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Supporting the Development of Emotion Regulation in Young Children: The Important Role of the Parent-Child Attachment Relationship.

Tominey, Olsen & McClellandd, IJBPE, vol 2, issue 4 23
Supporting the development
of emotion regulation in
young children:
The important role of the parent
-child attachment relationship
For infants and toddlers who lack a vocabulary through which to communicate their needs, expressing
emotions plays an important role in letting their parents and caregivers know about their experiences
with the world. Although we may not like to see our children having unpleasant emotions like anger,
disappointment, or sadness, these emotions provide us with useful information.
Happy. Sad. Frustrated. Excited.
Angry. Disappointed. Calm. These
are just a few of the many emotions
that play a role in shaping our daily
lives. Emotions influence our behavior
and are foundational to the human experience.
We all experience a range of emotions, and
from birth, emotions play a critical role in our
lives. Starting in infancy, we express a core set
of emotions, including happiness, sadness, anger,
surprise, and disgust (Berk, 2012). We continue
to experience these emotions throughout our
childhood and adult lives, developing more
complex and subtle emotions as we grow, for
example, shame, hope, and guilt (Tangney &
Fischer, 1995). Parents and caregivers can learn
to read young children’s emotional cues to figure
out a child’s likes, dislikes, wants and needs and,
if sensitive and responsive to these cues, can
help regulate their child’s emotions (Thompson &
Meyer, 2007). For example, a parent might soothe
a crying infant with feeding and rocking, or calm
a frustrated toddler by hugging and using a calm
voice. Regulating a child’s emotions in this way is
referred to as external regulation (Bernier, Carlson,
& Whipple, 2010). As children progress through
early childhood, they begin to shift from relying
solely on external regulation (a caregiver giving
them a hug) to developing their own internal
emotion regulation abilities (taking a deep breath
to calm themselves down on their own). The term
‘emotion regulation’ refers to both the external and
internal processes that help an individual monitor,
evaluate, and modify their reactions to emotions
(Thompson & Meyer, 2007). Developing emotion
regulation (and in particular, internal regulation
abilities) is an important milestone for children,
as research shows that children who have strong
emotion regulation skills are more likely to
have positive relationships with peers, do better
academically in both the short- and long-term, and
transition more easily into later grades (Blair &
Diamond, 2008).
Developing emotion
regulation is an important
There are many different factors that affect the
development of emotion regulation, including a
child’s temperament and personality, physiological
processes (brain development and maturation),
and the role of the parent-child attachment
relationship (Calkins & Hill, 2007; Thompson
& Meyer, 2007). In this article, we will focus
specifically on the role of the parent-child
attachment relationship as it relates to emotion
regulation development and share specific ways
that parents and caregivers can lay a foundation
for children’s emotion regulation during the early
childhood years.
The development of a secure and trusting
relationship (a secure attachment) between a
child and at least one parent or caregiver lays the
foundation for many positive outcomes, including
emotion regulation (Calkins & Hill, 2007). A
Shauna L. Tominey
Yale University
Svea G. Olsen
Yale University
Megan M. McClelland
Oregon State University, USA
24 Tominey, Olsen & McClellandd, IJBPE, vol 2, issue 4
secure attachment is formed when a caregiver
provides consistent sensitive care, adapting their
caregiving to fit their child’s needs (Bowlby,
1998). Although most infants have the same
basic needs (e.g. attention, food, diapering, sleep,
comfort and love), the emotional cues they exhibit
through facial expressions, body language, crying
and cooing may be drastically different. Some
children rarely cry and soothe quickly. Other
children are highly reactive, cry easily, and take
significant effort to calm down. Most children
fall somewhere in between these extremes. How
reactive children are and how easily they calm
down relate to their temperament – the individual
differences that serve as the foundation for a
child’s personality (Eisenberg, Vaughan & Hofer,
2009). Whether we are aware of it or not, a
child’s temperament and personality can affect
the way that we respond. The match between a
child and the key adults in his or her life (parents
or caregivers) can be thought of in terms of a
‘goodness of fit’ (Rothbart, Posner & Kieras,
2006). Adults who adjust their caregiving style
to meet the temperament and personality of their
infant develop a strong goodness of fit, sending a
message to children that they can be trusted and
relied on. This relationship helps children feel
secure and safe. By two to three years, children
develop expectations for the important people
in their lives (Ainsworth et al., 1978; Bowlby,
1998). If children learn that the adults in their
lives will consistently respond with warmth and
support, they are more likely to seek comfort
from them and to look to them as role models of
behavior. The shift of emotion regulation from a
primarily external process to a primarily internal
process relies on the foundation laid by this early
attachment relationship. With a secure attachment
relationship in place, there are many things
parents and caregivers can do to further promote
the development of strong emotion regulation
skills in young children. The early childhood
years are an important time to promote children’s
emotion regulation because this is the time that
children’s brains are growing most rapidly in areas
related to these skills, especially the prefrontal
cortex (Couperus & Nelson, 2006).
