top of page

Parental influence & the importance of emotion regulation in children

Updated: Feb 27

In brief:


  • Emotion regulation is an important skill that children must develop, as it affects their socio-emotional development & subsequent mental health.

  • As parents, we heavily influence our children’s ability to regulate emotions through:

    • Modelling our own emotion expression and regulation

    • Our parenting and attachment style

  • Our own emotional dysregulation negatively impacts our children.

  • It is possible to improve emotional regulation in ourselves and our children. We can do this with the help of parenting support programs & modelling different emotion regulation strategies. These are some methods that studies have shown to help:

    • Situation selection - Find situations that will stretch us without stressing ourselves out too much. (E.g. for your child, this could be play activities, social situations, self-care & home chores that gently expose children to new skills & people).

    • Situation modification - When a situation is stressful, make some changes to it is less so.

    • Attention deployment - During a moment of stress, focus on other less stressful things (e.g. distraction).

    • Cognitive appraisal or reappraisal - Reframe a stressful or distressing situation, e.g. by downplaying the importance of a disappointing result; or highlighting the positive aspects of it.

    • Response modulation - Finding calmer ways to express a feeling, e.g. speaking about disappointment rather than crying.

    • Problem-solving

    • Acceptance - being mindful of the present and accepting thoughts, feelings and sensations as they are.





A mother tenderly touching her baby's nose with her nose
Infancy is a critical period for the development of emotional regulation.


The importance of emotion regulation in children


The ability to regulate emotions in children is essential for healthy psychosocial development and is predictive of developmental outcomes such as mental and behavioural health, academic success, and social adaptation (Zeman et al., 2006).


Emotion regulation is a key emotional developmental goal, alongside emotional competence (the ability to function adaptively in many contexts), emotion awareness (of self and others), emotion understanding (recognising emotion express, causes and cues), empathy, and emotion socialisation.


A child needs to regulate emotions well in order to function well interpersonally and intrapersonally (Southam-Gerow, 2013).


In particular, the period from infancy through childhood is a critical period for the development of emotion regulation, with temperamental, physiological (the growth of the frontal lobes), and social (family, teachers, and peers) factors influencing subsequent individual differences later in the lifespan (John & Gross, 2004).


Successful emotion regulation has been associated with good health outcomes and relationships, as well as improved academic and work performance (John & Gross, 2004); it can also result in reduced negative emotions in general and increased resilience when facing adversity (Cole et al., 1994).


Conversely, emotional dysregulation has been associated with coping deficits and subsequent mental health issues - individuals who cannot manage their emotional responses may experience longer or more severe periods of distress that turn into depression, or turn to food and alcohol to down-regulate their emotions, leading to substance abuse and eating disorders.


In particular, maladaptive emotion regulation strategies such as rumination, avoidance and suppression were strongly linked to the internalising disorders of depression and anxiety (Aldao et al., 2010). 


Takeaway: Learning to regulate emotions well is important to children’s development and their subsequent mental health.


A sad toddler hugging her mother
When children are distressed, they are more able to self-regulate when they can feel safe & comforted by their parents

The role that parents play in shaping their children’s emotion regulation


Parents play a critical role in shaping their children’s emotion regulation through socialisation or modelling of their own emotion expression and regulation (Havighurst et al., 2012), emotion-related parenting practices, and the emotional climate of the family (Moris et al., 2007).


Parents model emotion expression and regulation strategies to their children, and are responsible for the family’s emotional climate, which teaches children the appropriate expression of emotions in terms of valence (positivity or negativity), duration and intensity. (Bariola et al., 2011).


Parenting style influences children’s ability to regulate emotions and develop healthy Emotion Regulation (ER) strategies. Studies found that in families where parents were warmer and less emotionally dismissive, children were better at emotion regulation and had less externalising problems (such as eating disorders and substance use) later on in life (Rawana et al., 2014).


In families that adopt an emotion-coaching philosophy (paying attention to and positively evaluating child emotions, and discussing how to manage emotions), children tend to use adaptive reappraisal ER strategies (changing the way we think about emotional events) and exhibit less physiologically measured stress in emotionally challenging situations.


Conversely, children whose parents were more emotionally dismissive (avoiding and minimising emotions) tended to use maladaptive suppression strategies (changing the way we respond behaviourally to emotional events), consequently experiencing prolonged and more intense distress in similar emotionally challenging situations (John & Gross, 2004).


