We’ve already covered emotion regulation a few times on the show: there were these older short episodes on Three Reasons Not to Say “You’re OK!” and Modeling Emotion Regulation, as well as the more recent one on Dr. Stuart Shanker’s book Self-Reg.
But I realized I’d never done the episode that should underlie all of these, which discusses what actually is emotion regulation and when (for crying out loud!) our children will be able to do it. So we cover that in this episode, as well as some resources to help you support your child in developing this capability, the most important of which is Dr. John Gottman’s book Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child [affiliate link].
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Hello and welcome to the Your Parenting Mojo podcast. Today we’re going to talk about a topic that’s relevant to all of us at some point, and that’s emotion regulation. We’ve already covered this from a few angles; you might recall episodes on how children learn about emotion regulation through direct teaching and through modeling, as well as the more recent episode on Dr. Stuart Shanker’s book Self-Reg, which discusses the potential impact of environmental stressors on self-regulation. But I realized we’ve never done a background episode on what exactly is emotion regulation, when we can expect to see more of it, and what are some resources we can use to support our child in developing this capability, so we’re going to do that today.
Surprisingly, there is no single definition of what is an emotion. Most emotion theorists describe emotional behavior in terms of a chain of events, e.g.:
Stimulus in context > cognitive process > experienced feeling > behavior
Different theorists give different weight to physiological and cognitive processes, and the exact order in which the steps appear (e.g. whether the emotion includes the cognitive appraisal or follows it). Despite the fact that their brains aren’t as well-developed as ours, children still feel emotions in the same way that we do. Dr. John Gottman, who has studied and written about children’s emotion regulation, says that “we have inherited a tradition of discounting children’s feelings simply because children are smaller, less rational, less experienced, and less powerful than the adults around them.” When adults disregard children’s feelings – for example, when we do things like saying “there’s nothing to be afraid of” when they wake up with a nightmare or don’t want to go into a big loud party, the child begins to believe the adult’s judgement and stops trusting their own judgements about their own feelings. They begin to think “well I feel scared, but my trusted caregiver is telling me there’s nothing to be scared of so I must have mis-judged the situation,” when in fact, even adults can wake up scared from nightmares and can feel some trepidation when walking into a loud, crowded party. And it also turns out that understanding your own emotions and the emotions of those around you is critical to regulating those emotions – which is something we all want for our children!
What is emotion regulation?
Perhaps not surprisingly, there is no single definition of Emotion Regulation (ER) either. Some definitions include:
- Reflecting modulating and changing emotional states, managing emotion, responding and modulating behavioral expression of emotions, particularly the expression of emotions in socially acceptable ways;
- Monitoring, evaluating, and modifying emotional reactions, especially how intense they are and when they occur, to accomplish one’s goal (as such, impulse control is a component of emotion regulation);
- At school, children are considered to be self-regulated to the degree that they are metacognitively, motivationally, and behaviorally active participants in their own learning process, although we should note that children of school age are now being required to spend many hours a day learning things that they did not choose and may not be interested in, so to me there’s a big difference in regulating emotions in self-chosen situations and those in which the child MUST participate;
- When referring to the parent’s emotion regulation, one set of researchers says ER refers to the parent’s capacity to influence the experience and expression of their emotions in caregiving contexts.
In spite of the lack of consensus in definition, most conceptions of ER include concepts related to the successful management and modulation of emotional experiences across time and situations to accomplish a specific goal. One of the most respected authors on this topic, Dr. Claire Kopp at the University of California Los Angeles, notes that “success in self-regulation is frequently indexed by how closely the child meets family and social conventions, including a match to expected emotions. Complying with mother's request to wait for a snack until she finishes a telephone conversation is an acceptable form of self-regulation, but wailing bitterly during the waiting period is not. The young child has to learn expectations for appropriate behavior in specified situations (e.g., putting toys away after playing with them) and the arousal level (emotion) that conventionally goes along with standards for conduct (e.g., putting toys away with positive, neutral, or minimally distressed emotional feelings and expressions).” As with so many of the things we discuss on the show, emotion regulation is very much a culturally specific idea. Our old friend Dr. David Lancy reports on a study of the !Kung people in the Kalahari desert which states that “adults are completely tolerant of a child’s temper tantrums and of aggression directed by a child at an adult. I have seen a seven-year-old crying and furious, hurling sticks, nutshells, and eventually burning embers at her mother…the mother put up her arm occasionally to ward off the thrown objects but carried on her conversation nonchalantly” – I’m picturing the American mother that Dr. Kopp describes trying to carry on her phone conversation under these conditions!
