About Emotion Regulation and Temperament

Child blowing bubbles.

Emotion Regulation

Emotion regulation is a term used to describe various processes that serve to regulate emotional experience. Collectively, processes that serve an emotion regulation function either up-regulate (i.e. strengthen), down-regulate (i.e. reduce), or sustain emotions. Although it may be more intuitive to think of processes involved with emotion regulation as residing within individuals (i.e. internal regulation of emotion), there are also processes external to the individual that assist in the regulation of emotion (Gross and Thompson, 2007; Eisenberg, Cumberland, and Spinrad, 1998; Spinrad, Stifter, Donelan-McCall, and Turner, 2004). For example, infants frequently rely upon their caregivers to assist in emotion regulation (e.g., the mother who distracts her infant from a distressing event, such as vaccinations). Although external forces, such as social situations, serve as emotion regulators throughout the lifespan, an important milestone in the development of emotion regulation occurs when infants/toddlers gradually make the transition from relying heavily on caregivers for comfort and soothing (i.e. regulation of emotion) to the ability to self-soothe and deploy more effortful, purposeful internal emotion regulation strategies (Kopp, 1989).

From a neurobiological perspective, different parts of the brain have been increasingly implicated in emotion regulation processes. In particular, structures in the limbic system, such as the amygdala, are important in learned emotional associations that become more automatic over time (i.e. bottom-up emotion generating processes) whereas other structures in the brain, particularly areas located in the frontal lobes as well as the anterior cingulate cortex, have been implicated in the regulation of emotion (i.e. top-down emotion regulation). Although it is useful to consider these areas and their underlying processes in isolation, subcortical emotion generating structures and cortical emotion regulating structures interact in complex ways that result in behaviors that are indicative of the regulation of emotion (Ochsner and Gross, 2007). Given the prolonged development of the frontal lobes, including areas that are important for emotion regulation (Diamond, 2002), it is important to consider emotion regulation, particularly early in life, as a developmental process that unfolds over time. Highlighting the importance of considering both emotion and emotion regulation from a developmental perspective are recent findings that hint at the possibility that higher levels of negative emotions, largely mediated by subcortical structures, may over time compromise early developing regulation (e.g., Bridgett et al., 2009 [see also Calkins, 2002 and Stifter and Spinrad, 2002).

Although basic information and research regarding emotion regulation is important, there is also an increasingly large body of literature that examines the practical implications of good and/or poor emotion regulation skills. For example, better emotion regulation has been linked with social and academic competence whereas relatively poor emotion regulation has been associated with externalizing and internalizing types of difficulties (Spinrad, Eisenberg, Cumberland, Fabes, Valiente, Shepard, et al., 2006; Durbin and Shafir, 2008; Blair, Denham, Kochanoff, and Whipple, 2004). Emotion regulation has also been implicated in other important aspects of development, such as language and moral development (e.g., conscience and internalization of rules) (e.g., Eisenberg, 2000; Kochanska, Gross, Lin, and Nichols, 2002).

Given the wide range of topics that can be investigated, it is not surprising that investigators in the fields of neuroscience, developmental psychology, developmental psychopathology, and social psychology, among others, investigate various aspects of emotion regulation and/or topics closely related to emotion regulation. While a great deal of research in the various aspects of emotion regulation has been completed, there remain many questions as yet unanswered, some of which are the focus of the research being conducted within the Emotion Regulation and Temperament Lab at Northern Illinois University.

Blair, K., Denham, S., Kochanoff, A., and Whipple, B. (2004). Playing it cool: Temperament, emotion regulation, and social behavior in preschoolers. Journal of School Psychology, 42(6), 419-443. doi:10.1016/j.jsp.2004.10.002

Bridgett, D., Gartstein, M., Putnam, S., McKay, T., Iddins, E., Robertson, C., . . . Rittmueller, A. (2009). Maternal and contextual influences and the effect of temperament development during infancy on parenting in toddlerhood. Infant Behavior and Development, 32(1), 103-116. doi:10.1016/j.infbeh.2008.10.007

Calkins, S. (2002). Does aversive behavior during toddlerhood matter?: The effects of difficult temperament on maternal perceptions and behavior. Infant Mental Health Journal, 23(4), 381-402. doi:10.1002/imhj.10024

Diamond, A. (2002). Normal development of prefrontal cortex from birth to young adulthood: Cognitive functions, anatomy, and biochemistry. In D.T. Stuss and R.T. Knight (Eds.), Principles of frontal lobe function (pp. 466-503). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Durbin, C., and Shafir, D. (2008). Emotion regulation and risk for depression. In J. R. Z. Abela and H. L. Hankin (Eds.), Handbook of depression in children and adolescents (pp. 149-176). New York, NY: Guilford Press.