Infants develop
expectations for the key
people in their lives
So what can parents and caregivers do
to promote emotion regulation during early
childhood? We provide six recommendations that
health professionals and others working in the
very early years can offer for specific things to do
at home to foster a secure attachment relationship
and to support the development of emotion
regulation in children.
Spending time with children, engaging in face-
to-face activities such as talking, cuddling, and
playing is one way for mothers and fathers to
strengthen their relationship with their children.
To make the most of this time together, remove
potential distractions, including cell phones, the
television, or other digital devices which could
divide attention and detract from the connection
that is being built with the child. Parents can tell
the child about their day, their likes and dislikes,
and what they appreciate about their child. They
can ask questions about their child’s likes, dislikes
and interests as well. Quality time can occur as part
of everyday errands, including going to the grocery
store or preparing dinner. Time spent actively
engaging with children helps parents get to know
them better and supports the development of a
secure attachment and a trusting relationship.
Every child expresses emotions in different ways.
Paying careful attention to emotional cues will
help parents understand how their child is feeling,
enabling them to better support their child’s needs.
What does the child’s face look like when she is
feeling upset? How does the child express feelings
like excitement or anger? What signs does the child
show when tired? Identifying the child’s emotional
cues helps mothers and fathers to better anticipate
emotional frustrations and either prevent them or
prepare for them effectively, thus providing external
emotion regulation. Getting to know the child’s
cues will also aid in the development of strong
A powerful and effective way to teach children
new skills, including emotion regulation, is through
modeling the target behavior. When children
see skills modeled by people they trust, they can
then replicate and practice those skills themselves
(Bandura, 1999). Parents need to provide the child
with a framework of ‘what to do’ rather than ‘what
not to do’ by modeling strong emotion regulation
skills. Throughout the day, parents can take time
to intentionally demonstrate ways that they regulate
their emotions, describing what they are doing
and why (e.g. ‘When that happened, I felt very
upset so I took a few deep breaths to calm myself
down before I said anything so that I would not
yell’). Describing actions can not only help parents
become more intentional about the strategies they
use to regulate their emotions, but can also help
children understand why they are doing what they
are doing so that they can make these choices
themselves in the future.
Helping children develop a rich vocabulary of
emotion words and words related to the expression
and regulation of emotions is important. During
Tominey, Olsen & McClellandd, IJBPE, vol 2, issue 4 25
early childhood, the number of words children
know and use grows exponentially. Making sure
children have the words they need to talk about
their emotional experiences can help them describe
how they are feeling, ask for help when needed,
and ultimately regulate their emotions. Parents can
point out how they are feeling throughout the day,
and describe their child’s emotional experiences
(e.g. ‘I’m feeling disappointed because I really
wanted to visit my friend today and I did not have
a chance,’ or, ‘I see you are frowning and stomping
your feet. You look like you might be feeling angry
or frustrated. How are you feeling?’) Additionally,
it’s important to point out to children when they
demonstrate strong emotion regulation skills and
to acknowledge their efforts (e.g. ‘It looks like you
are really excited to play, but are waiting patiently
to have a turn’). Integrating discussion of emotions
that the parent and child experience into daily
interactions lets children know that everyone has
emotions (children and adults alike).
