Emergent emotion regulation: identifying early sociocontextual and physiological correlates in preschool children
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Emotion regulation refers to processes of modifying emotional reactions and is critical to adaptive functioning. Early childhood is a crucial time to study emotion regulation because of the rapid development of cognitive and socio-emotional skills, yet few studies have systematically examined factors related to emergent emotion regulatory capacities in preschool children. The aims of this project were to explore (1) socio-contextual correlates of emotion regulation in three-year-old children, (2) the extent to which preschoolers can modulate emotional expression on command, and (3) emotion regulation as a protective factor for children’s chronic physiological stress levels. In Study 1 (90 parent-child dyads), I expected that emergent emotion regulation would relate to more supportive home environments and to higher social competence. As hypothesized, children whose parents used more adaptive emotion regulation strategies and who grew up in higher income, less chaotic households had better emotion regulation. Better emergent emotion regulation was associated with better socio-emotional functioning. Study 2 (61 children) explored the capacity of preschool children to intentionally up- and down-regulate emotional expression on command, in order to understand at what point in development they can utilize specific regulatory strategies. When instructed, preschoolers could enhance emotions, but were unable to intentionally suppress emotions. Children who showed fewer spontaneous negative expressions, and were better at enhancing positive expressions, adaptively modulated their emotions when disappointed. Study 3 (86 parent-child dyads) examined the extent to which emotion regulation and reactivity served as protective factors in the context of sociocontextual stressors, buffering children from elevations in chronic physiological stress, as indexed by hair cortisol concentration (HCC). As hypothesized, emotion regulation moderated the relationship between parent and child HCC, suggesting that emotion regulation buffered the transgenerational effects of chronic physiological stress. Finally, children’s negative emotionality moderated the relationship between socioeconomic status and child HCC, indicating that being less emotionally reactive protected preschoolers from increased chronic physiological stress when exposed to sociocontextual risk factors. Together, the results supported the hypotheses that environmental influences contributed to individual differences in emergent emotion regulation and that early in development, emotion regulation was a meaningful index of preschool children’s behavioral and physiological functioning.