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0196-206X/06/2702-0155

Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics Vol. 27, No. 2, April 2006


Copyright * 2006 by Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Inc. Printed in U.S.A.

Emotion Regulation in Children and Adolescents


JANICE ZEMAN, PH.D.
MICHAEL CASSANO, M.A.
CARISA PERRY-PARRISH, M.A.
SHERI STEGALL, PH.D.
Department of Psychology, University of Maine, Orono, ME

ABSTRACT. Within the past two decades, an ‘‘affect revolution’’ [Fischer and Tangney, Self-conscious
Emotions: The Psychology of Shame, Guilt, Embarrassment, and Pride 1995:3Y22] in research has
revolutionized the ways in which emotion processes have been conceptualized and subsequently studied.
This review discusses the literature on emotion regulation (ER) in childhood and adolescence by first
summarizing the trajectory of emotional development from infancy through adolescence, followed by a
discussion of the biological and environmental influences on ER, and then a review of the literature linking
ER to psychosocial functioning. The penultimate section offers practical suggestions for identifying ER
difficulties in children and strategies for intervention efforts. Potential areas for future research conclude the
review. J Dev Behav Pediatr 27:155 Y168, 2006. Index terms: emotion regulation, parental socialization,
psychosocial adaptation.

At his annual healthy child appointment, John, a 9-year- to the doctor. His emotional undercontrol has resulted in
old boy, is asked about his functioning at school. His mother poor peer relationships, difficulties with academic achieve-
comments that he has difficulty getting to school in the ment, and considerable behavioral control issues at home.
mornings because he is nervous about attending school. At Conversely, Jennifer has overcontrol issues with emotion
this disclosure of private information, John becomes very regulation (ER). She has learned very effective means of
agitated as evidenced by his pacing around the room. He dampening or extinguishing any signs of emotional
begins shouting at his mother to ‘‘shut up,’’ bursts into tears, expressivity so that she now has difficulties being aware
and storms out of the office. He subsequently refuses to of and identifying her emotional states, let alone commu-
return to the pediatrician’s office, and the visit is terminated. nicating them to others to get her needs met. This
Jessica, a 14-year-old girl, has had difficulty making the regulatory style has resulted in poor peer relations,
transition from middle school to high school. She feels decreasing school performance, physical symptoms, and
overwhelmed by the amount of class work and is struggling high levels of anxiety when confronted with the prospect
to manage her time effectively because of an extensive list of attending school each morning. If John and Jennifer
of extracurricular activities. As a result, she spends little continue to manage their emotions using maladaptive
time with her friends, is falling behind in her classes, and is strategies, their problems will persist, and they will
experiencing intense anxiety every morning before school. increasingly be at risk for developing more severe forms
In addition, she has recently missed several days of school of psychosocial maladjustment that will interfere with
because of waking up with headaches. Jessica has always attaining developmental milestones.
appeared to be ‘‘laid back’’ in that she rarely shows A central goal of parents and clinicians alike is the
negative emotion, always seems to be in control, and does achievement and maintenance of children’s physical and
not let little things bother her. She feels pride in being mental health. As will be described below, competent ER
perceived this way. As such, she has made a concerted effort is both a sign of and explanation for adaptive psychosocial
to deal with her problems on her own and not show that she functioning. Emotions provide individuals with invaluable
is stressed out to her parents or her friends. information about themselves, their environment, and their
Both of these children have at least one thing in relationship with the environment. The ability of a child to
common, namely, difficulties with regulating their emo- identify, understand, and integrate emotional information
tions in adaptive ways. John has tremendous difficulty while simultaneously managing his or her behavior in
controlling the intensity and expression of his embarrass- accord with his or her interpersonal (i.e., social) and
ment when personal information is revealed by his mother intrapersonal (i.e., personal) goals is the essence of ER.2
Considerable interest in ER processes in children has
developed during the past decade because of a spillover
effect of several trends within the ‘‘affect revolution.’’1,2
Address for reprints: Janice Zeman, Department of Psychology, PO Box
8795, College of William and Mary, Williamsburg, VA 23187-8795; First, emotion researchers are shifting their focus from
e-mail: jlzema@wm.edu. emphasizing the investigation of discrete emotion states

155

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156 ZEMAN ET AL JDBP/April, Vol. 27, No. 2

