Emotional Responsiveness

-Autonomy Support



Figure 1.2 Factors influencing children's emotional self-regulation.

styles of responding are thought to be distinct from specific behaviors, but are believed to influence how different individuals act and feel about similar circumstances and events.

Several recent conceptualizations of temperament focus on individuals' dispositions to express emotions, including the intensity of emotional experiences, emotional reactivity, or both, constructs with obvious relevance to emotion regulation. For example, Goldsmith and Campos (1982) defined temperament as individual differences in the expression of basic emotions such as anger and sadness, fear, pleasure, and interest. In an approach that perhaps is most relevant to our work, Rothbart and her colleagues (e.g., Rothbart & Derryberry, 1981; Rothbart & Bates, 1998) defined temperament as constitutionally based individual differences in reactivity and self-regulation. According to this theory, reactivity is the quality of individuals' responses to changes in the environment. A key aspect of reactivity is susceptibility to distress (i.e., how much stimulation is needed to generate arousal). The second component of temperament, self-regulation, encompasses children's capacities for dealing with various levels of arousal. Conceptualized in this way, it is clear that temperament affects both the extent to which regulation is required as well as the ways in which children might acquire regulatory strategies.

Fox (1989) used this conceptualization of temperament to account for differences in the types of strategies that children need to regulate their emotions. He argued that children's reactivity levels shape the sort of emotion regulation strategies they need to acquire. For example, a child who is highly reactive, but possesses few regulatory skills, may become aroused too quickly and may be prevented from exercising existing strategies. He or she thus may be forced to rely on the assistance of caregivers more often than another, less reactive child. Under such circumstances, highly reactive children would have fewer opportunities to elaborate or expand their repertoire of regulatory strategies compared to less reactive children or those who possess some self-regulatory skills. Fox also claimed that temperamental factors, such as mood lability and domination by only one or a couple of emotions, can be linked to less adaptive emotion regulatory processes, such as lack of access to the full range of emotions and inability to make fluid shifts between affective states (Fox, 1997).

Eisenberg and Fabes (1992) similarly conceptualized the importance of the dimensions of reactivity and regulation in their work with preschoolers. They postulated that individuals high in emotional intensity and low in regulatory ability would be prone to emotional regulatory problems. Thus, those children whose extreme emotional responses most require regulation would be least capable of providing it. Supporting their view, they found that such children tended to have less constructive anger reactions (Fabes & Eisenberg, 1992). Again, their work supports the idea that temperament may be an important contributor to individual differences in emotion regulation processes.

Researchers also have linked temperament to individual differences in the types of strategies that children employ when experiencing stressful circumstances. Mangelsdorf et al. (1995) found that wary 12-month-olds tended to engage in more passive types of strategies, such as self-soothing and proximity seeking with their mothers, when placed in the company of strangers. Less wary children, on the other hand, tended to use more active strategies, like self-distraction, when placed in the same situation. Similarly, Parritz (1996) found that infants described as wary by their mothers engaged in more self-soothing as well as whining and proximity seeking with their mothers than less wary infants. Perhaps the emotional responses of more wary and reactive infants are too overwhelming, causing such infants to rely on others to assist them in regulating their emotions or reverting to less active and adaptive strategies when such assistance is unavailable. This research suggests that temperamental characteristics may play a role in determining where children's strategies for regulating distress may fall on the continuum of autonomy.

Work by Morales and Bridges (1996) further supports the notion that temperament is associated with the types of strategies children use. In their work, they used a research paradigm similar to our own and focused on the relations between mothers' perceptions of their children's temperament and children's strategy use during delay episodes. More specifically, they asked the mothers to report on aspects of their children's emotional responses in various situations. Children who were seen as experiencing more negative emotionality focused more on the desired object and engaged in more other-directed comfort seeking and low level play in the laboratory delay. Children who were seen as exhibiting less negative emotionality engaged in more active play with the parent. At the same time, children who were seen as more positive and responsive by their mothers were found to engage less in passive forms of regulation, including physical self-soothing, focusing on the desired object, and other-directed comfort seeking.

A temperamental variable related to the development of attention that is important for self-regulation is effortful control. This construct represents the ability to inhibit a dominant response and to perform a subdominant one. Supporting its status as a temperamental dimension, effortful control tends to be consistent across tasks and across time (Kochanska, Murray, & Harlan, 2000). Further, it is negatively related to negative affectivity and aggression (Rothbart, Ahadi, & Hershey, 1994). Effortful control may moderate the experience of negative affect, making children able to use cognitive mechanisms in arousing situations.

Finally, a number of researchers have identified physiological mechanisms underlying temperamental dimensions of reactivity, self-regulation, and effortful control. Recent advances in the study of the biological and physiological aspects of temperament indicate that these factors may contribute to individual differences in children's capacities for emotion regulation. Calkins, Fox, and Marshall (1996) found that different patterns of activation in the frontal regions of the brain were associated with differences in arousal thresholds and affective expressions. Autonomic activity, as indexed by heart rate and vagal tone, has been related to temperamental characteristics (Stifter & Fox, 1990). Specifically, infants with high vagal tone exhibit greater sociability and outgoingness, while infants with low vagal tone appear more inhibited. Research by Gunnar and her colleagues (e.g., Gunnar, 1980) on the adrenocortical system indicated that adrenocortical stress reactivity predicts temperamental characteristics such as proneness to distress. Research such as this promises to increase our understanding of the biological mechanisms through which children come to acquire regulation and through which they carry out regulatory strategies.

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