Parent-child attachment also plays a key role in children’s emotion regulation. Children’s ability to use their parents (the attachment figure) as a secure base gives them a sense of safety in situations inducing negative emotions, and serves as a way for them to self-regulate. Emotion socialisation also occurs within the context of the parent-child relationship, where children learn by observing their parents’ emotion expression and regulation.


Securely attached children are able to coregulate distress and learn adaptive ER strategies within the attachment relationship and can also use these strategies outside of the attachment relationship, even when the attachment figure is not present.


Studies have also found securely attached children to experience more positive and less negative emotions, have lower levels of catastrophising (expecting the worst to happen) and personalising (taking responsibility for bad outcomes), and experience fewer mental health problems later on in life (Brumariu, 2015).


Takeaway: Parents strongly influence their children’s emotion regulation through their own emotion regulation, expression, parenting and attachment style.


Parental distress and emotional dysregulation results in child emotional dysregulation


A study by Bertie et al. (2021) showed that parents facing psychological distress, even at subclinical levels, may be unable to regulate their own emotions well, responding in non-supportive ways that impair healthy emotion socialisation in their children.


In families with negative or punitive emotional climates, where dysregulated parents respond non-supportively to their children’s emotional displays and have difficulty reverting back to a positive state, children were found to develop maladaptive emotion regulation strategies and have poor social, behavioural, and emotional competence (Bariola et al., 2011).


In particular, mental health problems in parents have been associated with internalising problems and separation anxiety in their children, mediated largely through parental emotion dysregulation (Han et al., 2016).


Migrant parents of ethnic minorities, especially those of lower socio-economic status, were found to experience more psychological distress and acculturation stress, and in turn practice less positive parenting (Emmen et al., 2013).


Parents of children with developmental disabilities is another underrepresented group experiencing more psychological distress than other parents, increasing their risk of adjustment problems and child maltreatment (Mullins et al., 2002).


The reciprocal effect of parental stress on child behavioural problems is especially pronounced during early childhood, making this the most crucial period for interventions (Woodman et al., 2015).


Takeaway: Children tend to be emotionally dysregulated when their parents are distressed and dysregulated too.


Emotion regulation strategies


An important way in which parents can help their children regulate emotions better, is to first understand and then teach or socialise Emotion Regulation (ER) strategies. The process/functional model of emotion regulation by Gross and Thompson (2007) proposes five ER approaches:


  1. Situation selection - parents try to select situations that will stretch their children sufficiently for growth without stressing them too much;

  2. Situation modification - modifying a situation to make it less stressful for the child;

  3. Attention deployment - shifting the child’s conscious focus onto other less stressful aspects (e.g. distracting them);

  4. Cognitive appraisal - cognitively framing the situation in different ways such as by downplaying the importance of a disappointing result;

  5. Response modulation - alter the emotional response (e.g. expressing disappointment explicitly by words rather than crying).


Three other commonly-studied ER strategies are:


  1. Reappraisal - reframing a stressful situation in more positive ways;

  2. Problem-solving - consciously trying to modify a stressor or limit its consequences;

  3. Acceptance - being mindful of the present and accepting thoughts, feelings and sensations as they are.


The strategies of reappraisal, problem-solving, and acceptance have been found to be protective against psychopathology; individuals with strong problem-solving orientation are also less likely to develop maladaptive ER strategies (Aldao et al., 2010).


Takeaway: Parents can use Emotion Regulation strategies on themselves and teach or socialise them to their children.


Parenting support programs


In addition to parents consciously modelling adaptive ER strategies to their children, parenting support programs can help improve parenting practices and family emotion outcomes as well. An Australian community trial by Havighurst et al. (2010) found that many parents were initially dismissive of their children’s emotions, and did not have good awareness and regulation of their own emotions, but an early intervention (Tuning in to Kids parenting program) that focused on emotion socialisation practices was able to improve parent and child emotion awareness and regulation, and reduce dismissive parenting practices.


Specifically, the program encouraged changes in parenting beliefs and behaviours, taught parents skills to understand and regulate their emotions through emotion coaching exercises and resources, and facilitated the deepening of the parent-child emotional connection. What this demonstrates is the potential for families to improve parent and child emotion regulation, and subsequently parent and child emotion and behavioural outcomes as well, through appropriate parenting support programs.


