Caregiver Differences

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A number of researchers have conceptualized emotion regulation as developing within the context of the parent-child relationship (e.g., Gianino & Tronick, 1988). Parent-child interaction involves mutual regulation in which caregiver and child each modulate the affect of the other (e.g., Tronick, 1989). The parent-child context may be characterized as more unresponsive and poorly coordinated; in which case, the parent fails to recognize the child's emotional needs or ignores the child's existing capabilities or smoothly coordinated with matching of parent and child affect (Field, 1994).

Theoretical work in the psychoanalytic tradition describes the importance of parents as early regulators of children's affect. For example, Winnicott (1960) described the "holding environment" as one in which the infant's impulses, affects, and frustrations are satisfied by the parent before they become overwhelming. He further claimed that these experiences of having been soothed in the presence of the caretaker lead the child to be able to soothe himself or herself. In contrast, when infants are not responded to and are left with strong unsatisfied urges, the child may respond either by suppressing these urges or being overwhelmed by them, thus not making steps toward self-regulation.

Greenspan (1981) similarly discussed the growth-promoting early environment as one that balances the child's need for stimulation with his or her need to experience homeostasis or self-regulation. According to his view, the parent initially provides soothing or comforting to supplement the child's emerging capacities. As the child becomes older, the parent helps the child integrate affective polarities into organized interpersonal responses. Without such availability, whereby comfort and a sense of security in the manageability of emotions are offered, the infant cannot stabilize emerging cycles and patterns and build on his or her own capacities for comforting. These theoretical works highlight the importance of caregivers' responses to their children in children's emotion regulation development.

We have been interested in whether and how parents adapt the strategies they use to help their toddlers modulate mild distress. We assume that parents, at least in part, mold the strategies they use with their infants and toddlers in response to changes in children's capacities to modulate distress. During the infant and toddler periods, numerous neurophysiological and cognitive changes occur which most certainly impact children's emotion regulation capacities. Neurophysiological development allows for more modulated reactions to stress (Stansbury & Gunnar, 1994), and increased control over arousal (Fox, 1994). The cognitive advances that, at least in part, stem from these neural maturations (including increased planfulness, voluntary attention, self-awareness, and understanding of causality) certainly contribute to developmental changes in the use of the emotion regulatory strategies described above (Kopp, 1989). Parents are able to capitalize on these changes in their attempts to regulate their children's distress. For example, very young infants primarily are able to vary arousal by shifting visual control (Tronick & Weinberg, 1990), thus allowing caregivers to use visual distraction as a soothing strategy (Thompson, 1994). Children's developing linguistic abilities during the second year (Ridge-way, Waters, & Kuczaj, 1985) provide caregivers with more opportunities to engage in language-based regulation strategies. Increases in motor capabilities and the fact that attention mechanisms become more flexible and object oriented during toddlerhood (Gunnar, Mangelsdorf, Larson, & Hertsgaard, 1989) allow caregivers to engage children in more active, sustained play with toys.

Although changes in caregiver strategies are likely to be linked to children's changing capacities, we assume that caregivers, in tailoring their strategies to their children, are doing more than simply responding to their children's existing abilities. We speculate that caregivers also are striving to create environments in which their children are challenged to engage in strategies that are just above their current abilities. This perspective, consistent with the Vygotskian notion of the zone of proximal development (Vygotsky, 1962), emphasizes that, through such challenging interactions with others, children increasingly internalize or take on the strategies they practice with those others. We have suggested that, as children become older, there will be a transition in the source of the initiation of strategies from the mothers to the children themselves. We argue that these shifts in the initiation of strategies will provide evidence that children are internalizing the strategies initially introduced to them by their parents.

In one study (Grolnick, Kurowski, McMenamy, Rivkin, & Bridges, 1998), we investigated the strategies that mothers used to assist their 12-, 18-, 24-, and 32-month-old children during the delay situation in which mothers were free to be active. We developed a coding system for rating mothers' behavior that paralleled our child strategy coding system (see Figure 1.3). Categories were placed along a continuum from those that were more reorienting for the child to those that were more stimulus-focused. In particular, we coded six maternal strategies in 5-second intervals. The strategies were active game-like engagement (mother engages the child in game-like activity), redirection of attention (mother distracts child), reassurance (mother assures child that he or she will obtain the desired object), following (mother reflects, extends, or elaborates on the child's distress or preoccupation with

Mothers' Strategies for Regulating Their Children's Distress

Active Engagement Mother-Initiated Child-Initiated Ongoing

Redirection of Attention

Reassurance

Following

Physical Comfort Mother-Initiated Child-Initiated Ongoing

Focus on Desired Object

Figure 1.3 Strategies mothers use to help their children regulate distress during the parent-active delay situation.

the frustrating object), physical comforting, and focus on the desired object. When active engagement or comforting was coded, raters noted whether the mother or the child initiated the activity or whether the behavior was continued from a previous interval.