There are many things that parents can do to teach
children specific emotion regulation strategies;
firstly, sharing personal stories with their children
about their own experiences with emotions (e.g.
‘I remember a time when I felt disappointed’). As
part of these stories, they can share things that they
thought, said, or did to help manage their emotions
well. Second, parents can integrate conversations
about emotions into shared reading of storybooks
with children, pointing out how characters look
when they are expressing different emotions or
asking their children questions about characters’
experiences with emotions. Third, playing games
with children gives them the opportunity to
practice regulation and impulse control outside
of emotionally-charged moments. Traditional
children’s games such as ‘Simon Says’ and ‘Red
Light, Green Light’, encourage children to stop
and think before acting and can strengthen their
regulation abilities (Schmitt et al., 2015; Tominey &
McClelland, 2011). Practicing emotion regulation
strategies outside of emotionally-charged moments
increases the likelihood that children will be able
to call upon these strategies during emotionally
challenging moments. Finally, taking time to discuss
with children appropriate ways to express and
regulate their emotions is important; for example,
what do parents want their child to do when feeling
angry? Is it okay to hit a family member? No. What
about stomping feet? Probably. What are the rules
about expressing emotions at home? Just like other
household rules, it is important to discuss what the
rules are so that children and adults can work on
following them together.
Just like any skill, developing emotion regulation
takes significant time and practice and, for most
people, these skills continue to develop throughout
life. As parents strive to model strong emotion
regulation abilities for their child, it is important to
realize that we all have breakdowns in emotion
regulation, particularly when tired or stressed.
Parents need to be forgiving of themselves and
of their child in these moments and reinforce the
notion that emotion regulation is a skill that needs
to be practiced and developed and that everyone
makes mistakes. After experiencing a breakdown
in regulation skills (e.g. yelling back at the child
instead of remaining calm), parents can think about
what they would like their child to do themselves in
this situation. If they would like to see their child
apologize and make amends once calm, the mother
or father needs to model these actions in their
interactions with the child (e.g. ‘I’m sorry. I should
not have shouted in that way. I was very stressed
and had a hard time calming down. Next time,
I am going to take a few deep breaths and calm
down before I say anything’). When the child has
a breakdown in emotion regulation (e.g. throwing
a temper tantrum), parents can have a conversation
once their child has calmed down about what
happened and what they can do next time the
trigger arises in order to respond more appropriately
(e.g. ‘What do you think you can do next time
your brother takes your toy? What about saying,
‘That’s mine. Please give it back.’ Let’s practice that
Emotions are an integral part of our lives. Fostering
a secure parent-child attachment relationship lays
an important foundation for the development of
emotion regulation. There are many things parents
and caregivers can do to help children learn to
manage their emotional experiences effectively, and,
in doing so, help children learn important skills that
will help them socially and academically from birth
through adulthood.
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ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any citations for this publication.
Full-text available
Research Findings: The present study examined the efficacy of a self-regulation intervention with 65 preschool children. Using circle time games, the study examined whether participating in a treatment group significantly improved behavioral self-regulation and early academic outcomes. Half of the children were randomly assigned to participate in 16 playgroups during the winter of the school year. Behavioral aspects of self-regulation and early achievement were assessed in the fall and spring. Although there was no treatment effect in the overall sample, post hoc analyses revealed that participation in the treatment group was significantly related to self-regulation gains in children who started the year with low levels of these skills. Children in the treatment group also demonstrated significant letter-word identification gains compared to children in the control group. Practice or Policy: The findings from this study provide preliminary evidence for the efficacy of the intervention in terms of improving preschoolers’ behavioral self-regulation for children low in these skills and improving letter-word identification. Although preliminary, these results have the potential to inform preschool curricula that emphasize behavioral self-regulation as a means of facilitating school readiness.
