Emotional Self Regulation in Infancy and Toddlerhood

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Wendy S. Grolnick Jannette M. McMenamy Carolyn O. Kurowski


How do young children calm themselves when they are upset? What factors contribute to children's abilities to modulate distress and to "rev up" when it is playtime? What are the consequences for adaptive behavior of being facile at managing distress? These questions fall under the broad rubric of emotion regulation, and, more particularly, the development of emotional self-regulation. This topic cuts across traditionally separate areas in psychology such as temperament, neurophysiology, motivation, and personality. One of the reasons the area has become popular in the field of child development is that it is a broad rubric that can account for how and why emotions organize and facilitate various psychological processes such as attention and problem solving, or, alternatively disrupt such processes (Cole, Martin, & Dennis, 2004). In addition, emotion regulation applies to the life span (Cicchetti, Ganiban, & Barnett, 1991): While clearly the capacity to regulate emotion changes with age, even newborns have rudimentary strategies for dealing with emotions.

The past few years have seen increasing interest in the development of emotion regulation. Several volumes have been devoted to the topic (e.g., Infancy, Vol. 3(2), 2002) and comment and debate about conceptual and methodological issues in the field have received journal space (e.g., Bridges, Denham, & Ganiban, 2004; Cole, Martin, & Dennis, 2004). Some of our recent progress in understanding the development of emotion regulation has been the result of advances in related areas such as the development of attention (e.g., Posner & Rothbart, 2000) and the neurophysiological bases of reactivity (e.g., Fox & Calkins, 2003). Further, methodological additions such as the use of temporal analysis (e.g., Buss & Goldsmith, 1998) have allowed us to increasingly take a process view of emotion regulation. All of these advances contribute to a reaffirmation that emotion regulation is a construct that allows us to better understand children's developmental pathways.

The area of emotional self-regulation highlights the changing role of the self in the development of emotion regulation. In our work, we have been interested in the processes by which children develop the internal mechanisms to "self-regulate" emotion; that is, to be the origin of such capacities. Using self-determination theory (Deci & Ryan, 1985), we conceptualize the development of emotional self-regulation as a movement from reliance on outside sources or control-related processes to a growing capacity for autonomous, flexible, smooth, and adaptive regulation. We see this movement as an active process, part of the organism's innate propensity to master and become autonomous with respect to both his or her internal and external environments. Self-determination theory provides a way for us to understand the processes through which the development of emotion regulation takes place, including its energization and the factors which facilitate or forestall it.

In this chapter, we present a theory of the development of emotional self-regulation, focusing in particular on the toddler and early preschool years. We begin by describing the functionalist approach to emotions which underlies our work. We then tie this view of emotions to the concept of emotion regulation. Next, we describe self-determination theory, the lens through which we view the development of emotional self-regulation. Given the varied use of terminology in the literature, we include a section on key distinctions such as those between emotion control and emotion regulation and emotion management versus emotional integration. Following this, we provide an in-depth discussion of our framework for understanding the development of emotional self-regulation that includes a review of empirical support for our theory. Drawing on our own work and that of others (e.g., Calkins, 1994; Kopp, 1989), we also present a model of factors that contribute to emotional self-regulation, including those within the child (temperament) and aspects of the social environment (caregiver practices). We conclude by discussing some of the conceptual and methodological issues facing emotion regulation researchers, the implications of emotion regulation for adaptation, and the directions for future research.


To provide an understanding of our view of emotional self-regulation first entails placing our work within a general framework of emotion. Underlying our conceptualization is a functionalist view of emotions (e.g., Campos, Campos, & Barrett, 1989). This view suggests that emotions are evolution-arily adapted responses that have motivating and organizing functions which help individuals in the pursuit of their goals (Campos, Campos, & Barrett, 1989). Emotions, which register the significance of a mental or physical event (Campos, Frankel, & Camras, 2004), allow rapid appraisals of experience and prepare the individual for action. Stressing the goal-directed nature of emotion, Barrett and Campos (1987) described the functions, both intra- and interpersonal, of emotions in individuals' goal-oriented behavior. According to their theory, anger, for example, could be viewed as the result of a person trying to overcome an obstacle. It signals to the self to mobilize energy to try and overcome the obstacle as well as to others that they should submit to the individual. Joy has the function of maintaining the individual's behavior and of signaling to others to keep the interaction going (Emde, 1988). If emotions are viewed in this way, the goal of emotion regulation processes would not necessarily be to diminish or suppress emotions but, rather, to facilitate the adaptive use of emotions. Thus, there is no good or bad way of experiencing or expressing emotion—the context determines its usefulness (Campos, Frankel, & Camras, 2004).

Definitions of emotion regulation generally focus on changes in emotions. Campos, Mumme, Kermoian, and Campos (1994) described emotion regulation as the process of maintaining or changing an emotional stance. Fox (1994) described emotion regulation as the ability to modulate affect in terms of socially and culturally defined norms and Cole, Martin, and Dennis (2004) define it as a change in activated emotion. In his comprehensive definition, Thompson (1994) defined emotion regulation as "the extrinsic and intrinsic processes responsible for monitoring, evaluating, and modifying emotional reactions, especially their intensive and temporal features, to accomplish one's goals" (pp. 27-28). Inherent in this definition is the notion of modulation or management of emotion—the common thread across most definitions—as well as the functionalist idea that the way one expresses and experiences emotion may affect behavior in the individual's pursuit of various ends.

