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.