(e.g., distress, sadness, and anger) to examining the make ER one of the most robust and critical constructs in
features of ER (e.g., quality, intensity, and timing) that child development. Not surprisingly, it is this same
produce its unique meaning. Second, emphasis is now diversity of ER components that has made its definition a
being placed on the role of emotions in producing topic of controversy and complexity. A full discussion of
constructive and adaptive behaviors and outcomes in the variety of ways that ER has been defined is beyond the
addition to examining their disorganizing and destructive scope of this article; for a contemporary summary of
qualities.3 Relatedly, the importance of not confusing the current approaches to defining ER, see the recent special
valence of an emotion (i.e., positive versus negative edition of Child Development (March/April 2004).
emotions) with its regulatory processes has been noted.4 According to Thompson,2 ‘‘emotion regulation consists
Third, an appreciation for the role of socialization of the extrinsic and intrinsic processes responsible for
processes in the development of ER has been stressed monitoring, evaluating, and modifying emotional reac-
with the importance of considering social contextual tions, especially their intensive and temporal features, to
variables in the emergence of emotionally competent accomplish one’s goals’’ (pp. 27Y28). Despite the con-
behavior.5 Finally, the role of ER in individual differences troversy, Thompson’s definition continues to be widely
in social and personality functioning has become a source accepted and is particularly important for several reasons.
of interest to many emotion researchers. All of these trends First, it can account for evolutionary theories of emotion
in emotion development research have led to a growth in that help explain the general universality of many features
the field of ER processes. of emotional behavior (e.g., neurological substrates of
Previous reviews of ER have either primarily focused emotion and facial expressions) while simultaneously
on discussing the theoretical constructs and issues that allowing for cultural flexibility in determining methods
comprise ER or examined ER constructs in relation to of regulation that could be considered competent or
adult or childhood psychopathology.2,5Y10 This review, in adaptive. Second, ER is not exclusively effortful self-
contrast, is intended to provide a bridge between the management in that it can include external processes of
theoretical and empirical aspects of the field and applied regulation, such as when parents actively manage their
use of this knowledge, particularly for pediatricians and children’s emotional experiences to promote well-being or
other health care professionals who may encounter
children with ER difficulties in the primary care setting.
This review begins by defining an often confusing and
ambiguous term, namely, emotion regulation, followed Table 1. Components that Comprise the Emotion Regulation
by a brief overview of normative emotional development Process
from infancy through adolescence with particular atten- Emotion Components Emotion Regulation Processes
tion paid to gender differences. Next, biological and Internal components
environmental mechanisms of influence on the develop- Neurophysiological Vagal tone
ment of ER skills are considered. The latter half of HPA axis functioning
the review focuses on the outcomes associated with Prefrontal cortical processing
ER, including social competence and psychological Cortical inhibition
functioning. Finally, avenues for prevention and inter- Cognitive Management of attention
vention efforts are discussed, as well as directions for Change construals/encoding
future research. of emotion stimuli
Generate response options
Select regulatory strategy
DEFINING EMOTION REGULATION Subjective Identify/label subjective feeling
Maintain sense of control
The regulation of emotion involves the management and over intensity of feeling
organization of diverse systems and components, including Behavioral components
internal systems (i.e., neurophysiological, cognitive, and Facial expressions Modify facial expression
subjective evaluations), behavioral components (i.e., facial Mask/suppress facial expression
and behavioral actions), and external/social components Substitute alternate facial expression
(i.e., cultural values, social contextual significance, per- Actions Seek out external coping resources
sonal motivation/goals).2,11 See Table 1 for a more Change environmental demands
External/social components
complete list of these components. The skills needed to
Cultural significance Consider cultural meaning
manage these systems have their basis in neural and of regulated behavior
physiological substrates and emerge through continual Social significance Consider impact of regulation
interaction with the environment.5 At any point in time, strategies on social environment
children’s ability to regulate an emotion depends on Behavior of others Provide contingencies for
previous interactions with the social environment (e.g., emotional behavior
child-caregiver relationship, socialization processes, and Coach/discuss regulatory strategies
peer interactions) as well as the developmental status and Remove/manage environmental stimuli
organization of emotion systems.12,13 It is the diversity of Direct management
systems associated with emotion regulation (ER) and the (i.e., physical soothing)
myriad links between ER and outcomes of interest that HPA, hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenocortical.

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Emotion Regulation 157

to socialize appropriate behavior. Third, ER not only giver) to guide their reactions to novel aspects of an
involves the suppression or inhibition of emotional arousal environment or situation.19
but also includes processes that enhance or maintain
emotional states. Finally, Thompson’s definition concep-
tualizes ER as a multidimensional organization of several Toddlerhood
components and processes at varying levels of analysis, The development of self-conscious emotions (e.g.,
including neurophysiological, attentional, cognitive, shame, embarrassment, and pride) occurs during toddler-
behavioral, and social. In other words, a given emotion hood, with wide variations in expressivity of each emotion
can be regulated in several different ways; whether the end type observed across cultures.5 By the end of the toddler
result is considered adaptive or maladaptive depends on years, children have acquired an extensive emotion lexicon
the specific social demands of the situation. This final that they use to label their emotional experience with
point is critical in the practical application of research increasing ease and differentiation.20 The ability to use
findings in that it places the importance on identifying an language enables toddlers to self-regulate such that they
individual’s goals for a particular situation and evaluating can talk themselves through emotionally challenging
whether the goal itself and its achievement promotes situations or express their concerns to a person who can
emotional and social well-being.14 help regulate their mood state.

EMOTIONAL DEVELOPMENT TRAJECTORY Preschool to Early Elementary Age


When considering what develops in the emotion Children’s emotionally expressive behavior continues to
domain, it is essential to recognize that emotional develop- become more differentiated such that they are able to
ment is highly intertwined with advances in social, choose from an increasingly larger repertoire of behavioral
cognitive, and biological domains. For example, emo- strategies to manage their emotions specific to the
tional experience gains meaning from and provides demands of the social context.21,22 During this stage, an
meaning to social contexts and social experience. increase in understanding and use of display rules occurs.
Cognitive development exerts its influence on socioemo- Display rules are culturally defined rules that guide a
tional development by increasing cognitive sophistication person’s decision to alter emotional behavior consistent
that provides children with a greater understanding of with the demands of the social context.23,24 For example,
the causes, consequences, and general nature of socio- children are instructed from an early age to smile and say
emotional functioning. Biological development provides ‘‘thank you’’ when receiving a present, even if it happens
the substrate on which social-cognitive-emotion develop- to be an ugly sweater from grandma! This specific form of
ment occurs. emotion regulation implies the intentional separating of
one’s emotional experience and the facial, vocal, and/or
Infancy behavioral expression that is displayed. Display rule
strategies include the amplification of facial expression
According to differential emotions theory,15,16 infants in (e.g., exaggerate the pain to get sympathy), minimization
the first 3 months of life exhibit universal facial expres- of emotion (e.g., look mildly angry when actually feel
sions that are associated with the basic emotions of anger, furious), substitution of expression (e.g., ‘‘putting on a
fear, and joy, yet these emotions are not clearly linked to happy face’’ when feeling disappointed), and neutraliza-
specific events. Thus, during later infancy (i.e., 3Y12 tion of emotional expression (e.g., a poker face). 25
months) and toddlerhood (i.e., 1Y2 years), children’s Preschool children begin to understand that one’s
emotional development is primarily focused on developing expressed emotion does not necessarily need to match
differentiated emotional expressions that are connected to one’s subjective emotional experience.26
specific occurrences and language skills that assist them in
labeling these emotional states. Adults are primary agents
Middle Childhood
in helping infants and toddlers to regulate their emotional
displays, particularly frustration, through the use of Children’s understanding and use of display rules appear
soothing behaviors and reduction of exposure to emotion- to increase in frequency and facility with development
ally eliciting events. Anger often serves an adaptive such that fifth-grade children report using display rules
communicative function by alerting caregivers to an more than first-grade children.27 Display rule use is also
infant’s discomfort, such as the need to have a diaper influenced by social context with children reporting
changed or desire to be fed. As caregiver-infant attachment altering emotional expressions more frequently with
relationships begin to solidify around 7 months, infants fathers than mothers, and more with peers than
begin to express wariness and fear in the presence of an parents.21,27 Type of emotion also influences which
adult stranger.17 Socialization of emotional displays also emotions are dampened and which are expressed.
begins during this period,18 with parents responding Specifically, findings support a gender socialization of
differentially by gender to various emotional displays by emotion theory in Caucasian samples, with emphasis on
their infants. Normally developing infants engage in social male suppression of sadness displays and female inhibi-
referencing, by which infants use others’ emotional tion of anger expression because of the less positive
expressions (typically those displayed by a primary care- expectancies about receiving a supportive response for

