fox, 1989) to sustained toy play in toddlers. Thus, one can conceptualize attentional deployment strategies as being more or less active. We have tried to capture this distinction in our categorization by coding two strategies: active engagement with objects and passive exploration and object use.

The usefulness of attentional distraction, and, particularly, more active kinds of attention deployment including abilities to shift and maintain attention, has been demonstrated by several researchers. Rothbart and her colleagues (e.g., Rothbart, Ziaie, & O'Boyle, 1992) demonstrated that the ability to control attention was associated with low levels of negative emotion in infants. Mischel (1974) found that children who are most able to delay obtaining an object are those who use a variety of self-distraction techniques. Braungart and Stifter (1991) differentiated between toy play (engaged and sustained behavior) and looking at objects and people (less sustained behavior). These authors examined the use of these strategies and their relations with distress in separation episodes. Their findings indicated that higher levels of distress were associated with less toy play. Finally, children characterized as "easily frustrated" at 6 months were less attentive in attention tasks, and used less distraction in challenge situations than those less easily frustrated (Calkins et al., 2002).

A second set of behaviors used by children to regulate their emotions are those for comfort or reassurance. We include three types of comforting strategies: physical comforting, other-directed comforting, and symbolic self-soothing. Comfort behaviors can be self-directed, including physical self-soothing behaviors such as thumb sucking or using familiar or special objects to obtain comfort (Klackenberg, 1949; Passman & Weisberg, 1975). Stifter (1993) described the prevalence of physical self-soothing strategies in 5- through 10-month-olds and noted their effectiveness in decreasing distress levels in children of this age. Interestingly, self-soothing behaviors have also been found to be positively correlated with distress in older (12-13 months) children (Diener, Mangelsdorf, McHale, & Frosch, 2002).

Comfort behaviors can be directed toward a caregiver, such as in attempts to attain proximity and contact (e.g., Ainsworth & Wittig, 1969). Children who orient to their mothers during frustrating situations tend to show greater distress (Calkins et al., 2002).

Comforting behaviors also can be symbolic in nature. Piaget (1954) noted that the use of the symbolic function, such as in play or imitation, helps children to master a difficult situation. The child may evoke a representation of an object or situation causing distress and develop game-like activity in the service of emotion regulation. For example, a child may pretend that he or she has obtained a desired object. Such behaviors differ from engagement in alternative activities since the child remains focused on the distressing object. Yet, by using his or her representational capacities, the child transforms the situation into one that is manageable and, thus, is comforted. The child's repertoire of symbolic self-soothing strategies is expanded by the acquisition of language. Linguistic abilities can help children to state their feelings, to obtain verbal feedback about appropriate regulation, and to hear about and think about ways to manage emotions (Kopp, 1989). Self-directed speech also may facilitate the child's ability to bring action and emotion under control. Flavell (1966) used the term private speech to describe this self-directed speech, and noted that the function of such speech was self-guidance. Berk (1986) demonstrated that private speech helped children to inhibit off-task behavior in a task situation, and Bivens and Berk (1990) demonstrated greater use of private speech in older versus younger elementary children.

Finally, the distressed child can maintain or increase focus on the distressing stimulus and attempt to alter a temporarily unresponsive environment. For example, during a separation, the child can search for his or her mother or, while in a delay situation, he or she can focus on the desired object. We thus include focus on the desired object/search for mother as a final strategy. Supporting the less adaptive nature of this type of strategy, Bridges and Connell (1991) found that, during a brief separation, the child's search for his or her mother was positively correlated with distress. Putnam, Spritz, and Stifter (2002) demonstrated with toddlers and Mischel (1974) demonstrated with older children that, when a child's attention was directed toward the goal, voluntary delay was diminished.

We have conducted several studies examining these six strategies (see Figure 1.1), their relations to emotional expressiveness, and the effects of context on their use. Context may have many meanings, including the type of stimulus presented, who is present, and whether those present are available to assist the child. We have examined each of these issues in our work. The first study (Grolnick, Bridges, & Connell, 1996) examined emotional expressiveness and strategy use in thirty-seven 24-month-old children. We observed the children in two paradigms: a separation paradigm and a delay paradigm, each with two variants. In one of the two delay situations, children had to wait to receive a present and, in the other, they had to wait to eat some goldfish crackers and raisins. Further, the delays were conducted under one of two conditions: under one condition, the mother was free to do anything she wanted while her child waited (parent-active); under the other, she was asked to read a magazine and remain relatively passive, though she could respond to her child (parent-passive) during the waiting period. In the separation paradigm, children participated in a modified stranger situation. Our focus was on the portion of the session when the mother left the room and the child was with an experimenter (experimenter-present) and the portion when the child was alone (child-alone).

For each of the four situations (two delay and two separation), we rated the children's affect in 5-second intervals using Thompson's facial and vocal scales which range from positive to negative. Also coded in the same intervals was children's use of the six strategies: active engagement with substitute objects, passive use of objects and exploration, symbolic self-soothing, physical self-soothing, other-directed comforting, and focus on the desired object/search for mother (see Figure 1.1).

Among these 2-year-olds, active engagement with substitute objects was the most frequently used strategy, followed by focus on the desired object/search for mother. These results indicate that children of this age are able to use active distraction during mildly stressful situations, though their attention is also vulnerable to pulls by the stimulus. We also examined the relations between children's use of the various strategies and their levels of distress. These results appear in Table 1.1. Use of active engagement was highly negatively associated with children's distress while, as expected, focus on desired object/search for mother was positively related to distress in all situations. Relations between other strategies and distress levels varied by situation, but generally supported the continuum model, whereby those strategies defined as more active and reorienting were most negatively correlated with distress while those defined as more passive, other-directed, and stimulus-bound were most positively correlated with distress.

In general, our findings supported the continuum of autonomy in which active, autonomous strategies are more adaptive than passive, other-reliant ones.

Our results also strongly showed that the context affected children's strategy use. Children more actively engaged in toy play when an adult was present and participatory than when an adult was not present or passive. Conversely, when an adult was unavailable, children tended to be more focused on the desired object. This finding was replicated in a longitudinal study of 12- and 14-month-olds (Bridges, Grolnick, & Connell, 1997). This finding was similar to that of Diener and Mangelsdorf (2000) who found that children showed more positive affect during anger and fear eliciting situations when their mothers were involved versus constrained in their behavior. These studies each illustrate that children were able to use the most active and adaptive strategies and to show the least distress when regulating in relation to their caregivers. These findings illustrate the relative dependence of children on caretakers for regulatory assistance during the first 2 years.

Another part of our theory suggests that emotional self-regulation should change with age—both in decreased emotional expressiveness and in the use of more autonomous strategies to regulate emotion. Other investigators have provided data relevant to this issue and we have extended our own work with 2-year-olds to 12-, 18-, and 32-month-olds. While not specifically categorizing their strategies along an active to passive continuum, Mangelsdorf, Shapiro, and Marzolf (1995) found that, relative to 6- and 12-month-olds, 18-month-olds were more likely to attempt to direct interactions with strangers during separations. They also found that 12-month-olds were more likely to self-soothe than 18-month-olds. Parritz (1996) found that, in "challenging situations" (e.g., presentation of a mechanical toy), 18-month-olds were more likely to attempt to control the situation with various

Children's Self-Regulatory Strategies

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