And while we’re talking about culture, I did want to mention that there actually is quite a bit of research on cultural issues related to emotion regulation, although the vast majority of the literature on how emotion regulation develops is on the typical sample of white Americans with tiny proportions of people from other cultures who happen to be included, and the results are then extrapolated to all children everywhere. Then there’s a separate line of work on why African American children have deficits in emotion regulation which they do if you’re looking at a school environment that was designed for the success of middle class white children, and whose parents and preschools have been preparing them for this environment since they were born. Most of this line of research discusses these deficits among African American children, although one study said that African American parents may anticipate the more severe negative consequences their children will face for openly expressing their negative emotions compared with White children and will use socialization practices that discourage their children from expressing negative emotions. As white parents we, of course, might never have considered that African American parents need to do this, and that they are doing it so we won’t be scared of their children and call the police. So I’m just going to leave that right there, and recommend that you listen to the episodes I have coming up on white privilege over the coming months if you’d like to learn more about this.
I also want to briefly acknowledge the relationship between Emotion Regulation and Executive Function, although I have to say that the literature on exactly how these are connected is extremely confusing. Executive Function is the part of the brain that controls certain aspects of information processing, and since emotions are essentially responses to information (or stimuli) we tend to use executive functions as we regulate our emotions. We really don’t understand well the mechanisms by which emotion is controlled at the level of this information processing, but we do know that when our emotions are so intense that we become dysregulated, our executive function systems won’t work properly. As we discussed in the recent episode on Self-Reg, this is why it’s critical that students feel physically and emotionally safe at school: if they feel unsafe then their emotion regulation skills are engaged in the deep emotional center of the brain, and it is physically impossible to learn new facts or take a test.
Why is ER important?
ER is important for a variety of reasons, not least of which is that ER is a critical predictor of school success. We can debate the appropriateness of asking 4-6-year-olds (depending on the country in which you live) to sit still, ignore the next child over who is poking them with a pencil, and focus on answering the teacher’s questions – but the reality is that if your child is going to attend school, they’re going to need to do this. The research says:
- Maladaptive behaviors become more firmly entrenched from the preschool period onward;
- For children whose disruptive behaviors remain relatively high and stable during the preschool years, their behavior begins to impact other areas of child functioning like early school success (through an inability to use higher order cognitive processes like working memory, attention, and planning, and also through negatively affecting the quality of the student-teacher relationship) and peer relations;
- Difficulties with ER may also be precursors for later mental health problems, antisocial behavior, and problems with substance abuse and other risk-taking behaviors during adolescence;
- Children who have deficits in behavioral control are likely to have co-occurring academic difficulties.
What are “normal” levels of ER at various ages?
It’s pretty difficult to state what is “normal” for a given child because there is a great deal of interaction between the child’s genetic/biological capabilities and interactions with parents. There is a great deal of evidence in the literature that a successful attachment relationship often precedes successful ER. This is not to say that children who don’t have a secure attachment relationship cannot regulate their emotions, but since the child learns a great deal about ER from the parent, a secure attachment facilitates learning about ER. Researchers assess the security of attachment by looking for:
- Separation distress with peak onset commonly seen around 9 months;
- Different patterns of greeting the attached caregiver compared to other caregivers around the same period;
- “Secure base” behavior: confidently exploring when the caregiver is nearby and attentive, and retreating to the caregiver when threatened;
- “Affective sharing”: Routine, automatic sharing of pleasurable discoveries with the caregiver, likely including joint visual attention (pointing to draw attention) in Western cultures;
- Through the child’s behavior in the Strange Situation procedure, although this is harder to assess outside the lab environment.
