Commentary: Conceptual and Methodological Challenges
to the Study of Emotion Regulation and Psychopathology
Susan D. Calkins
Published online: 14 November 2009
Springer Science + Business Media, LLC 2009
Abstract In this commentary, I argue that although emotion
regulation and its role in psychopathology has been the focus
of considerable psychological research with both children and
adults, fundamental questions remain about how these
phenomena are linked. I pose four challenges to the study of
emotion regulation and psychopathology that have yet to be
fully met, either empirically or conceptually. I note that a
multi-level developmental approach that places emotion
regulation within the context of both the larger self-
regulatory system and the social relationships within which
regulation occurs may be useful in understanding the
emergence and maintenance of early behavioral patterns that
evolve into disorders of psychological functioning.
Keywords Emotion regulation
The construct of emotion regulation and its role in psychoso-
cial adaptation has been examined quite extensively, particu-
larly in the early childhood period. Numerous definitions have
been offered for the construct from within both the child and
adult emotion literatures (Gross and Thompson 2007).
Drawing from theoretical and empirical work in the
developmental (Cole et al. 2004) and clinical fields (Keenan
2000;Sroufe2000), we define emotion regulation as those
behaviors, skills, and strategies, whether conscious or
unconscious, automatic or effortful, that serve to modulate,
inhibit, and enhance emotional experiences and expressions
(Calkins 2004; Calkins and Leerkes, in press). The capacity
to exercise self-control over the expression of emotion, particu-
larly negative emotions, develops over the first years of life
and has particular importance for the unfolding of appropriate
and adaptive social behavior during the preschool and school
years (Eisenberg and Fabes 2006). Failure to acquire adaptive
emotional regulation skills leads to difficulties in areas such
as social competence and school adjustment (Eisenberg and
Fabes 2006; Graziano et al. 2007). Thus, the acquisition of
emotion regulation skills and strategies is considered a critical
achievement of early childhood (Bronson 2000; Sroufe
1996). Furthermore, the lack of adequate development of
control over emotion (as well as, in some instances, over-
control of emotion) may be a precursor to the development
of psychopathology (Calkins and Dedmon 2000;Cicchettiet
al. 1995; Calkins and Fox 2002;Keenan2000).
Despite considerable progress in our understanding that
emotion regulation is influential in the emergence and or
maintenance of psychopathology, many unanswered ques-
tions remain about how this occurs. This knowledge gap
exists, in part, because of a number of conceptual and
empirical challenges to the study of emotional regulation,
most of which are highlighted by the six papers in this
special issue. In this commentary, I highlight four such
challenges and offer tentative suggestions on how these
issues might be confronted.
Emotion regulation is a dynamic process Although most of
the authors in this special issue agree that the process of
reacting to an emotional stimulus is distinct from efforts to
regulate that response, and most measurement strategies
reflect this view (cf. Waters et al. 2010, this issue; Morris et
al. 2009, this issue), the distinction becomes artificial unless
one acknowledges that the two processes are often difficult
The writing of this manuscript was supported in part by a National
Institute of Health Research Scientist Career Development Award
(K02) to Susan D. Calkins (MH 74077)
S. D. Calkins (*)
Department of Human Development and Family Studies,
University of North Carolina at Greensboro,
P.O. Box 26170, Greensboro, NC 27402-6170, USA
J Psychopathol Behav Assess (2010) 32:92–95
to disentangle and that they interact dynamically across
time. Static measurement of either is bound to obscure
individual differences in such things as initial level of
reactivity, success or failure of particular strategies over
time, and whether reactivity constrains regulation or vice
versa. In fact, few studies have attempted to either measure
cross-time patterns of both processes (Buss and Goldsmith
1998) or discern patterns of time-linked responding across
The dynamic nature of emotion responding leads to the
possibility that there are several different dimensions of this
responding that may be relevant to specific psychological
disorders. So, it is possible that the relevant aspect of emotion
regulation we should be interested in when trying to
understand particular disorders will vary depending on the
particular features of the disorder. Appraisal may be a process
that is more relevant to anxiety disorders (Carthy et al. 2010,
this issue), for example, so understanding that engaging in
appraisal may lead to a different pattern of emotional
responding that leads to increases versus decreases in anxiety
symptomotology, may lead to a different assessment strategy
than that which is used to assess the relevant emotion
processes inherent in externalizing disorders. Framing the
issue in this way moves us away from focusing on broad
conceptualizations of psychopathology that focus simply on
the regulation of anger or fear for example, to a more
process-oriented approach that asks questions about the
specific dynamics of emotional responding.