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158 ZEMAN ET AL JDBP/April, Vol. 27, No. 2

these emotional displays. Interestingly, methods of to (1) the amygdala, (2) prefrontal cortex activation and
regulation differ as a function of gender with girls functioning, (3) the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenocortical
tending to use substitution of one emotional display for (HPA) system, and (4) vagal tone.33Y37 A brief summary of
another and boys tending to be more skilled at neutraliz- relevant findings concerning each component’s association
ing their emotional expressions.28 Children also recognize with ER will be presented.
that others’ emotional reactions to a situation may not The Amygdala. The amygdala has been dubbed ‘‘the
match their own and that others, too, may choose to alter emotional computer.’’35 Studies showing the effects of
their emotional expressions.5 lesions to the amygdala have found that animals with these
lesions have ‘‘lost’’ typical behaviors associated with fear
Adolescence of specific stimuli (e.g., fight-or-flight response). These
From middle childhood into adolescence (i.e., 12Y18 findings have supported the notion that the amygdala is
responsible for determining the motivational significance
years), children’s ability to regulate their emotions increases,
of a given stimuli and its reward value. Upon establishing
and ER decisions become more differentiated as a function
of motivation, emotion type, and social-contextual fac- emotional significance, information is sent via neural
pathways to lower brain structures involved in initiating
tors.23,27 Adolescents’ heightened awareness of the inter-
motor movement and the release of neurochemical agents.
personal consequences for a particular display of emotion
In addition, the amygdala also receives feedback from the
and changing social relationships with parents versus peers
prefrontal cortex that has further analyzed sensory infor-
influences their decisions to express certain emotions to
mation and either prompts continuation or inhibition of the
particular individuals.21,22,29Y31 For example, adolescents
initial signal. Thus, as an emotional computer, the
are more likely to express emotion when a supportive
amygdala plays a central role in the elicitation, monitoring,
reaction is expected.21,27 Interestingly, eighth-grade ado-
and cessation of emotional arousal through its effect on
lescents compared with other age groups report altering
physiological components of emotion and ability to learn
their emotional expressions more to their mothers than
other family members or peers.30 Finally, although social from experience.
In addition to the amygdala’s importance to individual
or self-conscious emotions such as shame and pride have
differences of normal emotional functioning, variations in
already emerged, these emotional experiences may increase
amygdala functioning have been found to have implica-
in intensity or frequency in adolescence given adolescents’
tions for the development of psychopathology. For
heightened sensitivity to the evaluations of others.32
example, functional magnetic resonance imaging studies
have shown that children with anxiety disorders have an
MECHANISMS OF INFLUENCE increased amygdala response to fearful faces compared
with healthy children.38 In contrast, depressed children
In contrast to the description of emotional develop-
exhibit amygdala responses that are consistently less
ment, research has begun to answer the question
concerning how ER develops. When examining mecha- intense than healthy children regardless of the valence of
the face. Overall, empirical findings suggest that the
nisms of influence, it is important to investigate the role
amygdala’s influence on the development of ER is through
of both biological and environmental factors. Within the
biological realm, several neurophysiological factors have the determination of emotional significance of both
internal and external stimulation.
been implicated as possible mechanisms of influence.
Prefrontal Cortex Activation. It has been well docu-
Within the environmental realm, research has indicated
mented that different patterns of activation asymmetry
that both parental and peer socializations are important
between the left and right hemispheres are associated with
determiners of ER as are the broader influences of culture
specific types of emotional experiences.39 Specifically,
and subculture.
greater left frontal activation, measured using the electro-
encephalogram, is associated with approach-related behav-
Biological
iors, the experience of positive mood, and the perception
Neurophysiological. The capacity to regulate emotional of positive emotions. In contrast, greater right frontal
arousal depends, in part, on the functioning of neural and asymmetry is associated with withdrawal behaviors and
physiological substrates related to physiological reactivity, the experience and perception of negative emotions and
autonomic regulation, behavioral inhibition, and self- may be indicative of a lower threshold for negative
management. That is, the development of the central emotion.40,41 As such, asymmetric electrical activity in
nervous system, autonomic nervous system, and associated the brain may form the basis for temperamental character-
physiological components plays an important role in istics predictive of behavioral inhibition and therefore
determining whether an emotion is elicited (i.e., reactivity contribute to our understanding of ER development.
thresholds, learned associations), what type of emotion is The Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenocortical System.
experienced, the intensity and duration of the affective The HPA system produces cortisol, a hormone that is
experience, and whether an individual can exert control involved in preparing an organism for responding to
over his or her emotional behaviors. Several neurophysio- physical and emotional challenges. When activated, the
logical constituents associated with ER have been identi- HPA system increases vigilance, alertness, and attention
fied by researchers in developmental psychology and and maximizes available energy for potential use during a
affective neuroscience. These include but are not limited stressful or novel situation.37 This response is regulated