Across all ages, active engagement was the strategy most used by mothers. Mothers' use of several strategies, including active engagement, distraction, and reassurance, occurred more often when their children were more distressed. We also found age differences in mothers' use of various strategies (see Table 1.2). As expected, mother-initiated active engagement showed a linear decrease with age while child-initiated and ongoing episodes of active engagement increased. These results support the idea that mothers take less responsibility, and children take more responsibility, for children's affect regulation with children's increasing ages. We believe that this shift occurs both because of children's developing abilities and because mothers are scaffolding their children's skills. There also were changes in the use of verbal strategies, such as reassurance, redirection, and following, with increases between 12 and 18 months and decreases thereafter. This finding provides support for our claim that mothers tailor their strategies to children's changing capacities. As children become more verbal between 12 and 18 months, mothers are more able to use linguistic strategies. The explanation for the decreases in the use of such strategies after 18 months is less obvious. It could be that children are increasingly employing their own self-directed speech to self-regulate and may require less of such intervention. Future research might examine these transitions and explore whether children do, in fact, take over these verbal functions.

Finally, also of interest were differences in the strategies that mothers used with their sons and with their daughters. In particular, mothers used more active emotion regulation strategies, such as

TABLE 1.2

Analyses of Covariance Illustrating Effects of Age (and Linear Trends) on Maternal Strategies

TABLE 1.2

Analyses of Covariance Illustrating Effects of Age (and Linear Trends) on Maternal Strategies

Strategy

Age

Linear Trend

F

t

Active engagement

Mother-initiated

8.30*

-4.80*

Child-initiated

4.55**

2.62**

Ongoing

7.16*

3.25**

Redirecting attention

7.02*

-.22

Reassurance

11.65*

.38

Following

4.36**

1.32

Physical comfort

Mother-initiated

1.71

-1.08

Child-initiated

.65

-1.01

Ongoing

1.00

-.94

Focus on object

2.31

.17

Other behavior

7.96*

1.77

Passive

5.31**

-2.32***

Note. Sex and Age X Sex interactions also were included in these analyses. Distress was included as a covariant.

Note. Sex and Age X Sex interactions also were included in these analyses. Distress was included as a covariant.

redirection of attention and reassurance, with their daughters while remaining more passive with their sons. This pattern suggests that mothers may facilitate independent emotion regulation more with their sons than with their daughters by providing their sons with more opportunities to independently regulate emotions. This finding links up with work on older children which has suggested that boys show different patterns of problem solving and expressing emotion than girls (Zahn-Waxler et al., 1994). Whether these differences in problem solving are linked to different emotion regulation socialization strategies used by mothers remains a question for future research.

The work described above focused on developmental changes in mothers' use of various strategies. Also of interest in our work, as well as in that of others (e.g., Calkins, 1997b), are the effects of individual differences in caregiver styles and strategies on children's emotion regulation. In order to organize research in this area, we return to the self-determination model presented above. Our model suggests that characteristics of the context provided by caretakers will determine whether children actively internalize strategies presented in their environments (Grolnick & Ryan, 1989; Ryan, Connell, & Grolnick, 1992). In particular, in order to move along the autonomy continuum, the context that the caregivers create must support the child's activity and initiation, provide the structures that can be internalized, and include the proximal support that children need to be successful in their regulatory attempts. The environment thus must provide structure, involvement, and autonomy support. First, the context must provide adequate structures to be internalized. Included in the provision of such structures are that caregivers set up conditions which are optimal, make sure that regulatory tasks are not overwhelming, and provide strategies which are not too complex to be used and incorporated into children's repertoires. Second, parents must be involved and available for assistance. Children thus can be supported in their attempts and supplemented by adults' interventions before experiences become overwhelming. Third, caregivers must provide structures and be involved in an autonomy supportive manner (i.e., they must allow the child to take increasing responsibility for initiating and maintaining emerging strategies). If strategies are provided in a controlling manner without opportunities for self-regulation, the child's activity and internalization may be undermined.

While no studies to date have specifically examined the three dimensions of the environment in relation to children's emotional self-regulation, much work is relevant to these dimensions. With regard to parents' involvement and availability, research in the domain of social referencing has described the powerful effects of mothers' availability as a resource for children in their attempts to regulate affect (Walden & Ogan, 1988). The assumption in much of this work is that regulation involves an appraisal process in which primary emotional reactions are modulated by the meaning ascribed to the situation. Caregivers' facial and vocal expressions are important sources of meaning in ambiguous situations.