Emotion regulation is a multilevel process Implicit, and
sometimes explicit, in each of these special issue papers is
the acknowledgement that emotion regulation is never a
purely emotional process. Emotion regulation draws on
fundamental neurological, physiological, cognitive and
behavioral processes (Cisler et al. 2010, this issue; Sulik
et al. 2010, this issue; Suveg et al. 2010 this issue). We
believe that emotion regulation and other behavioral and
cognitive control processes are linked in fundamental ways
to more basic biological and attentional processes, and have
consequences for later-developing and more sophisticated
social and cognitive skills. And we, like some of our
colleagues (Blair and Razza 2007; Eisenberg et al. 2007;
Rothbart and Sheese 2007) embed these processes within
the larger construct of self-regulation.
So, one way to conceptualize emotion regulation is to
consider it as one component of the larger self-regulatory
system, which we describe it as a system of adaptive
control that may be observed at the level of physiological,
attentional, emotional , behavioral, cognitive, and interper-
sonal or socia l processes (Calkins and Fox 2002; Calkins
and Marcovitch 2009). Control at these various levels
emerges, at least in primitive form, across the prenatal,
infancy, toddler and early childhood periods of develop-
ment. Fundamental to this developmental process is the
maturation of different neural systems and processes that
provide a functional mechanism for the behavioral integra-
tion we ultimately observe as children mature (Lewis and
Todd 2007). Importantly, though, the mastery of earlier
regulatory tasks becomes an important component of later
competencies, and by extension, the level of mastery of
these early skills may constrain the development of later
skills. Thus, understanding the development of specific
control processes, such as emotional regulation or executive
functions becomes integral to understanding the emergence
of other childhood skills and adaptive functioning across
developmental domains (Calkins and Fox 2002).
One task for those interested in the development of
emotion regulation is to understand the way in which
rudimentary control processes become integrated into more
sophisticated functioning. For example, a putatively emo-
tional task of early childhood, the management of frustra-
tion, may be parsed into many smaller challenges for the
child, involving processes that are observable in different
ways and across different levels of functioning. However,
many of these same component processes might also be
involved in the successful negotiation of other childhood
challenges, which may not h ave an obvious emotion
regulation demand, such as a math test, a soccer game, or
a plea to a parent to attend a social event. Because of the
challenge in distingu ishing whether simil ar processes that
are activated in such different contexts are components of
the same or different biological and behavioral systems, in
our view, it may be more useful to adopt an approach that
considers multiple levels of analysis of self-regulation,
rathe r than isolating emotion regulation and executive
functioning from related, or even integrated, control
processes (Calkins 2009; Calkin s and Fox 2002; Posner
and Rothbart 2000). Such an approach has clear implica-
tions for empirical strategies for the study of emotion
regulation, which are often too narrowly construed to reveal
much about the more fundamental processes that may be at
the heart of later emerging psychological dysfunction.
Emotion regulation is a dyadic process One important
assumption of much of the research on emotion regulation
is that parental caregiving practices may suppo rt or
undermine such development and thus contribute to
observed individual differences among young child ren’s
emotional skills (Thompson 1994; Morris et al. 2007;
Waters et al. 2010, this issue). In infancy, there is an almost
exclusive reliance on parents for the regulation of emotion.
Over time, interactions with parents in emotion-laden
contexts teach children that the use of particular strategies
may be more useful for the reduction of emotional arousal
than other strategies (Sroufe 1996). Once children move
into the school environment, teachers and peers take on the
J Psychopathol Behav Assess (2010) 32:92–95 93
role of partners in the emotion regulation process, by
providing input , feedback, and modeling in contexts that
may place multiple demands on the child.