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Emotion Regulation 159

through a feedback loop that is affected by the presence of age of the child, the nature of the relationship, and the
glucocorticoids (e.g., cortisol). Regarding its link to ER, demands of the specific social context. The following
theorists have posited that cortisol levels change in section highlights research and theory that have inves-
response to an individual’s perceived ability to control or tigated the ways or mechanisms that parents use to
regulate affective responses.37,42 Therefore, as cortisol socialize their children’s emotional behavior. Little
levels can be measured by taking small samples of saliva, research has examined peer mechanisms of influence, thus
the HPA system offers researchers a convenient index of research examining the effect of ER on social functioning
individual differences in ER. is covered later in this review under the Outcomes of
Research has begun to explore the relations of cortisol and Emotion Regulation.
emotional behavior with findings indicating that many ER Parental Socialization. Denham54 describes ER as ‘‘the
behaviors and strategies influence HPA activity. For exam- intersection of expressiveness, understanding, and social-
ple, reductions in the HPA stress response have been ization’’ (p. 165). Perhaps the most important emotion
associated with developmental increases in children’s knowl- socializing agents, particularly early in life, are parents.
edge of emotion control,43 the opportunity to engage in self- Research has indicated that parents socialize their child-
soothing behaviors,44 and the presence of social support.45 ren’s ER directly (e.g., didactic instruction) as well as
In addition, patterns of HPA activity have been linked to through at least three more indirect methods including
internalizing and externalizing symptoms in children and modeling emotional behavior, providing contingencies for
adults. Specifically, depressed individuals have been shown behavior, and discussing emotion-related topics.5 As a
to exhibit elevated basal cortisol levels as well as failure to result of these mechanisms of socialization, children learn
suppress HPA activity.46,47 In contrast, individuals with valuable information about the experience and adaptive
externalizing behavior problems typically do not exhibit an expression of emotions in social contexts.
increase in cortisol levels in response to novel social Figure 1 presents a theoretical depiction of the transac-
situations, suggesting that these individuals may lack an tional nature of parental emotion socialization. This model
internal signal that regulation is warranted by the social describes the relationship between emotion, its regulation,
environment.48,49 Although these types of studies are in and resulting behavior. In the context of parental social-
their relative infancy, the HPA system appears to be a ization, these constructs are intimately related, especially
useful index of ER processes and development. during situations in which the emotions of the child and the
Central Nervous System and Autonomic Nervous System parents are intense. For example, imagine a socially
Functioning. Another promising index of central nervous inhibited child who experiences high levels of anxiety in
system and autonomic nervous system functioning related the morning before giving an oral book report. As a means
to emotional behavior is heart rate variability. In a construct of regulating or decreasing this anxiety, the child refuses to
developed by Porges,36 vagal tone is essentially a measure go to school and stays in his or her bedroom with the door
of the balance between sympathetic and parasympathetic locked. If this has been a persistent pattern of behavior for
cardiac activation controlled via the vagal nerve. Research the child, the parents may feel frustrated on these mornings.
has shown that vagal tone can be (a) an index of emotional Depending on their ability to regulate their feelings of
reactivity when comparing individual differences in base- frustration, this child’s parents may handle this situation in a
line measurement,50 and (b) a measurement of the capacity variety of ways. Parents with competent regulation skills
to regulate emotional behavior via cardiac output and the may be more likely to provide warmth, support, and
management of attentional faculties when confronted with guidance to their child. In contrast, parents who are unable
an environmental challenge.51 In addition, vagal tone has to manage their frustration may react more impulsively and
been found to be a predictor of social withdrawal, harshly, thereby increasing the level of anxiety experienced
depression, aggression, and sleep problems52 as well as by the child in the present and during similar situations in
academic achievement and peer relations.53 the future. These transactions are likely to occur frequently
In sum, individual differences in neurophysiological throughout childhood, exerting a profound influence on a
substrates associated with emotional experience and child’s developing ability to manage emotion.
behavior are related to variability in many facets of With respect to the indirect socialization methods,
emotional experience. It should be noted that the inherent parents model emotional behavior, for better or for worse.
plasticity of the biological bases of emotional phenomena, Parents provide children with rich sources of information
especially from infancy through middle childhood, allows about the emotional world through their own expression of
for considerable influence from the environment (e.g., affect. Barrett and Campos3 hypothesized four ways that
caregivers’ socialization behaviors) and should not be children’s emotional competence is influenced by parental
considered to be static determinants of ER. emotion expressivity. First, parents unconsciously high-
light the emotional significance of events through their
reactions (e.g., social referencing). Second, parents model
Environmental
the verbal, facial, and behavioral display of specific
Parents and peers are thought to exert important social- emotions. Third, parents show children common behaviors
izing influences on children’s emotional expressivity.5 The or action tendencies associated with emotion coping.
degree to which children are influenced by their parents’ Fourth, parents expose their children to an overall affective
and peers’ (including siblings’) responses to their emo- environment that provides children with a unique emo-
tional behavior will depend on many factors such as the tional history.

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160 ZEMAN ET AL JDBP/April, Vol. 27, No. 2

FIGURE 1. Hypothetical model of the transactional nature of parental socialization of emotion regulation.

These proposed pathways have stimulated research tional behavior through reinforcement or punishment. Not
that has examined the influence of family factors such surprisingly, parents who are generally warm, responsive,
as overall positive and negative expressivity, conflict, and accepting of their children’s emotions have children
and parental psychopathology on children’s emotional who are well regulated. On the other hand, parents who
development. For example, excessive parental negative minimize or punish children’s emotional displays have
emotion has a punishing and dysregulating effect on children who are less likely to discuss their emotions or
young children’s emotional functioning.55 In contrast, seek out an adult or peer for help during emotion-
families who express more positive affect have children provoking situations.56 These children appear to have
who are generally happy and display less dysregulated learned that there are negative consequences for asking
anger with their peers. Lest an oversimplified picture of for help in alleviating negative emotional states. In
parental emotion socialization is painted, it bears repeating contrast, parents who report using either problem-focused
that not all positive emotional expressivity is necessarily (i.e., encourage constructive action) or emotion-focused
‘‘good,’’ just as not all negative emotional expressivity is (i.e., use of internal strategies of ER) responses to their
necessarily ‘‘bad.’’14 Rather, it is the goodness of fit children’s negative emotions have children who display
among the valence of the emotional expression (i.e., low-intensity anger, use verbal objection as a means of
positive and negative), the characteristics of the child coping with anger, and exhibit adaptive coping. Significant
involved in the interaction (e.g., age and gender), and the gender effects have also been reported, with boys being
nature of the social interaction (e.g., public, private, home, especially vulnerable to punitive socialization.57 Finally, it
and school) that provide an optimal emotion socialization is likely that many parents strive to comfort, nurture, and
environment. For example, consider a boy who expresses provide warmth and acceptance to their children during
glee when a peer embarrasses himself during a speech emotional episodes. When they are confronted with their
contest at school. Upon receiving feedback from a teacher children’s negative emotionality, however, parents’ abili-
about the negative effect his glee has had on the peer’s ties to cope with their own emotional arousal are of
self-image, the boy may learn to modify his positive central relevance to the effects of implementing effective
emotional response in a future similar experience. In contingencies.
contrast, consider a situation in which a family experiences Third, parental frequency and content of parent-child
a death of a family member. The expression of a negative emotion talk is related to many aspects of ER including a
emotion such as sadness by the parents in this situation child’s ability to identify emotions,58,59 acquire culturally
would be appropriate and would potentially provide a good appropriate display rules for expression,60 and regulate
model for the regulation of sadness. Conversely, if the negative affect.57 Examination of parent-child emotion
parents expressed either a positive or neutral emotional talk has identified gender differences,61Y63 implying a
reaction in response to the death, it would deny the child process by which differential display rules and normative
an important opportunity to learn adaptive ER skills and emotional behavior is socialized. Specifically, parents talk
distort the experience of this emotionally provocative about emotions more frequently and use more emotion
situation. words during conversations with daughters than with
Second, parents provide contingencies for their child- sons,61 and parents talk more frequently about anger with
ren’s emotion management, thereby shaping future emo- sons and discussed sadness more frequently with their

