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The double-edged sword: Emotional regulation for children at risk

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  04 March 2009

Ross A. Thompson*
Affiliation:
University of Nebraska
Susan D. Calkins
Affiliation:
University of North Carolina at Greensboro
*
Ross A. Thompson, Dept. of Psychology, 209 Burnett Hall, University of Nebraska, Lincoln, NH 68588–0308, E-mail: thompson@ulinfo.unl.edu.

Abstract

The capacity to manage emotion is based on the growth of self-regulatory capacities in the early years, but is also affected by situational demands, influences from other people, and the child's goals for regulating emotion in a particular setting. For most children growing up in supportive contexts, the growth of emotional regulation is associated with enhanced psychosocial well-being and socioemotional competence. But for children who are at risk for the development of psychopathology owing to environmental stresses or intrinsic vulnerability (or their interaction), emotional regulation often entails inherent trade-offs that make nonoptimal strategics of managing emotion expectable, perhaps inevitable, in a context of difficult environmental demands and conflicting emotional goals. This analysis discusses how emotional regulation in children at risk may simultaneously foster both resiliency and vulnerability by considering how emotion is managed when children (a) are living with a parent who is depressed, (b) witness or experience domestic violence, or (c) are temperamentally inhibited when encountering novel challenges. In each case, the child's efforts to manage emotion may simultaneously buffer against certain stresses while also enhancing the child's vulnerability to other risks and demands. This double-edged sword of emotional regulation in conditions of risk for children cautions against using “optimal” emotional regulation as an evaluative standard for such children or assuming that emotional regulation necessarily improves psychosocial well-being. It also suggests how the study of emotional regulation must consider the goals for regulating emotion and the contexts in which those goals are sought.

Type
Articles
Copyright
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1996

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