Nurturing the Seed of Infinite Potentialities in Every Child
How Regulating Emotions Can
Lead to a Kinder
By Dr. Melis Yavuz-Müren
What is emotion regulation? How might it help to create a kinder society? This article provides insights on our research on emotion regulation and explains how it helps with becoming more helpful and considerate towards others. wand explains how it helps with becoming more helpful and considerate towards others.
My 6-year-old son had his birthday party last month. He was very happy to play with his friends and, of course, excited to open presents. One by one, he happily opened his gifts until he got to one present in a cheerful yellow paper gift bag, blue and white striped tissue paper sticking out from the top. That present turned out to be a toy that he already had. I immediately became anxious because I began anticipating what would happen next: a repeat of his party two years ago when he became very upset and started crying saying that he did not want it in front of the generous gift giver.
However, he did neither of these things.
Although it was clear that my son was not happy about the gift, he managed to stay calm. Afterwards, he told me that he told himself: “It’s OK, they did not know that I already have that toy”, and it made him feel better. More importantly, he managed to thank his friend who gave him the gift without being reminded to do so. This interaction reflects the development my son is going through. Specifically, he is becoming more aware of his emotions and more capable of regulating them. My son’s capacity to control his emotions flexibly in this moment allowed him to engage positively with his friend. This and similar daily events in which better regulation of emotions elicit more positive behaviours are good examples of research we are conducting at the Laboratory of Social-Emotional Development and Intervention (SEDI Lab), examining emotion regulation and its benefits on positive social-emotional outcomes.
What is emotion regulation?
Emotion regulation reflects our capacity to modulate our emotions and encompasses the strategies to control emotions in line with our goals.
Hence, it helps with managing our emotions.
Regulating emotions does not mean suppressing or not feeling them. All emotions (yes, even the negative ones) are important and it is healthy to experience a variety of emotions. Yet, we function most effectively when our emotions are optimally aroused and emotion regulation capacity helps with keeping our emotions at the optimal level.
Also, the capacity to regulate emotions is linked to many positive outcomes including:
• higher sympathy and perspective taking (the capacity to take the perspective of others)
• more prosocial behaviours (e.g., sharing, helping)
• higher academic success
• overall better mental health
At the SEDI Lab, we are interested in understanding how emotion regulation helps children’s social-emotional development and mental health.
Research study: How does emotion regulation help us?
In one study (Song et al. 2018), our team examined how emotion regulation linked with prosocial behaviours of 4- and 8-year-old children. Prosocial behaviours represent actions aiming to benefit another person, like helping, cooperating, and sharing. With age, children start to display more prosocial behaviours and expand the target of prosocial behaviours from primary caregivers to other social interaction partners such as peers. Previous studies showed that children’s emotion regulation is linked to their prosocial behaviours. But how does emotion regulation facilitate prosocial behaviours? And are there any differences in this process based on children’s age or developmental stage?
This study sought the answers to these questions.
Specifically, in this study we examined how emotion regulation is related to sympathy and trust as well
as consecutive prosocial behaviours.
Background: sympathy and trust
Empathy is considered a central building block of kindness. Our ability to feel with others spurs our ability to engage compassionately with others. However, when it is not well regulated, empathy does not always translate into kind behaviours.
Sympathy is an other-oriented emotion and refers to
feeling concern and sorrow for another person who is in distress or in need. Sympathy generally stems from feeling empathy.
When we empathize with another in distress, we may feel the distress of the other and might become overwhelmed by our own feelings. This can lead to strong feelings of personal distress in children. When feeling these emotions themselves, the children might need calming down themselves, which would prevent them from having positive interactions with others.
This is where emotion regulation comes into play. Children who are better at regulating their emotions are better at managing their own distress in such situations. As a consequence, they can redirect their attention to the other person more easily, which makes it easier for them to show sympathy and display prosocial behaviours towards the distressed other.