Assuming a secure attachment relationship exists, the child is likely to pass through several stages at times that are moderated by the child’s genetics/biology and their relationship with the attached caregiver:
- As an infant, innate physiological mechanisms prevent the infant from over-stimulation or arousal – this is why infants turn away from too much stimulation, and self-soothe by sucking. The child’s temperament affects how they respond to stimuli (through individual differences in the time it takes to respond to a stimulus and in the level of response), and can in turn impact how the caregiver responds (a parent may respond differently to an easily frustrated infant to one that is not easily frustrated, which could in turn change the child’s behaviors since the child relies on the parent to regulate the child’s emotions);
- Between 9-12 months, babies become capable of goal-directed action, and can begin to comply with commands. Active guidance from caregivers begins to be relevant in the development of precursors to self-control, and coincidentally the research shows that parents’ expectations of children’s behavior shifts at this age as well. I had sort of intuited this and it’s a big reason why when I tell parents about the show I say that it’s relevant to parents of children who are moving by themselves, because it’s the age at which parents have to begin saying ‘no’ rather than just keeping dangerous things out of arm’s reach. As the child starts moving around, 69% of parents say the expect their child to stop, listen, and obey when they say ‘no.’
- The capacity for control of attention begins to emerge toward the end of the child’s first year and continues developing throughout the preschool and school years (choosing what to pay attention to is a key component of ER);
- By the end of the second year, toddlers show “deviation anxiety” when they commit or are about to commit a forbidden behavior, often involving spontaneous self-corrections mediated by language (e.g. saying “No, can’t” and getting back down from a place they were told not to be). At this age, standards are primarily driven by the child hearing the caregiver prohibit an activity (or state desired behavior); the child finds it very difficult to hold a prohibition in their mind for longer than a few minutes. It is thus simply not realistic to prohibit a behavior (even repeatedly) and expect that the child refrain from that behavior on an ongoing basis especially when it is emotionally charged (it’s something the child really wants to do, or feels compelled to do), or when the child is stressed or fatigued. It’s the adult’s job to set and maintain the standards for behavior, anticipate difficult or frustrating situations, and help a child who is losing control – while delicately also continuing to allow them to be as self-directed as possible.
- By the end of the third year, typically developing children can sometimes employ impulse control and the ability to switch between thinking about two different things to achieve their goals in new situations. They are also shifting from being more interested in the process of reaching a goal (they start painting a dinosaur and then call it a house if it ends up looking like a house), while preschoolers want to reach specific goals, which requires focused motivation. Their ability to recall an internalized representation of what appropriate behavior looks like is developing, and they are motivated to meet or exceed that standard (even if they aren’t always successful); high levels of adult direction reduce children’s motivation to succeed with tasks on their own;
- “Effortful control” develops such that by age 4 or 5 children can successfully use a rule to inhibit a dominant response. These same children are described by their parents as more skilled at focusing and shifting attention, less impulsive, and less prone to frustration. Effortful control means that a child can do something that induces distress or discomfort to obtain a desired goal (e.g. approach a dog of which they are slightly afraid because the dog has a fluffy coat they want to pet), and allows children to overcome their desire to engage in a particular behavior and behave according to certain rules or expectations;
- Executive Function emerges at some point in the late preschool or early school years, and is defined as involving the ability to make plans, control behavior, reflect on what strategies were successful and which weren’t, and an increase in independence. When the child doesn’t know how they achieved success at something they may attribute the success to powerful others or to chance; they may also develop patterns of ‘learned helplessness’ when they believe they have little control over the events that affect them. The child learns when it is necessary and appropriate to regulate their displays of emotions (e.g. ‘we are in a restaurant now and Mama will get mad if I have a tantrum so I’d better whine to let her know I want ice cream”). One study found that about half of the children with behavior problems in preschool, especially boys, continued to have problems at school age whereas half of them showed improvement. So there’s a 50-50 chance that if your child is struggling with emotion regulation at age 4 or 5 that things will get better in a couple of years, but there’s also an even chance that they won’t unless you do something differently to support your child. Researchers hypothesize that parenting interventions to help improve children’s executive function are likely to be most effective earlier, rather than later in children’s development.
- The infant’s brain has far more connections between neurons than it needs and it is the child’s experience that determines which connections are retained and which ones die off, or are ‘pruned.’ Infants who were once very flexible in terms of how they responded to stimuli become less flexible over time, and this flexibility is traded for efficiency. What the child becomes efficient at doing depends on the interactions between their environment, which is you, and their brains. The frontal and prefrontal lobes of the brain, which support activities like deciding what to pay attention to, making decisions, and planning, take longer to develop than other brain functions. The brain has its highest level of neuronal connections between the ages of 12-24 months and around age 7, at which time the majority of synaptic pruning that’s going to happen occurs in this part of the brain, which means that the years up until this age help to determine which synapses are pruned, and thus how our child will respond to incidents requiring emotion regulation in the future.
