The Science Behind Tantrums: Information on Emotion Regulation

Written by Cindy Hovington, Ph.D. Founder of www.curiousneuron.com

Montreal, Canada. 


While babies depend on their parents to regulate their emotions, toddlers need to learn how to manage their emotions independently, know as "emotion-related self-regulation" or "emotion regulation”. Being the parent of a toddler also comes with its challenges. How can parents help their toddler better understand their emotions and possibly reduce the number or severity of emotional outbursts (tantrums)? The emergence of self-regulation is an important milestone in child development. Toddlers will eventually learn to calm themselves (self-regulate). However, they need some help to develop this skill. What is important is how parents and caregivers respond to their emotions and how they help them create strategies to manage their emotions. I found an amazing review paper by Eisenberg et al. in the Annual Review of Clinical Psychology in 2010. I will summarize the major points of this article and focus on defining emotional-regulation and discussing some tips for parents.

The science of self-regulation. 

The development of emotion-regulation is related to several aspects of child development, including attention, executive functions, and effortful control. Many of the capacities involved in emotion regulation appear to have a temperamental basis (Eisnenberg et al. 2010). This means that a child's mood,  how they approach and react to a situation, their level of fear, sadness or frustration (all part of temperament) can influence their ability to regulate their emotions.  Emotion self-regulation is defined as the ability to control one’s behavior, cognition, attention, and emotion when challenged (Heatherton and Wagner 2011).

Effortful control: Managing your attention and behaviour.

Effortful control is one of the main aspects of emotion regulation. It is defined as the ability to voluntarily manage attention and inhibit or activate behavior as needed, to adapt to the environment (Rothbart & Bates 2006, Rothbart 2012). This is what allows a child to shift their attention from something that is causing a stir in their emotions (a sibling taking their toy away) and inhibit inappropriate behavior (hitting or yelling). However, this isn't simple. Let’s break it down and start with attention, the "manage attention" part of effortful control.

Attention is also important for emotion-regulation.

Focused attention (i.e. staying focused when making a puzzle or reading) slowly begins to develop at around 8 to 10 months. A baby begins to stay focused longer on something they are doing. As a child gets older, they are able to stay focused for longer periods of time (however, for small children you can expect sustained attention to be, in minutes, about their age). Having control over your attention is important when regulating emotions, for example, if a child takes your toy away you can shift your attention to another toy, otherwise staying focused feeds your frustration. Some studies have shown that parents can help their child learn an emotion regulation strategy known as "reorienting attention" (more on strategies in Part 2 of this article).

Inhibiting behaviour and emotion regulation.  

The "inhibitory control" aspect of effortful control. Inhibitory control starts to become more evident around 24 to 36 months (Gerardi-Caulton 2000). You can see it best when playing a game of "Simon Says" with toddlers/preschoolers. If they struggle with refraining from, for example, touching their nose if you do not say "Simon Says", this suggests that it might be beneficial for them to play it more often to practice inhibition. In research, inhibition control is studied via delayed gratification, which requires that a child sit in front of something sweet (cookie/marshmallow) without eating it. They are told that if they do not eat it after a specific number of minutes, then they will get an additional treat. Interestingly, studies have shown that the lower a child’s ability for inhibitory control, the more they externalize (aggression, defiance, delinquency) their problems (Hill et al, 2006, Spinrad et al, 2007). Click here to read an interesting study on inhibitory control and emotion regulation. 

Emotion Regulation and the Role of Caregivers/Parents

The environment also plays a huge role in the development of emotion regulation. A great deal of research has looked into the important role of parental socialization of emotion regulation/effortful control in children’s lives. Eisenberg et al. (1998) proposed that socialization of emotion regulation can occur in at least 3 ways 1) socializers’ reaction to children’s emotions, 2) socializers’ expression of emotion in the family or toward the child and 3) socializers’ discussion of emotion (the "socializer" is the parent or caregiver). Let's look at these 3 in more detail.

1)    Try your best to stay calm through the storm.

Parental reactions to children’s emotions have been extensively researched and findings have suggested that sensitive, responsive parenting is linked with lower negativity and more regulatory behavior (Propper & Moore 2006, Li-Grining 2007). In addition, this type of parenting has also been shown to lower cortisol response to emotional arousal in children (Blair et al. 2008). Cortisol is the body’s main stress hormone. Researchers refer to this as “maternal sensitivity” and an interesting study in 2007 (Belsky et al.) showed increased maternal sensitivity predicted better attention in first grade. Maternal interactions characterized by warmth and support are also thought to foster emotion-regulation skills.

Parenting styles have also been studied in relation to emotion regulation. Authoritarian (high on strict control and low on warmth), negative and punitive parenting has been associated with lower levels of effortful control (Xu et al. 2009). Researchers suggest that supportive responses along with emotion coaching may help children to reduce their negative emotions as well as help them understand the emotion while non-supportive may induce more negative emotions and dysregulation (Eisenberg et al. 2010).

A toddler’s emotional outbursts (aka temper tantrums) are difficult for both the child and parent. Janet Lansbury, a parenting expert says it best, “ I also know that staying calm and centered in the face of even the darkest of my children’s emotions is imperative to their well-being”. Her books and blog provide parents with important information including how parents can remain calm during a tantrum and how to calm an angry child

2)    Model emotions and behavior for your children.

One of my past Curious Neuron articles discussed the importance of refraining from arguing in front of babies. This remains true for toddlers. Research has shown that toddlers will learn emotions by imitating those found in their environment and use this to guide their own emotion regulation strategies (Morris et al. 2007). Given that parental expressivity guides a child’s emotions, parents need to be aware and mindful of their emotions (towards children and adults) around their children. 

3)    Discuss emotions with your children.

Talking to children about different emotions can help them understand their own emotions and help them self-regulate. Studies have shown that children whose parents discuss emotions with them tend to have higher levels of regulation. With children as young as 2, you can start introducing emotions through books, games, and play. For instance, you can use stuffed animals with younger toddlers to model certain emotions and behaviors during various scenarios such as getting a toy taken away by another child. The book Happy Hippo, Angry Duck was the first book I used to introduce emotions to my toddler. Throughout the day I would mimic the faces shown in the book and refer to the animals (each has a different emotion) when I was experiencing a certain emotion. With younger kids (5/6 and under) you can also leave emotion flash cards lying around the house. When they are experiencing an emotion you can link it to the picture and word to help them understand the various emotions. As she got older, I introduced the characters from the movie Inside out. There are a set of books for toddlers/preschoolers that are great for introducing emotions. After introducing my daughter to these books, we would refer to the characters throughout the day. For example, if we were outside I would ask “If you were Joy, how would you feel right now about all this snow” or “If you were sadness/fear how would you feel about all this snow”. I would then guide her about feeling happy there is snow, or sad that there is so much snow and that it is cold and not summer or afraid of all the snow, respectfully. With older children, you can use another Inside Out book that helps guide them through the thought process of why they used certain emotions in a situation and if they could have reacted differently. 

In summary...

In part 2 of this topic, I will cover how creating an attachment with your child can help with their emotional-regulation, the importance of sleep and I will discuss some emotion regulation strategies. There is no magic potion to stop temper tantrums or to get a child to develop strong emotional regulation strategies. It takes time, hard work, patience, deep breaths, lots of love and more patience. When my daughter struggles with her emotions, I remind myself that she needs my guidance. I can't get upset at the fact that she is learning and needs my help (although lack of sleep thanks to my baby can make some days difficult to think this way!)

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