The effects of mothers' availability as referencing resources have been demonstrated in several studies. For example, Sorce and Emde (1981) presented a robot toy to children under one of two conditions: Either the mother was asked to read a newspaper or to be available for referencing. Infants whose mothers were available (not reading) showed more positive affect, more smiling, and more vocalization. In addition, they were more positive in relation to a stranger also in the room and touched the toy more. Diener, Mangelsdorf, Fosnot, and Kienstra (1997) examined children's self-regulatory behaviors (mother-related, self-soothing, engaging the stimulus) during a fear-inducing situation under conditions in which either the mother was available or unavailable. Children exhibited more self-soothing when the mother was unavailable and more engagement of the stimulus in the mother-available condition. These studies are consistent with our claim that caregiver involvement is crucial for children's attempts to regulate emotion, and suggest that systematic differences in availability might influence the types of strategies children acquire, use, or both.

With regard to structure, the kinds of strategies parents use with their children are related to the degree of regulation children exhibit. For example, children whose mothers use distraction with them spent more time orienting to alternative objects and less to a forbidden object than those using nondistracting strategies (Putnam, Spritz, & Stifter, 2002). With older children, Holden (1983) showed that mothers who preempted opportunities for distress by actively distracting children were less distressed than those of mothers who waited until children were distressed.

While the aforementioned studies examined parents and children together, it is important to also examine the effects of parents' behaviors on children's capacities to regulate emotion on their own. Here, the level of parents' autonomy supportiveness versus controllingness in their interactions with their children becomes especially relevant. While not proposing such a model, several studies have examined parent behaviors that can be related to an autonomy support to control continuum. Silverman and Ragusa (1990) found that mothers who were more active in a parent-child compliance task had children who performed more poorly on an independent delay task, even controlling for performance on the compliance tasks. Nachmias, Gunnar, Manglesdorf, Parritz, and Buss (1996) examined the strategies that mothers used to help their wary children deal with a mildly fear-inducing stimulus. Mothers who forced their children to focus on a novel event had children with higher postsession cortisol levels, indicating less effective regulation and possible interference with the children's own attempts to regulate proximity and contact with an arousing stimulus. Calkins (1997a) examined mothers' styles of interacting with their children and their children's tendencies to become distressed when frustrated as well as the behaviors children used to manage that distress. Maternal preemptive action (i.e., mothers doing activities for the child rather than allowing the child to do them for himself or herself) was related to tendencies to display distress. Conversely, toddlers whose mothers used more positive feedback and guidance when interacting with their children tended to use distraction and constructive coping. Thus, it appears that whether mothers are involved in an autonomy-supportive or a controlling manner may be related to children's developing abilities to utilize effective regulatory strategies.

In our study, we were interested in whether mothers' use of certain strategies would be related to children's distress when required to regulate alone. We thus examined relations between mothers' use of the six strategies in the parent-active situation and children's distress in the parent-passive situation. To do so, we computed both zero-order correlations between strategies used in the parent-active delay and distress in the parent-passive delay as well as partial correlations between these two variables controlling for both children's ages and distress in the parent-active delay. Therefore, in our analyses, we focused on the relations between strategies mothers used in the parent-active situation and children's distress in the parent-passive situation beyond what would be expected by children's levels of distress in the parent-active situation. Notably, levels of distress tended to be consistent across the two situations.

TABLE 1.3

Zero-Order and Partial Correlations (Controlling for Children's Distress in Parent-Active Delay and Age) Between Maternal Strategies and Children's Distress in Parent-Passive Delay

TABLE 1.3

Zero-Order and Partial Correlations (Controlling for Children's Distress in Parent-Active Delay and Age) Between Maternal Strategies and Children's Distress in Parent-Passive Delay

Strategy

Zero-Order

Partial

Active engagement

Mother-initiated

.28**

.13

Child-initiated

-.17

.01

Ongoing

-.06

.24**

Redirecting attention

.28**

.01

Reassurance

.29*

.06

Following

.10

.12

Physical comfort

Mother-initiated

.17***

.13

Child-initiated

.03

.05

Ongoing

.17***

.10

Focus on object

.00

-.06

Other behavior

-.32*

-.22***

Passive

-.20***

-.26**

Our results (see Table 1.3) showed that mothers who used more ongoing active engagement in the parent-active situation had children who were more distressed in the parent-passive situation (controlling for distress in the parent-active situation). Interestingly, this finding did not occur for mother-initiated active engagement, indicating that it is not mothers' responses per se (which tend to be reactions to child distress) but, rather, the maintenance of engagement despite decreases in distress that appears to undermine children's self-regulation. Mothers who were more passive in the parent-active situation had children who were less distressed when required to regulate with relative independence.

These results suggest that mothers who behave in a controlling manner with regard to their children's emotion regulation, either by maintaining strategies beyond what the child needs to decrease distress or by not allowing opportunities for children to practice more self-regulating strategies, may undermine their children's capacities to develop more autonomous self-regulatory capacities. On the other hand, mothers who provide their children with opportunities to actively regulate, while being available to provide assistance when needed, encourage the internalization of emotion regulation strategies.

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