Takeaway: Parenting support programs can greatly improve parent and child emotion regulation.



References

Aldao, A., Nolen-Hoeksema, S., & Schweizer, S. (2010). Emotion-regulation strategies across psychopathology: A meta-analytic review. Clinical Psychology Review, 30(2), 217–237. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cpr.2009.11.004 

Bariola, E., Gullone, E., & Hughes, E. K. (2011). Child and adolescent emotion regulation: The role of parental emotion regulation and expression. Clinical Child and Family Psychology Review, 14(2), 198-212. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10567-011-0092-5

Bertie, L., Johnston, K., & Lill, S. (2021). Parental emotion socialisation of young children and the mediating role of emotion regulation. Australian Journal of Psychology, 73(3), 293-305. https://doi.org/10.1080/00049530.2021.1884001 

Brumariu, L. E. (2015). Parent-child attachment and emotion regulation. New Directions for Child and Adolescent Development, 2015(148), 31-45. https://doi.org/10.1002/cad.20098 

Cole, P. M., Michel, M. K., & O’Donnell-Teti, L. O. (1994). The development of emotion regulation and dysregulation: A clinical perspective. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development, 59(2), 73–100. https://doi.org/10.2307/1166139 

Emmen, R. A., Malda, M., Mesman, J., Van IJzendoorn, M. H., Prevoo, M. J., & Yeniad, N. (2013). Socioeconomic status and parenting in ethnic minority families: Testing a minority family stress model. Journal of Family Psychology, 27(6), 896-904. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0034693 

Gross, J. J., & Thompson, R. A. (2007). Emotion regulation: Conceptual foundations. In J. J. Gross (Ed.), Handbook of emotion regulation (pp. 3–24). Guilford Publication.

Han, Z. R., Lei, X., Qian, J., Li, P., Wang, H., & Zhang, X. (2016). Parent and child psychopathological symptoms: The mediating role of parental emotion dysregulation. Child and Adolescent Mental Health, 21(3), 161-168. https://doi.org/10.1111/camh.12169 

Havighurst, S., Wilson, K., Harley, A., Prior, M. (2012). Tuning into kids: an emotion-focussed parenting program-initial findings from a community trial. Journal of Community Psychology, 37(8), 1008-1023. https://doi.org/10.1002/jcop.20345 

Havighurst, S. S., Wilson, K. R., Harley, A. E., Prior, M. R., & Kehoe, C. (2010). Tuning in to Kids: Improving emotion socialization practices in parents of preschool children – findings from a community trial. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 51(12), 1342-1350. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1469-7610.2010.02303.x 

John, O. P., & Gross, J. J. (2004). Healthy and unhealthy emotion regulation: Personality processes, individual differences, and life span development. Journal of Personality, 72(6), 1301-1334. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-6494.2004.00298.x 

Morris, A. S., Silk, J. S., Steinberg, L., Myers, S. S., & Robinson, L. R. (2007). The role of the family context in the development of emotion regulation. Social Development, 16(2), 361-388. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-9507.2007.00389.x 

Mullins, L. L., Aniol, K., Boyd, M. L., Page, M. C., & Chaney, J. M. (2002). The influence of respite care on psychological distress in parents of children with developmental disabilities: A longitudinal study. Children's Services, 5(2), 123-138. https://doi.org/10.1207/s15326918cs0502_06 

Rawana, J. S., Flett, G. L., McPhie, M. L., Nguyen, H. T., & Norwood, S. J. (2014). Developmental trends in emotion regulation: A systematic review with implications for community mental health. Canadian Journal of Community Mental Health, 33(1), 31-44. https://doi.org/10.7870/cjcmh-2014-004 

Southam-Gerow, M. A. (2013). Emotion regulation in children and adolescents: A practitioner's guide. Guilford Press.

Woodman, A. C., Mawdsley, H. P., & Hauser-Cram, P. (2015). Parenting stress and child behavior problems within families of children with developmental disabilities: Transactional relations across 15 years. Research in Developmental Disabilities, 36, 264-276. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ridd.2014.10.011 

Zeman, J., Cassano, M., Perry-Parrish, C., & Stegall, S. (2006). Emotion regulation in children and adolescents. Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics, 27(2), 155–168.


31 views0 comments

Comments


Commenting has been turned off.
bottom of page