Recent work has questioned the notion of change in emotion as the definition of emotion regulation (e.g., Campos, Frankel, & Camras, 2004; Eisenberg & Spinrad, 2004). Theorists, for example, have suggested that emotion regulation can precede an emotion, such as when a person avoids a situation that he or she sees as potentially distressing. Thus, definitional issues remain a controversial topic in the field.

We have defined emotional self-regulation broadly as the set of processes involved in initiating, maintaining, and modulating emotional responsiveness, both positive and negative (Grolnick, Bridges, & Connell, 1996). We include positive and negative emotions because, consistent with a functionalist perspective, we recognize that both types of emotion serve adaptive functions for the child. In addition, we include not only the modulation and termination of emotional responsiveness but also its initiation and maintenance. While most research on emotion regulation has focused on the dampening of negative emotions, the goals of children and adults might well be served by the enhancement and maintenance of emotional arousal, both negative and positive (Thompson, 1994). For example, initiating positive emotions may involve caretakers in play and other positive exchanges. Intensification of anger might help to mobilize action, such as enabling oneself to stand up for one's rights or state one's needs. The inclusion of the initiation and maintenance of emotional states allows for a more comprehensive account of the function of emotion regulation in goal-directed behavior.


Our developmental view of emotional self-regulation centers around the construct of autonomy and is based on self-determination theory. This theory stresses the key roles of three psychological needs—autonomy, competence, and relatedness—for motivated action. Self-determination theory can be characterized as an organismic theory stressing that development is a motivated process which emanates from the organism (Deci & Ryan, 1985). According to this viewpoint, individuals are born with innate tendencies to operate on their inner and outer environments in attempts to master them. Underlying this tendency to master, organize, and overtake oneself is the energy source referred to as intrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation, then, fuels the seeking out of novelty, pursuit of challenges, and other growth-promoting experiences. In short, intrinsic motivation is the fuel for development.

The theory further postulates three psychological needs underlying intrinsic motivation. The first need is to feel autonomous or to feel that one's actions emanate from oneself. A second is to feel competent in dealing with the environment, including both the internal and external environments. A third need is for relatedness or connectedness with important others. These needs are complementary. For example, one can fulfill needs for autonomy and relatedness by being choicefully connected to another person.

From this viewpoint, children will naturally move toward autonomy, competence, and related-ness, as long as the environment does not thwart this movement. Applying this concept to emotional development, movement toward more active, self-initiated regulation is an expression of children's natural tendencies toward growth and development more generally in the direction of autonomy, competence, and relatedness. Children fulfill needs for autonomy as they experience a greater sense of agency in the expression of emotion as well as a greater capacity to use the information contained in their emotional experiences to serve their goals. Autonomous regulation is the converse of being other-reliant in one's emotion regulation or of being overwhelmed by emotional experiences, both of which lack a sense of self as an active regulator of one's experience. Also, as children take more responsibility for regulating emotion, they obtain a sense of competence as they master impulses and emotions rather than being overtaken by them. Finally, as children move toward greater self-regulation of emotion, they are able to fulfill the goals that others have for them, such as expressing emotions in a socially acceptable manner (Kopp, 1989). In addition, they are more likely to be able to initiate and maintain positive interactions with others. Both of these tendencies bring them closer to others and increase their sense of relatedness to them. In these ways, autonomy and relatedness work together and enhance one another.

While children will naturally move toward greater autonomy, competence, and relatedness with respect to emotional processes, there are aspects of development in relation to emotion regulation that are not natural or spontaneous. For example, modulating the expression of strong negative emotions is not something that children are intrinsically motivated to do but, rather, it represents the social expectations of children's caregivers and social groups. Such regulation first must be accomplished through caregiver prompts and interventions. The taking on of initially externally regulated behaviors or strategies falls under the rubric of internalization (Grolnick, Ryan, & Deci, 1997; Ryan, Connell, & Deci, 1985). Internalization is the means through which regulatory processes that originally are external in origin become transformed into part of the personal repertoire of the child. Intrinsically motivated activities as well as the internalization of extrinsically afforded regulations are the two major strands of development. As such, they both are fueled by intrinsic motivation and the underlying needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness.

Another relevant aspect of this theory is the specification of environments that facilitate or inhibit intrinsically motivated activity and the internalization of externally afforded regulations. A corollary of the theory is that environments which support the child's needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness will facilitate the two processes of intrinsic motivation and internalization, and those undermining these needs will forestall them. In particular, we have suggested that environments characterized by support for autonomy, structure, and involvement facilitate the development of behavioral self-regulation (Grolnick & Ryan, 1989), and we have now expanded this theory to the emotional realm (Ryan, Deci, & Grolnick, 1995). We will return to this social-contextual aspect of the theory in the Caregiver Contributions section.

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