Throughout this period, excessively controlling behavior by the mother was related to child non-compliance. By age 4, negative patterns of interaction between parents and children are clearly established and may be the precursors to the coercive interaction that has been implicated in the emergence of more serious problem behaviors among older children.
The period between age 2 and 4/5 can be a frustrating one for the parent as you see signs that this ER is developing and then the child may appear to ‘backslide.’ Their ability to use ER may depend on their physical and emotional state at the time: a child who is well-fed, well-rested and calm may be able to resist their sibling deliberately trying to annoy them. A child who is hungry, tired, and whose sibling has been trying to annoy them all day may well not be able to overcome the impulse to lash out. This means that just because the child “did it last week” or knows “hands aren’t for hitting,” doesn’t mean they can necessarily overcome that impulse today. Dr. Claire Kopp has argued that ER begins to arise in situations that are novel and not too distressful, in situations where there are strong social sanctions for incorrect behavior and caregivers are not available to remind the child what behavior is expected, and where the child’s ability to achieve a desired outcome is threatened (but not to the point of major discomfort and behavioral disorganization). Her reasoning is that the child’s responses to familiar situations are routinized and do not demand that the child make a plan, and situations that overload the child inhibit the child’s ability to think in an organized way. Dr Kopp points out that as with much of parenting, there’s a dance involved in the development of ER where the leading partners change places often. Sometimes both infant and caregiver work together to regulate the child’s emotions. Sometimes the caregiver is unavailable and the child must act by themselves. On other occasions the caregiver struggles to calm an emotionally out-of-control child. There is no recipe for success, but it seems as though generally sensitive caregiving, in which the caregiver attempts to meet the child’s physical and emotional needs, combined with normative periods of absence where the child practices self-regulation with the understanding that the caregiver will return, are needed for this capability to develop.
And all of this depends on the biological factors at play, particularly the two subsystems of the autonomic nervous system (ANS), which are the sympathetic nervous system (SNS – increases outut to deal with challenges – increases heartbeat, dilated pupils, etc.), and the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) which conserves the body’s energy, rests vital organs, constricts pupils, and slows the heart rate and is thus thought to play an important role in individuals’ ability to regulate their state, activity, and emotion. The ANS’ job is to maintain the body’s homeostasis by increasing or decreasing activities of certain organs through the vagus nerve, and it is possible to physically measure changes in heart rate which are associated with the frequency of breathing which tells us about the vagus nerve’s activity to increase or suppress this activity. Some children are genetically predisposed to engage in this vagal suppression which is associated with using more positive coping strategies on a difficult task, while another study found that children whose parents reported emotion regulation difficulties had lower levels of vagal suppression. When children are unable to physiologically regulate their emotions, they can’t use adaptive ER behaviors and require a great deal of parental assistance and support. Children who don’t have strong physiological emotion regulation capabilities and who also don’t get support from their mothers when they experience negative emotions are both reported and observed to be less emotionally regulated. So while the development of the physiological capabilities are important, researchers think that self-regulation develops through the interaction of multiple factors. It isn’t just a question of waiting for higher order control systems to come on-line; it’s the interaction between these physiological systems and the environment that the child experiences every day. Different neural systems can become effective on different timelines and interact with each other in unique ways as children develop, and the outcomes of these interactions give children a repertoire of habits they can use to understand their emotions, control their emotions, and generate emotional responses.
Researchers think that small changes in children’s early EF can have a very important effect on their later development, so attention paid to this topic now is likely to be beneficial for both parent and child in later years.
The remainder of this Guide will help you to determine what support to provide and how to provide it to guide your child toward being able to engage in ER by themselves. Because the child who isn’t yet able to engage in ER looks to you for support in this, quite a bit of this work will involve understanding more about how you perceive emotions and respond to your child.
Understanding your role in your child’s developing ER
Infants’ brains are primed to organize stimulation from the environment and develop self-regulatory functions over time. Our brains are literally designed to search for, find, and impose order and meaning on experience. It is the interactions between these naturally developing capabilities as children seek out competence and control over their surroundings and caregivers who provide certain kinds of stimuli and help the child to regulate themselves that supports the child in developing their own self-regulation skills.