Eisenberg, N. (2000). Emotion, regulation, and moral development. Annual Review of Psychology, 51, 665-697. doi:10.1146/annurev.psych.51.1.665

Eisenberg, N., Cumberland, A., and Spinrad, T. (1998). Parental socialization of emotion. Psychological Inquiry, 9(4), 241-273. doi:10.1207/s15327965pli0904_1

Gross, J. and Thompson, R. A. (2007). Emotion regulation: Conceptual Foundations. In J. J. Gross (Ed.), Handbook of emotion regulation (pp. 3-24). New York, NY US: Guilford Press.

Kochanska, G., Gross, J., Lin, M., and Nichols, K. (2002). Guilt in young children: Development, determinants, and relations with a broader system of standards. Child Development, 73(2), 461-482. doi:10.1111/1467-8624.00418
Kopp, C. (1989). Regulation of distress and negative emotions: A developmental view. Developmental Psychology, 25(3), 343-354. doi:10.1037/0012-1649.25.3.343

Ochsner, K., and Gross, J. (2007). The neural architecture of emotion regulation. InJ. J. Gross (Ed.), Handbook of emotion regulation (pp. 87-109). New York, NY: Guilford Press.

Spinrad, T., Stifter, C., Donelan-McCall, N., and Turner, L. (2004). Mothers' regulation strategies in response to toddlers' affect: Links to later emotion self-regulation. Social Development, 13(1), 40-55. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9507.2004.00256.x

Spinrad, T., Eisenberg, N., Cumberland, A., Fabes, R., Valiente, C., Shepard, S., . . . Guthrie, I.K. (2006). Relation of emotion-related regulation to children's social competence: A longitudinal study. Emotion, 6(3), 498-510. doi:10.1037/1528-3542.6.3.498

Stifter, C., and Spinrad, T. (2002). The effect of excessive crying on the development of emotion regulation. Infancy, 3(2), 133-152. doi:10.1207/S15327078IN0302_2


Temperament is reflected in individual differences in self-regulation and reactivity in domains such as affect, attention, and activity. Furthermore, temperament is considered to be biologically based (i.e. constitutional) and influenced over time by experience (e.g., interactions with the family and broader environment), development, and heredity (Rothbart and Bates, 2006). Whereas self-regulation reflects processes, such as effortful control that modulate reactivity, reactivity encompasses responses to change in an individuals’ environment, including emotionally driven responses, such as fearfulness, anger, and positive affect (Rothbart and Derryberry, 1981). Although the term temperament is frequently invoked, temperament is a broad, over arching term that encompasses many specific temperament attributes. Rothbart and her colleagues have identified three higher-order temperament factors: positive emotionality, negative emotionality/affect, and effortful control (Ahadi and Rothbart, 1994; Gartstein and Rothbart, 2003). As alluded to above, effortful control, the ability to inhibit more automatic, dominant responses and activate an alternative, sub-dominant response, detect errors, and plan, constitutes the regulatory aspect of temperament (Rothbart and Bates, 2006; Rothbart and Sheese, 2007). Specific aspects of effortful control, which are believed to be mediated by the executive attention network (Rothbart, Posner, and Kieras, 2006), includes attentional control, attention shifting, and inhibitory control, among others (Rothbart, 2007; Simonds, Kieras, Rueda, and Rothbart, 2007; Wiersema and Roeyers, 2009). Although involved in emotion regulation, effortful control is also involved in other regulatory functions, such as the regulation of non-emotion laden behaviors. Positive emotionality is reflected by sub-scales of high intensity pleasure, smiling and laughter, and sociability and negative emotionality/negative affect is characterized by domains such as fear, anger, and sadness (Gartstein and Rothbart, 2003; Putnam, Rothbart, and Gartstein, 2008).

Infants begin displaying individual differences in temperament in the first weeks of life and dimensions of temperament can be reliably measured using laboratory tasks and parent-report measures by 3 to 4 months of age. Temperament also lends itself to a life-span perspective in so much as aspects of temperament that emerge in infancy (e.g., fearfulness) and early toddlerhood (e.g., effortful control) can be measured in older children, adolescents, and adults. In a related vein, although earlier conceptualizations of temperament emphasized stability across time (e.g., Mufson, Fendrich, Warner, 1990), there is increasing recognition that there is considerable change, growth, and/or development over time in broad and specific temperament constructs, and particularly early in life (i.e. infancy and early childhood). Furthermore, the application of advanced statistical modeling techniques, such as latent growth modeling, has increasingly revealed factors that account for individual differences over time in various temperament dimensions (e.g., Sallquist, Eisenberg, Spinrad, Reiser, Hofer, Zhou, et al., 2009). Likewise, research also demonstrates that individual differences in change over time in temperament constructs influence subsequent parenting practices that children may experience (e.g., Bridgett et al., 2009).