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Emotion Regulation 161

daughters.63 These researchers have concluded that, Related research has also examined the nature of
through discussions of emotion, girls learn to view emotional interactions and conflicts between close friends
emotions as something to share with others, whereas boys and identified links between conflict management strate-
learn to express emotion in externalized ways rather than gies and dimensions of friendship (i.e., number of friends,
to talk about their feelings. friendship quality, maintaining friendships).74,75 Specifi-
Parents also socialize children’s ER during conversations cally, children who reported using more retaliating,
that occur when their child is experiencing an emotion. verbally aggressive, and/or friendship-terminating strate-
Gottman et al64 describe parents as either emotion coach- gies had fewer friendships and/or friendships with higher
ing or emotion dismissing. Emotion-coaching parents are levels of conflict. In contrast, children who reported using
more aware of their child’s emotions, help their child compromising strategies had more friends. Overall, these
to label feelings verbally, believe that the experience of findings suggest that children who are able to maintain a
negative affect is healthy, and problem solve with balance between their emotional behavior and their inter-
their child to find the most constructive way to manage personal goals during conflict with peers tend to have
an emotional situation. On the other hand, emotion- healthier friendships.
dismissing parents are less aware of their child’s emotions, Contributions of ER to a child’s ability to develop and
lack a detailed language for emotions, believe that being in maintain peer relationships depend on more stable charac-
a negative affective state is harmful, and attempt to alter teristics typically associated with temperament such as
their child’s emotion themselves rather than using the overall emotionality and propensity to engage in inter-
opportunity to teach emotion management skills. actions with peers. Research has found that children who
frequently approach peers and engage in play activities but
are poor emotion regulators are rated by their parents as
OUTCOMES OF EMOTION REGULATION having externalizing problems.76 In contrast, children who
are low in social interaction (typically considered socially
As mentioned previously, the importance of studying ER
withdrawn) but are good emotion regulators are not rated
skills is in relation to their impact on psychosocial adjust-
by parents as having socioemotional difficulties. In a
ment. That is, the biological components and/or the
related study, high levels of prosocial behavior were
environmental influences (e.g., socialization) that determine
associated with low anger reactivity and with high
the quality of ER skills are considered to be core issues that
regulation of fear and anger.77 Furthermore, the ways in
underlie the development and maintenance of psychopa-
which children alter their emotional expressivity appear to
thology, in general.6,65 One of the many pathways to
be linked to gender norms of expression.28 Boys’ abilities
behavioral maladjustment appears to be through dysregu-
to neutralize negative emotional expressions predicted
lated emotion processes in which children learn and use
peer acceptance by other boys and girls, whereas girls’
ER in ways that are ineffective and place them at risk for
abilities to substitute a positive emotion for a negative one
subsequent adaptational failures in their social environ-
predicted their social acceptance by other girls, but not
ments.66,67 The following section reviews literature exam-
boys. Overall, components of emotional competence are
ining two areas believed to be centrally connected to ER:
highly associated, likely in a bidirectional relationship,
social competence and psychological functioning.
with broad indices of social functioning from early to
middle childhood.
Social Competence
Psychopathology
The ability to manage the expression of emotions is
critical to the development and maintenance of relation- Poor ER skills have been hypothesized to be implicated
ships with others.5,68 Forming relationships with peers is in most forms of childhood psychopathology.6,78 Bradley’s
a central developmental task in early childhood. Failure model6 posits that an individual may have a general
to do so results in a multitude of negative outcomes in vulnerability to experiencing high levels of arousal that is
adolescence and adulthood including delinquency, school either biological in nature (e.g., behavioral inhibition) or
dropout, and depression.69,70 One of the important learned (e.g., trauma and loss). Under conditions of stress,
aspects of competent social functioning is an individu- this vulnerability to experience events with high emotional
al’s ability to label and manage different emotions as arousal interferes with attempts to regulate the reactivity in
well as correctly identify the emotions of others and adaptive ways and results in maladaptive coping efforts
anticipate their response to emotional displays.22,27 Not and, eventually, psychopathology. Negative emotion is
surprisingly, the application of culturally appropriate typically experienced with greater levels of arousal than
display rules has been associated with higher teacher and positive affect, which explains the preponderance of
peer ratings of social competence in middle child- negative emotion as a key component of psychological
hood,71,72 whereas low emotion knowledge predicted maladjustment. Among efforts to regulate high emotional
concurrent teacher-reported social problems and with- intensity, individuals may resort to overcontrolling the
drawal.73 Thus, elucidating the role of affect management intensity, which may lead to internalizing disorders, or
in developing peer relationships and demonstrating social they may have difficulties in emotion control, which can
competence is central to understanding children’s socio- lead to the presence of externalizing disorders.65 Despite
emotional well-being. the conceptual basis for the role of emotion in childhood

