Failure to develop successful emotional regulation strategies can result in psychosocial and emotional dysfunctions[1] caused by traumatic experiences due to an inability to regulate emotions. These traumatic experiences typically happen in grade school and are sometimes associated with bullying.

Children who can’t properly self-regulate express their volatile emotions in a variety of ways, including screaming if they don’t have their way, lashing out with their fists, throwing objects (such as chairs), or bullying other children. Such behaviors often elicit negative reactions from the social environment, which, in turn, can exacerbate or maintain the original regulation problems over time, a process termed cumulative continuity.

Infancy

Intrinsic emotion-regulation efforts during infancy are believed to be guided primarily by innate physiological response systems. These systems usually manifest as an approach towards and an avoidance of pleasant or unpleasant stimuli. At three months, infants can engage in self-soothing behaviors like thumb-sucking and can reflexively respond to and signal feelings of distress. For instance, infants have been observed attempting to suppress anger or sadness by knitting their brow or compressing their lips.

Between three and six months, basic motor functioning and attentional mechanisms begin to play a role in emotion regulation, allowing infants to more effectively approach or avoid emotionally relevant situations.  Infants may also engage in self-distraction and help-seeking behaviors for regulatory purposes.[2]

At one year, infants are able to navigate their surroundings more actively and respond to emotional stimuli with greater flexibility due to improved motor skills. They also begin to appreciate their caregivers' abilities to provide them regulatory support. For instance, infants generally have difficulties regulating fear. As a result, they often find ways to express fear in ways that attract the comfort and attention of caregivers.

Extrinsic emotion-regulation efforts by caregivers, including situation selection, modification, and distraction, are particularly important for infants. The emotion regulation strategies employed by caregivers to attenuate distress or to upregulate positive affect in infants can impact the infants' emotional and behavioral development, teaching them particular strategies and methods of regulation.

The type of attachment style between caregiver and infant can therefore play a meaningful role in the regulatory strategies infants may learn to use.

Recent evidence supports the idea that maternal singing has a positive effect on affect regulation in infants. Singing play-songs, such as “The Wheels on the Bus” or “She’ll Be Comin' Round the Mountain” have a visible affect-regulatory consequence of prolonged positive affect and even alleviation of distress.

In addition to proven facilitation of social bonding, when combined with movement and/or rhythmic touch, maternal singing for affect regulation has possible applications for infants in the neonatal intensive care unit and for adult caregivers with serious personality or adjustment difficulties.

Toddler-hood

By the end of the first year, toddlers begin to adopt new strategies to decrease negative arousal. These strategies can include rocking themselves, chewing on objects, or moving away from things that upset them.

At two years, toddlers become more capable of actively employing emotion regulation strategies. They can apply certain emotion regulation tactics to influence various emotional states.

Additionally, maturation of brain functioning and language and motor skills permits toddlers to manage their emotional responses and levels of arousal more effectively.[3]

Extrinsic emotion regulation remains important to emotional development in toddlerhood. Toddlers can learn ways from their caregivers to control their emotions and behaviors. For example, caregivers help teach self-regulation methods by distracting children from unpleasant events (like a vaccination shot) or helping them understand frightening events.

Childhood

Emotion-regulation knowledge becomes more substantial during childhood. For example, children aged six to ten begin to understand display rules. They come to appreciate the contexts in which certain emotional expressions are socially most appropriate and therefore ought to be regulated.

For example, children may understand that upon receiving a gift they should display a smile, irrespective of their actual feelings about the gift. During childhood, there is also a trend towards the use of more cognitive emotion regulation strategies, taking the place of more basic distraction, approach, and avoidance tactics.

Regarding the development of emotion dysregulation in children, one robust finding suggests that children who are frequently exposed to negative emotion at home will be more likely to display, and have difficulties regulating, high levels of negative emotion.

Adolescence

Adolescents show a marked increase in their capacities to regulate their emotions, and emotion-regulation decision making becomes more complex, depending on multiple factors. In particular, the significance of interpersonal outcomes increases for adolescents. When regulating their emotions, adolescents are therefore likely to take into account their social context. For instance, adolescents show a tendency to display more emotion if they expect a sympathetic response from their peers.

Additionally, spontaneous use of cognitive emotion-regulation strategies increases during adolescence, which is evidenced both by self-report data and neural markers.

Adulthood

Social losses increase and health tends to decrease as people age. As people get older their motivation to seek emotional meaning in life through social ties tends to increase. Autonomic responsiveness decreases with age, and emotion-regulation skill tends to increase.

[1] Bandura, A.; Caprara, G. V.; Barbaranelli, C.; Gerbino, M.; Pastorelli, C. (2003). Role of Affective Self-Regulatory Efficacy in Diverse Spheres of Psychosocial Functioning. Child Development. 74 (3): 769–82. doi:10.1111/1467-8624.00567

[2] Stifter, C. A.; Braungart, J. M. (1995). The regulation of negative reactivity in infancy: Function and development. Developmental Psychology. 31 (3): 448–455. doi:10.1037/0012-1649.31.3.448

[3] Rueda, M. R., Posner, M. I., & Rothbart, M. K. (2004). Handbook of self-regulation: Research, theory, and applications. New York: Guilford Press.


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