In recent years, there has been an increasing focus on understanding the role of various aspects of temperament in models of psychopathology (see Special Section Bijttebier and Roeyers, 2009) and increasing interest in temperament within a developmental psychopathology framework. For example, research has implicated high negative affect and poor effortful regulation in the emergence of both internalizing and externalizing type difficulties (e.g., Auerbach et al., 2008; Clark and Watson, 1991; Verstraeten, Vasey, Raes, and Bijttebier, 2009). Given these and similar findings, it is important to consider factors that influence how temperament develops across time, cross time influences and interactions between different aspects of temperament, and how aspects of temperament may influence and shape the environment, such as the parenting that is experienced by children. Research efforts within the Emotion Regulation and Temperament Lab are directed towards answering these as well as closely related questions.

Ahadi, S., and Rothbart, M. (1994). Temperament, development, and the Big Five. The developing structure of temperament and personality from infancy to adulthood (pp. 189-207). Hillsdale, NJ England: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.

Auerbach, J., Berger, A., Atzaba-Poria, N., Arbelåe, S., Cypin, N., Friedman, A., et al. (2008). Temperament at 7, 12, and 25 months in children at familial risk for ADHD. Infant and Child Development, 17(4), 321-338. doi:10.1002/icd.579

Bijttebier, P., and Roeyers, H. (2009). Temperament and vulnerability to psychopathology: Introduction to the special section. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology: An official publication of the International Society for Research in Child and Adolescent Psychopathology, 37(3), 305-308. doi:10.1007/s10802-009-9308-2

Bridgett, D., Gartstein, M., Putnam, S., McKay, T., Iddins, E., Robertson, C., . . . Rittmueller, A. (2009). Maternal and contextual influences and the effect of temperament development during infancy on parenting in toddlerhood. Infant Behavior and Development, 32(1), 103-116. doi:10.1016/j.infbeh.2008.10.007

Clark, L., and Watson, D. (1991). Tripartite model of anxiety and depression: Psychometric evidence and taxonomic implications. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 100(3), 316-336. doi:10.1037/0021-843X.100.3.316

Gartstein, M., and Rothbart, M. (2003). Studying infant temperament via the revised infant behavior questionnaire. Infant Behavior and Development, 26(1), 64-86. doi:10.1016/S0163-6383(02)00169-8

Mufson, L., Fendrich, M., and Warner, V. (1990, May). The stability of temperament by child and mother reports over two years. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 29(3), 386-391. doi:10.1097/00004583-199005000-00009

Putnam, S., Rothbart, M., and Gartstein, M. (2008). Homotypic and heterotypic continuity of fine-grained temperament during infancy, toddlerhood, and early childhood. Infant and Child Development, 17(4), 387-405. doi:10.1002/icd.582

Rothbart, M. (2007). Temperament, development, and personality. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 16(4), 207-212. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8721.2007.00505.x

Rothbart, M., and Bates, J. (2006). Temperament. In N. Eisenberg, W. Damon, and L. M. Richard (Eds.), Handbook of child psychology: Vol. 3, Social, emotional, and personality development (6th ed.) (pp. 99-166). Hoboken, NJ US: John Wiley and Sons Inc.

Rothbart, M.K., and Derryberry, D. (1981). Development of individual differences in temperament. In M.E. Lamb and A.L. Brown (Eds.). Advances in developmental psychology (Vol. 1, pp. 37-86). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Rothbart, M. K., Posner, M. I., and Kieras, J. (2006). Temperament, attention, and the development of self-regulation. In K. McCartney and D. Phillips (Eds.), Blackwell handbook of early childhood development (pp. 338-357). Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.

Rothbart, M., and Sheese, B. (2007). Temperament and emotion regulation. In J. Gross (Ed.), Handbook of emotion regulation (pp. 331-350). New York, NY US: Guilford Press.

Sallquist, J., Eisenberg, N., Spinrad, T., Reiser, M., Hofer, C., Zhou, Q., . . . Eggum, N. (2009). Positive and negative emotionality: Trajectories across six years and relations with social competence. Emotion, 9(1), 15-28. doi:10.1037/a0013970

Simonds, J., Kieras, J., Rueda, M., and Rothbart, M. (2007). Effortful control, executive attention, and emotional regulation in 7-10-year-old children. Cognitive Development, 22(4), 474-488. doi:10.1016/j.cogdev.2007.08.009

Verstraeten, K., Vasey, M., Raes, F., and Bijttebier, P. (2009). Temperament and risk for depressive symptoms in adolescence: Mediation by rumination and moderation by effortful control. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology: An official publication of the International Society for Research in Child and Adolescent Psychopathology, 37(3), 349-361. doi:10.1007/s10802-008-9293-x

Wiersema, J., and Roeyers, H. (2009). ERP correlates of effortful control in children with varying levels of ADHD symptoms. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology: An official publication of the International Society for Research in Child and Adolescent Psychopathology, 37(3), 327-336. doi:10.1007/s10802-008-9288-7