It is absolutely clear from the literature that the securely attached parent – and particularly the mother (but the father also makes unique contributions) have a high impact on a child’s developing ER. In infancy, maternal sensitivity (providing children with successful experiences of changing their environment), using emotion-related words when speaking to children, supporting children’s decisions and goals, and having a generally positive disposition are associated with better EF performance at ages 2 and 3.
On the other hand, caregivers who frequently use a negative tone (e.g. being hostile or harsh to the child; using power over the child; belittling or taunting the child, scolding the child, making angry statements, making threats, making derogratory remarks), physically stimulating the child’s body (e.g. clapping their hands, making their legs kick when they don’t want to do these things; pulling, pushing or picking and older child up) or restricting the child’s movements, not responding to the child in an appropriate way (e.g. not providing food when the child is hungry), and asserting verbal control through directing the child’s activity, excessive pickiness, escalating irritability, and telling the child what to do are associated with lower levels of EF. The effects seem to be strongest among parents who pay most attention to negative behavior rather than positive behavior.
As the child gets older, harsh disciplinary practices and controlling behavior (e.g. taking over tasks when the child wants to do it themselves) may inhibit the development of child behaviors that support autonomy when the mother is unavailable. There are complex interactions with gender, with boys possibly responding to this overcontrolling through passive non-compliance and girls responding with active non-compliance, although it isn’t exactly clear why this is the case. In one study, adults were more likely to attend to girls’ less intense communication attempts and to boys’ more intense attempts, even though the behaviors of the children were essentially the same at 13 months of age. Eleven months later, though, there were differences in behavior of children of different genders: boys were more assertive and girls talked to teachers more; by responding to children differentially according to their gender, we may perpetuate stereotypes of how children of different genders behave.
Another finding observed throughout the literature is that the mother’s positive guiding and reinforcing behavior is helpful, but negative behavior is even more impactful. So (unfortunately) it isn’t enough to just shower our child with positive behaviors and expect that these will ‘outweigh’ the negative ones; we also need to work on minimizing the negative behaviors.
What happens when the relationship between you and your child becomes dysregulated
Dr. John Gottman has written extensively about marital relationship breakdown, and some of these ideas are also relevant to parents’ interactions with their children. Specifically, what he calls “flooding” occurs when one person experiences another’s negative emotional cues as unexpected, unprovoked, intense, overwhelming, and disorganizing, and disorganizing in this context is very similar to a child’s disorganized attachment relationship, which means they experience anxiety or fright without being able to find any solutions. These feelings are assumed to lead to emotional escape conditioning, where the flooded person is hypervigilant to the cues that bring on the flooding and begins to distort cues that are ambiguous – that are similar to the flooding cues, which in turn makes the person more prone to experiencing flooding. Flooding disrupts higher-order cognitive processes like those used in problem-solving, which compromises the person’s capacity to respond effectively, and also means the flooded person will do almost anything to stop the interaction.
Bringing this into more concrete language, we might image a parent-child relationship where the child does something like resists getting into the car seat every day when you’re trying to get out the door in the morning. Every day without fail, the child refuses to get into the car seat – they cry and scream and say “I’m not going in the car seat ever ever ever ever!” The parent has to get to work – you’re stressed and late and your child is screaming and you just want the screaming to stop. You can’t leave your child like you can slam the door on your partner; you HAVE to get your child in the car seat and to daycare and then go to work. These are the conditions where you’re likely to speak sharply to your child or scream at them or push them into the car seat or potentially even hit them. Then maybe one day your child says “I’m not going in the bath” and it sounds similar enough to “I’m not going in the car seat ever ever ever ever!” that instead of trying to find out why your child doesn’t want to go in the bath your brain immediately snaps to car seat mode and you start to get flooded by these ambiguous stimuli as well. And the more that parents are prone to emotional flooding the more likely they are to misclassify ambiguous child emotions as anger and then to respond with flooding. And once you’re flooded you physically can’t solve problems with your child – you’re in this environment of escalating mutual coercion and anger that may actually interfere with your child’s ability to develop the skills they need to regulate their own emotions, and it also starts to form a cycle that both of you feel you just can’t get out of, which is stressful to both of you and detrimental to both of you because it depletes your emotional resources and causes you to be less patient or less engaged in emotional events.