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162 ZEMAN ET AL JDBP/April, Vol. 27, No. 2

psychopathology, only recently has research begun to hallmarks of individuals who engage in the binge-eating
examine the specific correlates and mechanisms of ER process.85Y87 Recently, affect regulation models have been
and psychological maladjustment. proposed to explain the development and maintenance of
Children with psychological difficulties along the binge eating.88,89 The term, emotion dysregulation, how-
internalizing spectrum (e.g., depression, anxiety, and ever, has been defined in relation to the general constructs
somatic complaints) appear to have a pattern of ER deficits of depressive symptoms or negative affect rather than to
that are unique from those exhibited by children with the more specific constructs that underlie the emotion
externalizing types of difficulties. Specifically, children regulatory process. Recent research has begun to examine
with externalizing problems have been found to be more more specific components of ER that may be fundamental
likely to express anger, be impulsive, and not regulate their to bulimia nervosa. For example, compared with girls with
emotional behavior than children with internalizing prob- major depression or to girls without a psychiatric diag-
lems who are more likely to experience sadness and nosis, adolescent girls with bulimia nervosa had poorer
exhibit lower attentional regulation.79 Furthermore, poor emotional awareness, a greater reluctance to express
emotional self-awareness, inhibition of anger, inappropri- emotion, inferior interoceptive awareness (i.e., the ability
ate expression of anger and sadness, and maladaptive to recognize physiological sensations), and longer response
coping with anger were predictive of higher levels of latencies when accessing information regarding emotional
depressive and anxious symptoms.80 In contrast, only the states and had an impoverished emotion language
variables of poor anger coping and sadness inhibition lexicon.84
predicted externalizing aggressive behaviors. Externalizing Disorders. Less research has examined
Emotion expression, appraisal, and regulation were the role of specific components of ER skill deficit in
examined in children diagnosed with oppositional defiant children with externalizing types of behavior problems. In
disorder (ODD), attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder a study of preschool children,90 boys at high risk for behav-
(ADHD), or major depressive disorder (MDD).81 Children ioral problems exhibited more negative emotional behav-
with ADHD were the most facially emotionally expres- ior, including anger expression and disruptive behaviors,
sive, children with ODD were the most verbally emotion- compared with control boys. The high-risk sample of girls,
ally expressive, and children with MDD were the least who were primarily diagnosed with ADHD, responded to
emotionally expressive regardless of expressive modality. the negative emotional event with a flattening of emotional
Interestingly, when examining the effects of negative emo- expression. Parent and teacher ratings of emotionality and
tional contagion, children with ODD became increasingly regulation indicated that overall negative emotionality,
negative, whereas the children with ADHD and MDD be- poor regulation, and high emotional intensity predicted
came increasingly positive in their emotional expressivity behavior problems.91 When observed in a frustrating
indicating a degree of ER effort. These results are note- situation, 6- to 11-year-old boys diagnosed with ADHD
worthy because they indicate a specificity of ER deficits were found to have poorer ER skills than comparison
that varies as a function of diagnostic category, although boys even when they were instructed to alter their
the direction of effects cannot be determined by the design. emotional expressions.92 Further highlighting the differ-
Internalizing Disorders. A growing body of research has ences between aggressive and nonaggressive children’s
begun to examine the presence of specific ER skills in ER, peer-rejected, aggressive African-American children
individual childhood psychological disorders. With respect have been found to express more facial and verbal anger
to internalizing disorders, research has indicated that a than average social status children.93 The aggressive
variety of emotional competence deficits (e.g., impover- children also expressed more happiness than controls but
ished emotional awareness, poor emotional understanding, only in game conditions that were advantageous for them,
and dysregulated emotional expression) is present in thus indicating the need for regulation of positive emotion
samples of children with depressive symptoms,82 anxiety in certain situations as well as negative ER.
disorders, 10,83 and bulimia nervosa. 84 Specifically, In summary, it appears that different types of ER deficits
depressed children reported using different and more characterize children with internalizing versus externaliz-
maladaptive strategies for regulating their negative emo- ing psychological difficulties. Specifically, compared with
tions than did their nondepressed counterparts and indi- children with no psychological disorders, children with
cated having lower self-efficacy in their ER abilities.82 depression, anxiety, or bulimia nervosa tend to display
Children diagnosed with a variety of anxiety disorders poor emotional awareness and emotion understanding, low
were found to have lower levels of emotional under- self-efficacy regarding their ability to regulate their
standing than controls10 and difficulty regulating their emotions, an impoverished emotion vocabulary, difficul-
worried, sad, and angry experiences, which was presum- ties expressing and coping with anger experience, and
ably related to their low self-efficacy concerning their ER inappropriate expression of sadness. In contrast, individu-
abilities.83 Mothers of anxious children also viewed their als diagnosed with an externalizing disorder when com-
children as more emotionally dysregulated than did pared with controls tend to exhibit difficulties with the
mothers of nonanxious children.83 undercontrol of emotional arousal such that they appear to
The presence of negative emotional states, a preponder- experience events with high emotional intensity, have poor
ance of affective lability or emotion dysregulation, and anger inhibitory skills, overcontrol the expression of
high levels of alexithymia (i.e., the inability to identify and sadness, produce more facial expressions of anger, and
verbally communicate emotional states) are considered the are highly influenced by others’ emotional reactions.