Similar to sympathy, trust may also increase prosocial behaviors because trust is the belief that others are reliable and are likely to reciprocate the prosocial behaviours. Trust can also be related to emotion regulation. Children with better emotion regulation might be more capable of down regulating their negative emotions and/or maintaining their positive emotions, both of which might facilitate trust.
4-year-olds (early childhood)
8-year-olds (middle childhood)
caregivers of the children
reports of caregivers 1
reports of caregivers 2
reports of children
baseline respiratory sinus arrhythmia [RSA]
The development of sympathy, emotion regulation, and trust
Previous research shows that all of these capacities increase rapidly from early to middle childhood. Therefore, in our study, we tested children across these two age groups to detect possible developmental differences.
Development from Early to Middle Childhood
Children generally rely on their parents to regulate emotions
Children have limited perspective taking or emotion understanding skills that limit their capacities to show sympathy to others
Trust is generally felt for family members and close others
the process of regulating emotions becomes more internal, helping emotion regulation without external support
Social-cognitive abilities like perspective taking and emotion understanding are developed, helping the child to show sympathy
Trust expands to others like peers and teachers
How did we test emotion regulation?
Our study tested whether emotion regulation assists prosocial behaviours via facilitating sympathy and trust in children.
What we did:
• We examined 2 different age groups to reflect different developmental periods: 4-year-olds (early childhood) and 8-year-olds (middle childhood).
• 131 children (55 four-year-olds and 76 eight-year-olds) and their caregivers participated to this study.
• Caregivers reported on their child’s prosocial behaviours and trust. (Reports of caregivers 1)
• They also reported on their child’s capacity to regulate sadness (as an indicator of the capacity to regulate negative emotions) and reported on their child’s emotional intensity, specifically the intensity of their child’s expression of negative emotions (as an indicator of difficulties in regulating emotions). (Reports of caregivers 2)
• Children reported on their sympathy towards others.
• Finally, a physiological indicator of children’s emotion regulation was examined via assessing their baseline physiological reactions to neutral situations (baseline respiratory sinus arrhythmia [RSA]).
Baseline RSA reflects the vagus nerve activation and measures physiological activation at low threat situations (for example, the situations when there are no emotionally arousing environmental input available) and having a higher baseline RSA is suggested to indicate a better general capacity to physiologically regulate emotional arousal.
What did the research tell us?
The results showed that children who are more capable of regulating their sadness displayed more sympathy and trust in others, both of which were related to higher pro-social behaviours.
• Although having high negative emotional intensity was not related to sympathy, trust, or prosocial behaviours, children’s biological regulatory capacity (baseline RSA) was related to higher sympathy and, in turn, higher prosocial behaviours.
• These results showed that other-oriented psychological processes (sympathy and trust) facilitate the connection between emotion regulation and prosocial behaviours.
• These same results were found in both the 4- and 8-year-old children, suggesting that across different age groups in early and middle childhood, emotion regulation is related to higher capacities to sympathize with others and have higher trust to others, both of which in turn increased the chances of displaying prosocial behaviours.
What does that mean for my child(ren)?
These results implied that children’s capacities to regulate emotions is important for their prosocial behaviours in early and middle childhood because, in both ages, the children who can better regulate their emotions generally display higher sympathy and trust towards others. Hence, these results suggest that increasing emotion regulation capacities of children in early and middle childhood years might be an important venue for creating a kinder community in which individuals display more positive social behaviours towards one another.
Please see Dr. Speidel’s article for some practical tips and ideas to promote emotion regulation in childhood, adolescence, and even adulthood since we—the adults— too, can find it hard to manage our emotions sometimes too!"
About two years ago, I was trying to help my son manage his disappointment at his birthday party. This year, he has become more capable of regulating his own emotions without external help, which led to more positive interaction with his friend. With support in early childhood, children can learn to understand and better manage their emotions, leading to more positive behaviours and a kinder community.
Was this a printing error? No!
We wanted to have some fun and play around with this article by having you regulate your view of these pages! Sometimes looking at something at a different angle can help us discover our own comfort levels, find solutions that work best for us in the moment, and learn more about ourselves— much like emotion regulation!