Full-text available
Although infants enter the world with a set of inborn reflexes for reacting to external stimuli, they cannot be seen as passive machines responding only to external input; inborn programs of self-regulation modulate re-sponsivity from the earliest days. With development, additional forms of regulation under voluntary control also become available to the child. Adult studies have developed criteria allowing us to separate more reflexive automatic activity from more voluntary regulatory control. Two central developmental problems involve identifying the biological timetable for development of regulatory mechanisms and the means whereby individual regulation comes under the influence of learning. In order to relate the basic biological characteristics of the infant to the acquisition of culture, it is necessary to explore development from both biological and psychological viewpoints.
The present study examined the efficacy of a self-regulation intervention for children experiencing demographic risk. Utilizing a randomized controlled design, analyses examined if children (N = 276 children in 14 Head Start classrooms; M age = 51.69, SD = 6.55) who participated in an 8-week self-regulation intervention demonstrated greater gains in self-regulation and academic achievement over the preschool year compared to children in a control group. In addition, indirect intervention effects on achievement outcomes through self-regulation were explored and differential intervention effects for English language learners within a sample of children from low-income families were tested. Results indicated that children in the intervention group demonstrated stronger levels of self-regulation compared to the control group in the spring of the preschool year. Group comparisons also revealed that the intervention was related to significantly higher math skills for children who were English language learners. In other words, English language learners who participated in the intervention demonstrated stronger levels of math in the spring of preschool in comparison to children in the control group and relative to English speakers who also participated in the intervention. The present study provides support for the efficacy of a school readiness intervention in promoting self-regulation and achievement in young children, especially English language learners.
Ethological attachment theory is a landmark of 20th century social and behavioral sciences theory and research. This new paradigm for understanding primary relationships across the lifespan evolved from John Bowlby's critique of psychoanalytic drive theory and his own clinical observations, supplemented by his knowledge of fields as diverse as primate ethology, control systems theory, and cognitive psychology. By the time he had written the first volume of his classic Attachment and Loss trilogy, Mary D. Salter Ainsworth's naturalistic observations in Uganda and Baltimore, and her theoretical and descriptive insights about maternal care and the secure base phenomenon had become integral to attachment theory. Patterns of Attachment reports the methods and key results of Ainsworth's landmark Baltimore Longitudinal Study. Following upon her naturalistic home observations in Uganda, the Baltimore project yielded a wealth of enduring, benchmark results on the nature of the child's tie to its primary caregiver and the importance of early experience. It also addressed a wide range of conceptual and methodological issues common to many developmental and longitudinal projects, especially issues of age appropriate assessment, quantifying behavior, and comprehending individual differences. In addition, Ainsworth and her students broke new ground, clarifying and defining new concepts, demonstrating the value of the ethological methods and insights about behavior. Today, as we enter the fourth generation of attachment study, we have a rich and growing catalogue of behavioral and narrative approaches to measuring attachment from infancy to adulthood. Each of them has roots in the Strange Situation and the secure base concept presented in Patterns of Attachment. It inclusion in the Psychology Press Classic Editions series reflects Patterns of Attachment's continuing significance and insures its availability to new generations of students, researchers, and clinicians.
In keeping with proposals emphasizing the role of early experience in infant brain development, this study investigated the prospective links between quality of parent-infant interactions and subsequent child executive functioning (EF), including working memory, impulse control, and set shifting. Maternal sensitivity, mind-mindedness and autonomy support were assessed when children were 12 to 15 months old (N = 80). Child EF was assessed at 18 and 26 months. All three parenting dimensions were found to relate to child EF. Autonomy support was the strongest predictor of EF at each age, independent of general cognitive ability and maternal education. These findings add to previous results on child stress-response systems in suggesting that parent-child relationships may play an important role in children's developing self-regulatory capacities.