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Emotion Regulation 163

IMPLICATIONS FOR CLINICAL concern, given that the expression of negative


INTERVENTION EFFORTS emotions in constructive ways is deemed to be
adaptive.5,100
The role of ER in psychological treatments of child-
3. If a child’s emotional style (e.g., overly emotionally
hood disorders has largely been ignored or has not been
reactive to minor precipitants; an unresponsive
explicitly stated as being a central treatment goal. To
‘‘bland’’ presentation; emotional response is incon-
date, only two prevention programs with an explicit focus
gruent with the situation) appears to be impeding his
on emotionally competent behavior have been developed
or her ability to initiate or maintain friendships,66,101
in addition to the conceptual framework of Izard94 for
then social skills training with an emphasis on ER
incorporating emotion concepts into prevention programs.
skills may be appropriate.102Y105 It may be that the
An interesting program developed in Canada, the ‘‘Roots
of Empathy,’’95 has used normative emotional develop- child needs help with decoding others’ emotions or
understanding the causes and consequences of emo-
ment research to help formulate a school-based prevention
tional responses.
program for children in kindergarten through grade 8,
which focuses on teaching emotion understanding and ER 4. Should a child respond repeatedly with anger and
aggression toward family members or peers, teach-
skills as well as two dimensions of empathy (i.e., empathic
ing the child appropriate ways of managing anger
concern and perspective taking). This program emphasizes
would be critical. Oftentimes, the focus in these
the link between emotional and social competence and has
situations is on controlling or correcting the overt
as one of its primary goals a reduction in aggression and
negative behavior without considering the under-
antisocial behavior. A similar program in the United
lying skill deficit that may have contributed to the
States, the PATHS curriculum,96 also focuses on teaching
acting out behaviors.104,105 For example, a child may
preschool and early elementary-schoolYage children emo-
generally have a low frustration tolerance that is
tion competence skills to prevent disruptive behavior
coupled with poor anger communication methods
problems. These programs have shown their effectiveness
and have made a positive impact on emotional under- which results in oppositional and defiant behavior. It
may be that the child needs to be taught how to
standing and ER skill development. These exemplary
recognize the signs of an impending ‘‘melt-down’’
programs illuminate the ways in which basic emotion
before it escalates and learn ways of expressing
research can guide intervention efforts.
frustration verbally rather than through acting out
behaviors. In this case, treating only the oppositional
Potential Emotion Regulation Problem Areas behavior ignores part of the solution to the problem. It
Perhaps of central importance is for parents, teachers, may be that the child has not learned the skills to
and pediatricians to be alert to signs that a child may be recognize and then verbalize the growing feelings of
experiencing difficulty regulating their emotions in con- frustration.
structive and adaptive ways. Although there is no printed 5. Family emotional climate is an important indicator
material outlining the ‘‘top 10 warning signs,’’ there are of a child’s ability to effectively regulate his or her
some behaviors that could indicate potential problem emotions. Ideally, parents should be ‘‘emotion
areas. The first three recommendations concern individuals coaches’’ who are able to help the child identify,
who are identified as being at risk for ER difficulties, understand, and manage his or her emotions in
whereas the fourth recommendation is most appropriate response to the environment.64,99 However, in some
for children already identified with externalizing behav- families, little discussion about the labeling of
ioral problems. The fifth recommendation falls with the emotion, the causes and consequences of emotion,
realms of anticipatory guidance or preventative care that and coping with emotional arousal ensues with the
can apply to all families. result that children have difficulty identifying their
emotions, let alone expressing them in adaptive
1. Some children are born with a temperamental incli- ways.106 Pediatricians may be able to model emotion
nation toward behavioral inhibition (e.g., shyness),97 a talk by labeling emotional experiences that may arise
heightened reactivity toward environmental stimuli, or in the course of an office visit (e.g., some children feel
a general irritable mood (e.g., infants who seemingly a little worried when they think that they have to have
are ‘‘born angry at the world’’).98 Parents and a shot) and also observing how parents help to calm
pediatricians would do well to identify these proclivi- their child if he or she is upset about an impending
ties toward a certain style of ER early in life, so that procedure. When parents are unable to help their
parents can then help the child to gradually and children with ER difficulties, then more formal
sensitively adjust his or her responses to environ- psychological treatment should be sought.
mental demands. If the problems appear to interfere
with social or academic functioning, then professional
treatment should be sought for the child, which
includes a parental coaching component.64,99 ER Components in Psychological Treatment
2. Should a child continually respond to emotionally Approaches
provocative events with a ‘‘poker face’’ or otherwise Child Involvement. With respect to incorporating emo-
unresponsive behavior, this also could be a source of tion competence constructs, particularly ER, into current

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164 ZEMAN ET AL JDBP/April, Vol. 27, No. 2

child therapy approaches96,97,107 or developing new child such as depicted in the John and Jessica vignettes in the
psychological treatments, having both a child and a introductory paragraphs, it is important to determine if (a)
parent component would be optimal. For children, one parents have consciously or inadvertently socialized their
of the basic skills necessary for later successful ER child to behave in dysregulated ways, (b) they are
efforts is the ability to be aware of one’s own emotional maintaining that behavior by their responses to the
states and those of others (i.e., encoding and decoding behavior, and (c) whether their socializing practices can
skills).5 Without being cognizant of emotional arousal, it is help to alter the maladaptive behaviors. Thus, within the
very difficult to implement other steps in developing an clinical setting, parents can be taught to encourage their
adaptive response to emotional experience. Developing a children’s emotional development by providing a suppor-
vocabulary of clearly differentiated emotion words to tive social structure in which children can learn and
describe these experiences is also necessary, and this practice ER skills.
knowledge appears to develop in concert with emotional Parents are instrumental in setting the family emo-
awareness skills5 and with increases in cognitive and tional climate. For example, if expectations are commu-
social development.108Y110 nicated to the child by the parents that emotional
With respect to helping a child develop ER skills, a expressivity is viewed negatively, the child may learn
variety of child-friendly techniques could be incorporated maladaptive ways of coping with negative emotional
into psychological treatment such as practicing the many experience that may place him or her at risk for
different methods of altering emotional expression (e.g., developing psychological problems. 67,106 Clinical
substituting, neutralizing, and exaggerating) in session or research has paid little attention to parents’ own ER
in a group setting with the help of a video camera. The abilities and the effect that their emotionality has on
child can then practice these regulation methods with their children. Parents need to develop an awareness of
supportive family members and friends before generalizing their own emotional and the consequent behavioral
this skill set to the larger community. Brainstorming about responses to their child’s negative emotionality and eval-
occasions when different types of ER strategies would be uate the constructiveness of their methods. For example,
appropriate and discussing the likely outcomes of using the coercive cycle by Patterson113 has described how
different ER methods could help children form the link the interaction between children’s disruptive behavior
between their emotional behavior and social outcomes. For and parents’ harsh and/or ineffective contingencies for
example, overlearning certain appropriate ER responses behavior serves to perpetuate future problematic behav-
(e.g., display rules) may help the impulsive child to ior by the child and increases the likelihood that parents
monitor his or her initial, perhaps socially inappropriate, will continue to use these problematic strategies. Treat-
response to a common situation such as receiving a ment programs would do well to teach parents to be
disappointing present. emotion coaches rather than emotion dismissers.64 A
Finally, an important aspect of learning ER skills is recently published book by John Gottman, Raising an
the recognition and understanding of the important link Emotionally Intelligent Child, is a very readable and
between one’s personal goals (e.g., wanting a toy but helpful guide on how to become an emotion-coaching
receiving a sweater from grandma), the demands of the parent.99
social context (e.g., behaving politely to not hurt grand- Social Context Variables. There is an important issue to
ma’s feelings), and the role of ER (e.g., substituting a consider when developing ‘‘optimal’’ emotion develop-
positive emotion to replace the feeling of disappoint- ment intervention programs or including an emotion
ment) in mediating or moderating this relationship. component in a treatment program; namely, emotion
Having a child experience a negative emotion and then processes generally occur within a social context. What
make a decision about how best to respond to the might be considered healthy appropriate emotional behav-
emotion will provide the child with a skill set that he or ior in most contexts may actually place a child who lives
she can use whenever strong emotional experiences are in an atypical context (e.g., maltreating environment) at
encountered. Cognitive-behavioral approaches to child- risk for negative outcomes.114 For example, a child in a
hood anxiety111,112 are now beginning to incorporate physically maltreating context may have learned that it is
components of ER coping into their programs by having maladaptive to express one’s anger when feeling frus-
children face their feared situation until the anxiety levels trated within the family context. Instead, in this specific
abate. Thus, in effect, the child is learning different ER context, the adaptive behavior may be to neutralize
strategies to cope with intense emotional arousal rather expressions of anger to diffuse the situation or not be
than trying to avoid or escape an emotionally overwhelm- noticed. Thus, it is important to recognize that, for ER
ing event. skills to be considered adaptive, they must be used in
Parental Involvement. Another key aspect when devel- flexible fluid ways that correspond to the needs of the
oping an emotion component in a psychological treat- specific social context.
ment package for internalizing and externalizing
disorders is the incorporation of extensive parental
involvement. It is clear that parents exert a strong
FUTURE RESEARCH DIRECTIONS
socializing influence on their children’s emotional behav-
ior and do so using a variety of methods.5,56Y64 Thus, Recent reconceptualizations of the role of emotion in
when a child exhibits dysregulated emotional behavior development have resulted in an impressive growth of