From this contextual standpoint, the mechanism(s)
responsible for growth in emotion regulation and the
acquisition of skills that support adaptive skills, as opposed
to maladaptive behavioral patterns, are to be found in the
interactions betwe en very early child characteristics and the
contexts in which develo pment is occurring: social relation-
ships. The implications for this perspective is that assess-
ment tools that allow us to capture the dyadic nature of
emotion regulation may be more informative than tasks that
yield information about the individual in isolation. Given
that symptoms of many psychological disorders include
aspects of social relationships and relationship functioning,
some emphasis on these relations may yield information
about the dimensions of emotion regulation t hat are
Emotion regulation is developmentally defined Although
some children appear to be quite proficient in the use of
basic emotion regul ation skills at a relatively early age, it is
clear that across early development dramatic grow th occurs
in the acquisition and display of emotion regulatio n skills
and abilities. The practice of these newly emerging skills
leads to greater automaticity so that by the child is ready to
enter the arena of formal schooling, greater effort may be
directed toward more demanding academic and social
challenges. Moreover, because of its dependence on the
maturation of prefrontal-limbic connections, the develop-
ment of the broader domain of self-regulatory skills is
relatively protracted (Beauregard et al. 2004), from the
emergence of basic and automatic regulation of biological
processes in early childhood to the more self-conscious and
intentional regulation of behavior and cognition emerging
in middle childhood and adolescence, that require and are
supported by, biological processes (Ochsner and Gross
The implication of a developmental framework for
conceptualizing emotion regulation is that any empirical
investigation of the phenomena requires an appreciation of
what emotion regulation is, or consists of, at any particular
point in development. That is, it is important to appreciate
that early in development, fundamental biological and
attentional processes are likely to be the best index of
emotion regulation, while among older children, emotion
awareness and appraisal may be more important to the
emotion regulation process (Suveg et al. 2010, this issue).
Understanding where a child is functioning developmental-
ly leads to measurement of the most relevant emotion
regulation processes, which may lead to great er apprecia-
tion of the specific deficits that characterize particular
Conclusion: A self-regulation framework for studying
emotion processes Disparate literatures representing the
study of emotion r egulation and other control processes
in early development provide solid preliminary support
for the interdependence of these different sets of skills.
A r easonable next step is to provide a comprehensive
theoretical account of this interdependence. Our work
suggests that the mastery of earlier regulatory tasks
becomes an important component of later competencies,
and by extension, the level of m astery of these early
skills may constrain the development of later skills.
Thus, understanding the development of specific control
processes, such as emotional regulation or executive
functions becomes integral to understanding the emer-
gence of other childhood skills and adaptive functioning
across developmental domains (Calkins and Fox 2002).
We acknowledge that these discrete self-regulatory
processes are likely to be so intertwined that once
integration across levels occurs in support of more complex
skills and behaviors, it is difficult to parse these complex
behavioral responses into separate or independent types of
control. Nevertheless, from a developmental point of view,
it is useful to describe explicit types of control and how
they emerge, particularly in the context of relevant social
relationships. This conceptual and empirical specification
may provide insight into non-normative develo pments and
problems that emerge as a result of deficits in specific
components of sel f-regula tion at particular points in
Beauregard, M., Levesque, J., & Paquette, V. (2004). Neural basis of
conscious and voluntary self-regulation of emotion. In M.
Beauregard (Ed.), Consciousness, emotional self-regulation and
the brain (pp. 163–194). Amsterdam: Benjamins.
Blair, C., & Razza, R. P. (2007). Relating effortful control, executive
function, and false belief understanding to emerging math and
literacy ability in kindergarten. Child Development, 78, 647–663.
Bronson, M. B. (2000). Self-regulation in early childhood: Nature and
nurture. New York: Guilford.
Buss, K. A., & Goldsmith, H. H. (1998). Fear and anger regulation in
infancy: effects on the temporal dynamics of affective expression.
Child Development, 69, 359–374.
Calkins, S. D. (2004). Temperament and emotional self-regulation:
Multiple models of early development. In M. Beauregard (Ed.),
Consciousness, emotional self-regulation, and the brain. New
Calkins, S. D. (2009). Regulatory competence and early disruptive
behavior problems: The role of physiological regulation. In S.
Olson & A. Sameroff (Eds.), Regulatory processes in the
development of behavior problems: Biological, behavioral, and
social-ecological interactions (pp. 86–115). New York: Cam-
bridge University Press.
Calkins, S. D., & Dedmon, S. A. (2000). Physiological and behavioral
regulation in two-year-old children with aggressive/destructive
94 J Psychopathol Behav Assess (2010) 32:92–95
behavior problems. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 2,
Calkins, S. D., & Fox, N. A. (2002). Self-regulatory processes in early
personality development: a multilevel approach to the study of
childhood social withdrawal and aggression. Development and
Psychopathology, 14, 477–498.
Calkins, S. D., & Leerkes, E. M. (in press). Early attachment pro-
cesses and the development of emotional self-regulation. In R. F.
Baumeister & K. D. Vohs (Eds.), The handbook of self-regulation
(2nd ed.). Mahwah: Lawrence Erlbaum.
Calkins, S. D., & Marcovitch, S. (2009). Emotion regulation and
executive functioning in early development: Mechanisms of
control supporting adaptive functioning. In S. D. Calkins & M.