The importance of the household environment
The degree of household ‘chaos’ (e.g. noise, crowding, lack of routines) may be particularly important in parents’ abilities to regulate their own emotions in challenging situation. Your brain has to perform the same tasks that your child’s brain is learning to do, so if your brain is constantly overwhelmed by noise and mess and other environmental conditions that you find chaotic, it can be difficult to divert attention from those things, regulate your own emotions, and focus on supporting your child when they are ‘behaving badly.’ Just like children, some parents are better at regulating their emotions than others and one study found that mothers with poor executive function responded to children’s misbehavior with harsh negative parenting, while mothers with better executive function did not respond to children’s misbehavior in a negative way. Even the strongest EF capacity may not be effective at supporting self-regulation in the face of challenging behavior from a child if the broader family context is one of chronic chaos, so the first thing to do to improve your own ER ability is to try to reduce the chaos in your own household.
Keep a diary for a week or two to identify times of the day when you feel stressed and what is the trigger of that stress (both immediate and underlying – perhaps the immediate cause was a fight with your partner about something they bought that you felt they didn’t really need, but the underlying cause is a discrepancy in the way in which you manage money more generally). Work with your partner – perhaps using the techniques you learned last month – on ways to resolve these sources of stress to the extent that you can, or agree on how to manage your differences if resolution is not possible.
ER & siblings
Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising by now to find that siblings also have interactions related to how their ERs developed, through their relationships with their mothers. One study found that children who were insecurely attached to their mothers at 12 months old were more aggressive in their conflicts with a younger sibling at age six, while another found that securely attached older siblings were more likely to try to soothe a toddler during parental separation than less secure older siblings. Children who had extreme difficulties forming an attachment with their mothers were more likely to seek out comfort from a younger sibling, possibly because they have difficulties distinguishing between their distress and the distress of others. Each person in the family experiences the family in a different way, and attachment security with the mother was much more closely related to sibling jealousy for an older sibling, whereas sibling behaviors were more important for younger siblings.
One study found that younger toddlers had a more difficult time regulating their jealousy when they were not allowed to play with their parent and an exciting new toy before their sibling and when the parents did attend to the younger child first the younger child was then less jealous of the older sibling when the older sibling played with the parent and the new toy, as if being first left them contented and better able to regulate their jealousy. The toddlers who had to wait also displayed more behavioral dysregulation with their mothers and fathers than if their older sibling took a turn playing with the parent and the new toy first.
Some researchers see the sibling relationship as a ‘training ground’ for childhood aggression, and warn that toddlers who interact with a behaviorally dysregulated, jealous older sibling who is physically stronger and more likely to instigate conflict may be at risk for emotion regulation disorders, while toddlers who have an emotionally regulated, cooperative, caring older sibling may be less likely to experience behavioral dysregulation. One protective factor could be a positive marital relationship and the parents’ use of discussion and problem-solving, which could model these skills for children. It is also possible that spouses who create a positive family environment filled with positive emotions, which creates less of a reason for siblings to be jealous because they know there is enough love and joy to go around.
It is possible that parents don’t provide enough support to help siblings interact with each other. Parents probably say pretty often “don’t snatch the toy” and “don’t hit your sibling” but much more rarely anything to help the child know what TO say. One program that trained children on seven competencies (initiating play with a sibling, accepting a sibling’s invitation to play, appropriately declining an invitation to play, taking the perspective of another, identifying feelings of self and others, regulating emotions and dealing with angry feelings, and problem-solving and conflict management was successful at improving the sibling relationship according to both parent reports and independent observer reports. This program was used with siblings aged 4-8, so you might be able to help your older sibling interact with your younger one but you’re going to have to wait a bit before you can get your 18 month old to stop hitting their sibling.
The father’s unique role
The father’s typically more playful and physically robust style of play may be important for the child’s ability to regulate emotional arousal, possibly by maintaining emotional arousal within a pleasurable range during physical bouts of play (e.g. tickling enough to be fun, but not so much as to feel relentless to the child), which can help the child to read other children’s emotions during physical play on the playground. Physically playful fathering in the preschool years is also related to sibling cooperation, children’s emotional decoding skills, and children’s liking by their peers – but assessments of father-infant attachment and fathering quality in infancy are not related to these things (in other words, it seems to matter less what interactions the father had with the infant than what interactions the father has with the toddler – at least when it comes to emotion regulation). And once the child is old enough to direct the father-child interactions, researchers say we should let the children do this – children who engage in no-directive, non-coercive physical play with their dads get along better with peers than those whose dads were also physical but were very bossy. Another study found that paternal harsh parenting is linked to child aggression. Dr. Gottman says the research strongly supports the involvement of emotionally present fathers, who validate children’s feelings and offer comfort in times of distress. (Note that research on two-mother families is highly unusual, and it’s possible that one mother could perform more of a roughhousing role typically ascribed to fathers, or both mothers could share this role.)