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Emotion Regulation 165

research findings regarding ER in childhood, but there tions.120 As mentioned previously, two prevention
remain many important unanswered questions and programs have shown some success in positively
domains of inquiry. influencing children’s emotional development by
including positive emotions into their curriculum: the
1. With respect to normative development, emphases in PATHS curriculum96 and the Roots to Empathy
empirical efforts have typically highlighted emotional program in Canada.95
development in infancy and the preschool years while 5. Although the findings reviewed provide preliminary
neglecting to investigate the growth of emotion evidence for the critical role that emotional function-
processes in elementary-schoolYage children and
ing plays in childhood psychopathology, considerably
adolescents.
more research is needed to understand the etiology,
2. Concerning emotion socialization processes, the role
mechanisms, and processes by which ER and other
of nonmaternal figures on children’s development of
emotion processes assist in the development, main-
ER has yet to be examined. The role of fathers in
tenance, or exacerbation of childhood psychosocial
emotion socialization has begun to receive some
maladaptation. Research should strive to describe the
preliminary empirical attention but still remains an
understudied area. Depending on family structure, various pathways in which ER is implicated in poor
nonmaternal family members such as siblings and patterns of adaptation. Research that has examined the
grandparents may also exert an influence on children’s role of ER in outcomes associated with childhood
development of ER skills. Nonfamilial adults, such as maltreatment121Y123 provides a useful template for
teachers and coaches, may play a complementary role other research efforts because this research highlights
to family figures in emotion socialization, particularly the importance of examining normal and abnormal
for children whose families may be disrupted in some development in concert to clearly delineate the effects
way (e.g., divorce and foster care). of an atypical developmental experience on basic
3. It is important to examine the function of individual developmental processes.
emotions rather than only assessing global negative 6. Underlying all future research endeavors is the limi-
emotionality versus positive emotionality because the tation imposed by the relatively scant number of
examination of specific emotions can provide more validated assessment tools. Many of the research
precise information about the types of emotion that can findings are difficult to interpret and generalize because
cause disruption for an individual.3 Furthermore, the of the poor reliability and validity of the assessment
selection of a coping strategy to alleviate negative instruments. Although formal assessment of emotional
emotional states will vary, depending on the type of competence skills is more developed than the actual use
emotion experienced (e.g., counting to 10 when angry of emotion components in psychological interventions,
but not when sad). Although there is a substantial a more comprehensive battery of assessment tools is
research base examining anger,115 less research has needed. To date, only a handful of self-report ques-
explored sadness, guilt, and shame, and other discrete tionnaires exist that have been validated to assess
emotions have received little, if any, empirical attention. specific aspects of children’s emotional competence
4. In the adult literature, there has been a burgeoning (e.g., Kusche Affective InterviewVRevised,124 Differ-
interest in positive psychology116,117 with a related ential Emotions Scale,125 Emotional Expressivity Scale
perspective beginning to receive attention in the for Children,126 Emotion Regulation Checklist,127 How
adolescent literature (i.e., positive youth develop- I Feel,128 and Children’s Emotion Management
ment).118,119 Positive psychology refers to the empha- Scales129). Most of these measures have been normed
sis on delineating individuals’ strengths rather than on nonclinical populations, however, thus rendering
focusing on their weaknesses and investigates the clinical implications purely a speculative endeavor.
effects of such concepts as optimism, wisdom, and The one exception to this is the Kusche Affective
flow on mental and physical health.116,117 Although InterviewVRevised, which was developed to monitor
the study of children’s positive emotional functioning the treatment effects of the PATHS curriculum and, as
has been neglected, it is likely that much valuable such, was used with atypical populations.124 Although
information could come from researching how these numerous ER interviews and observation paradigms
processes influence not only normative development have been created, their focus has been on specific
but maladaptive socioemotional functioning as well. research questions, which makes their generalizability
Such study would likely include the assessment of the to clinical settings somewhat tenuous. Despite these
different positive emotional states (e.g., pride and limitations, it is still important to document or assess
happiness) and their relationship to physical and the child’s level of emotion skills development both
psychosocial health outcomes. For example, one study before and after treatment. Furthermore, the develop-
found that children who reported managing both ment of intervention programs with respect to program
positive and negative emotions in socially acceptable evaluation efforts will need to rely on adequate assess-
ways (e.g., masking happiness when a friend is sad or ment procedures.
disappointed) were rated as more socially competent 7. Last, but not least, is the need to translate basic
by peers and teachers, suggesting that adaptive ER research findings into prevention and intervention
must encompass both positive and negative emo- programs within clinical, school, and family settings.

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166 ZEMAN ET AL JDBP/April, Vol. 27, No. 2

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