Emotions and Their Development and Regulation

Emotions and Their Development

Newborns and infants display eight primary emotions . By referring to them as primary emotions, it means that they are apparent early in life, are hardwired, universal, and likely serve an evolutionary purpose. The diagram lists the eight primary emotions and their age of appearance (Owens, 2010). It should be noted that jealousy may eventually be added to this list, as researchers have now identified it in infants as young as six months of age!

Graphic described in text.
Figure 7-2: Primary Emotions by Florida State College at Jacksonville is licensed under CC-BY 4.0 .

Secondary Emotions

Secondary emotions emerge between the first and second birthday. Secondary emotions are various combinations of the primary emotions and include a self-reflective aspect (i.e., it is a new feeling based upon a cognitive appraisal of the situation and current emotions). Instead of being universal, these emotions can be culture specific. Said another way, secondary emotions are not hardwired; instead, they are learned through our experiences in the world and with others. Two examples of secondary emotions are pride and shame.

In infancy, the child is experiencing emotions in the here and now. With cognitive and language development, a child becomes able to discuss emotions experienced in the past, and share anticipated emotions in the future. But this is not the only change we see in emotional experiences across childhood.

Children in the early part of the preoperational stage of cognitive development will assume that everyone experiences emotions the same way that they do. If a child likes to hold her teddy bear when sad, she will take the teddy bear to an older sibling that looks sad. As children develop a theory of mind (discussed in module four), they begin to understand that people experience emotions differently than they may. Also between early and middle childhood, we increasingly differentiate between emotions. For example, a young child may say he is afraid of getting a vaccination, while an older child may use the term, “terrified”. An understanding of the intensity of the emotional experience allows an older child to differentiate between fear and terror. Finally, older children realize that one event can create multiple, and sometimes conflicting, emotions. For example, facing an upcoming cross-country meet could cause both excitement and anxiety.

While it is widely believed that adolescents go through a period of emotional turmoil, that does not appear to be the case for the majority of teens. That said; hormonal changes can cause mood swings. Emotions can be intense, and with the frontal lobe still maturing (see module 3), teens may struggle in knowing how to cope with them in a healthy way. Parental guidance is key during this period. (1)

In summary, we are born emotional creatures. Our experiences of emotion are intertwined with our cognitive development, social relationships, and culture. From infancy through adolescence, we grow in understanding our emotions and the emotions of others.

Emotion Regulation Development

We have discussed emotions and their development; now, we must discuss the development of emotion regulation. What is emotion regulation? Emotion regulation is defined as the ability to “modify the nature, intensity or duration of emotions” (Martin & Ochsner, 2016, p. 142). The ability to regulate one’s emotions is critical for academic and relationship success. Parents are key in coaching children in learning to regulate their emotions. John Gottman identified four different parenting styles in terms of how parents teach children to regulate their emotions (Lisitsa, 2012).

Dismissing Parent

The first type of parenting style is referred to as an emotionally dismissing parent. This parent cannot effectively cope with negative emotions – their own or others. He or she will ignore, avoid, or even mock these emotions in his or her child. Instead of teaching the child how to cope with negative emotions, he/she just hopes that the emotions will go away or use distraction. This results in the child feeling as though negative emotions are wrong, that they cannot control their emotions, or that something is abnormal about them.

Disapproving Parent

The second type of parenting style is the emotionally disapproving parent (Lisitsa, 2012). This type of parent is very similar in mentality to the dismissing parent, with the difference being the degree or intensity of negativity. Disapproving parents are controlling, appear uninterested in the source and meaning of their children’s emotions, and are very critical of their children. Such constant judgment and harsh criticism by their parents over their emotional experiences can be crippling to children. Their outcomes are similar to children of dismissing parents.

Laissez-Faire Parent

The third type of parenting style is the emotionally Laissez-Faire parent (Lisitsa, 2012). While these parents are not negative when children experience negative emotions, they fail to provide any coaching on how to cope with negative emotions in a healthy way. They do not help children to understand emotions and fail to set boundaries for their children. This is not healthy for the children. Children of Laissez-Faire parents tend to struggle academically, in relationships, and in controlling their emotions.

Emotion Coach

The fourth, and final, parenting style is the emotion coach (Lisitsa, 2012). A parent who is an emotion coach listens to their children about their emotions, validates those emotions, and then helps the child identify healthy strategies for coping with their negative emotions. This parenting style allows a child to be success academically, in relationships, and in his/her ability to regulate emotions.

From birth, parents are helping infants regulate their emotions. We know that parents are critical in the development of emotion regulation. They can teach children various strategies to cope with an array of emotional situations. This is considered extrinsic emotional control , as a child is coached on how to self-sooth when sad or control oneself when angry. While parents continue to play this role throughout their children’s life, over time, much of this extrinsic emotional control becomes internalized . Children know how to control their anger or gracefully lose when the soccer game does not go their way. Brain development (especially the prefrontal cortex), cognitive development, and language development all play a role in the development of emotion regulation. There is also new evidence the regulation of negative and positive emotions may follow different developmental pathways (Campos, Frankel, & Camras, 2004; Martin & Ochsner, 2016; Woltering & Lews, 2009).

In summary, emotion regulation begins at birth and is largely extrinsic. Parents teach emotion regulation and being an emotion coach is the most successful and effective way to do so. Across childhood, this extrinsic emotion regulation becomes internalized. Finally, emotion regulation is key for academic and relationship success. (1)