So what can we do to help support our children in developing emotion regulation? There’s a lot of attention being paid to this topic in schools at the moment, and the curriculum that I see being discussed most often in parenting groups is called Zones of Regulation, so I shelled out the $70 to buy it so I could tell you about it. It’s essentially a series of lessons designed to help children understand what emotions are, how to recognize them in themselves and in others, and how to control their own emotions. These kinds of curricula are typically designed and tested by professors so I was pretty surprised to find that the author, Leah Kuypers, actually began using the ideas in the curriculum as an occupational therapist, and then extended them into the curriculum for her master’s thesis. I also looked around for peer-reviewed research supporting the program, and I’m afraid I didn’t find any. A search of “Zones of Regulation” in scholarly databases gets you no hits on anything that evaluates the quality or efficacy of the curriculum. So I was pretty disappointed to see in the acknowledgements section of the book a ‘thanks’ to teachers in two different school districts, implying that the curriculum had already been widely disseminated by 2011 when the book was published, and given how often I see it mentioned in parenting forums, it’s taking off like wildfire. There’s a Research Around the Zones of Regulation section on the curriculum’s website, which contains the literature review from Leah Kuypers’ master’s thesis, a description of an implementation of the curriculum in eight kindergarten students, with not enough statistical analysis done to tell us much, a proposal for a study in Brevard Public Schools in Florida, and a poster presentation (which is how academic research is often presented at conferences) which described a study finding NO differences between the 31 students who were taught using the curriculum compared to 15 students who served as a control group, although it’s possible that this result occurred due to a poorly-designed study rather than to the effects of the curriculum. Researchers who develop these kinds of programs are often pretty picky about how the implementers of the programs are trained and how they deliver the program – you might recall from the episode on Growth Mindset that Dr. Carol Dweck once explained away the fact that another researcher hadn’t been able to find a statistically significant impact of her Growth Mindset program because they hadn’t implemented the program correctly, so it is pretty surprising to find a curriculum on a topic as big and nebulous as emotion regulation that teachers can implement with no training beyond reading a book.
So overall I have to say that the evidence supporting the Zones curriculum is not very strong. I didn’t see any super red flags in the curriculum itself except for one exercise that involves putting a purple stick in a cup on the student’s desk when the teacher observes the student performing behavior that makes the teacher think “I’m having good thoughts about you,” and an orange stick in the cup when the student exhibits a “negative” behavior, which sounds pretty much like a behavior management system to me. The aim of the lesson is to help children to learn that our behavior impacts the feelings of those around us, but I think the lesson takes it one step too far by rewarding and punishing certain behaviors. So all this is to say that if Zones is being used in your child’s classroom and they seem to be benefitting, then there probably isn’t any harm in continuing with it and perhaps your school should volunteer to participate in a research study so we could actually see some objective evidence on it.
The other resource I would recommend is Dr. John Gottman’s book Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child, which has been expanded into a curriculum called Tuning In To Kids which has peer-reviewed evidence of its efficacy. I actually started reading Gottman’s book at the beginning of my research for this episode and I have to say I was a bit nervous about it because I haven’t been doing anything specifically to raise an emotionally intelligent child and I was worried that I’d been neglecting something big or perhaps even doing things completely wrong. So you can imagine how pleasantly surprised I was to find that the principles of respectful parenting align very, very well with this approach and if you’ve been using RIE or respectful parenting then chances are you’re actually probably doing quite a lot to raise an emotionally intelligent child. But if you want to take this to the next level then I’d definitely recommend getting the book because it has some tests you can do to assess your own knowledge about emotions and a lot of concrete suggestions for fine-tuning the interactions you have with your child to better support their developing emotion regulation.
I hope this helps you to better understand your child’s progress toward regulating their own emotions, and how you can support them in doing this. You can find the references for the twenty books and academic papers I read in preparation for this episode at yourparentingmojo.com/regulatingemotions
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