About 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 & Thompson, 2007; Eisenberg, Cumberland, & Spinrad, 1998; Spinrad, Stifter, Donelan-McCall, & 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 & 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 & 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 & Shafir, 2008; Blair, Denham, Kochanoff, & 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, & 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 & Temperament Lab at Northern Illinois University.

Blair, K., Denham, S., Kochanoff, A., & 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 & 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 & R.T. Knight (Eds.), Principles of frontal lobe function (pp. 466-503).  New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Durbin, C., & Shafir, D. (2008). Emotion regulation and risk for depression. In J. R. Z. Abela & 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., & Spinrad, T. (1998). Parental socialization of emotion. Psychological Inquiry, 9(4), 241-273. doi:10.1207/s15327965pli0904_1

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