A. Bell (Eds.), Child development at the intersection of emotion
and cognition. Washington: APA Books.
Carthy, T., Horesh, N., Apter, A., & Gross, J. J. (2010, this issue).
Patterns of emotional reactivity and regulation in children with
anxiety disorders. Journal of Psychopathology and Behavioral
Cicchetti, D., Ackerman, B., & Izard, C. (1995). Emotions and
emotion regulation in developmental psychopathology. Develop-
ment and Psychopathology, 7,1–10.
Cisler, J. M., Olatunji, B. O., Feldner, M. T., & Forsyth, J. P. (2010,
this issue). Emotion regulation and the anxiety disorders: An
integrative review. Journal of Psychopathology and Behavioral
Cole, P., Martin, S., & Dennis, T. (2004). Emotion regulation as a
scientific construct: methodological challenges and directions
for child development research. Child Development, 75, 317–
Eisenberg, N., & Fabes, R. (2006). Emotion regulation and children’s
socioemotional competence. Child psychology: A handbook of
contemporary issues (2nd ed., pp. 357–381). New York:
Eisenberg, N., Hofer, C., & Vaughan, J. (2007). Effortful control and
its socioemotional consequences. In J. Gross (Ed.), Handbook of
emotion regulation (pp. 287–306). New York: Guilford.
Graziano, P., Reavis, R., Keane, S., & Calkins, S. (2007). The role of
emotion regulation in children’s early academic success. Journal
of School Psychology, 45,3–19.
Gross, J., & Thompson, R. A. (2007). Emotion regulation: Conceptual
foundations. In J. Gross (Ed.), Handbook of emotion regulation
(pp. 3–24). New York: Guilford.
Keenan, K. (2000). Emotion dysregulation as a risk factor for child
psychopathology. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 7 ,
Lewis, M. D., & Todd, R. M. (2007). The self-regulating brain:
cortical-subcortical feedback and the development of intelligent
action. Cognitive Development, 22
Morris, A., Silk, J., Steinberg, L., Myers, S., & Robinson, L. (2007).
The role of the family context in the development of emotion
regulation. Social Development, 16, 361–388.
Morris, A. S., Silk, J. S., Steinberg, L., Terranova, A., & Kithakye, M.
(2009). Current and longitudinal links between children’s
externalizing behavior in school and observed anger regulation
in the mother-child dyad. Journal of Psychopathology and
Behavioral Assessment, XX,XX–XX.
Ochsner, K. N., & Gross, J. J. (2004). Thinking makes it so: A social
cognitive neuroscience approach to emotion regulation. In R. F.
Baumeister & K. D. Vohs (Eds.), Handbook of self-regulation:
Research, theory, and applications (pp. 229–255). New York:
Posner, M. I., & Rothbart, M. K. (2000). Developing mechanisms
of self-regulation. Development and Psychopathology, 12, 427–
Rothbart, M. K., & Sheese, B. E. (2007). Temperament and emotion
regulation. In J. J. Gross (Ed.), Handbook of emotion regulation
(pp. 331–350). New York: Guilford.
Sroufe, A. L. (1996). Emotional development: The organization of
emotional life in the early years. New York: C ambridge
Sroufe, L. A. (2000). Early relationships and the development of
children. Infant Mental Health Journal, 21,67–74.
Sulik, M. J., Huerta, S., Zerr, A. A., Eisenberg, N., Spinard, T. L.,
Valiente, C., et al. (2010, this issue). The factor structure of
effortful control and measurement invariance across ethnicity and
sex in a high-risk sample. Journal of Psychopathology and
Behavioral Assessment, XX,XX–XX.
Suveg, C., Payne, M., Thomassin, K., & Jacob, M. L. (2010, this
issue). Electronic diaries: A feasible method of assessing
emotional experience in youth? Journal of Psychopathology
and Behavioral Assessment, XX,XX–XX.
Thompson, R. A. (1994). Emotion regulation: A theme in search of
definition. In N. A. Fox (Ed.), The development of emotion
regulation: Biological and behavioral considerations. Mono-
graphs of the Society for Research in Child Development, 59
(Nos. 2–3, Serial No. 240).
Waters, S. F., Virmani, E. A., Thompson, R. A., Meyer, S., Raikes, H.
A., & Jochem, R. (2010, this issue). Emotion regulation and
attachment: Unpacking the two constructs and their association.
Journal of Psychopathology and Behavioral Assessment, XX,
J Psychopathol Behav Assess (2010) 32:92–95 95