UNDERSTANDING AND REGULATING EMOTIONS

Emotions color the life experience of young children. They account for the peaks and valleys of daily life as they are manifested in exuberant peals of laughter during play, angry defiance when faced with unfamiliar food, or distress and frustration after a fall. Emotions can contribute to or undermine the growth of new skills and competencies in young children. The interest and pleasure a child brings to mastering new tasks motivates the development of new abilities. Angry conflict with a parent or a peer can be a catalyst for new understandings of others' feelings and motives. On other occasions, however, heightened emotion undermines a young child's capacities to function competently, as any parent witnessing a toddler's tantrum can document. Much of the current interest in early emotional development revolves around the young child's growing ability to regulate and integrate emotions adaptively into the fabric of social interactions. Both parents and the public, for example, are interested in ensuring that young children learn to handle anger and resolve conflicts without resorting to aggression, to “use their words” instead of hurling a block across the room. At the same time, understanding the development of emotion regulation requires a broader understanding of emotional development.

Early emotional development provides the foundation for psychosocial well-being and mental health. Just 20 years ago, the thought that very young children could manifest serious psychological disorders was unimaginable. Today people recognize that toddlers and preschoolers are subject to many of the same kinds of emotion-related disorders that have long been studied in older children, adolescents, and adults. In 1994, a diagnostic classification scheme was developed to assess emotional and developmental problems in the first three years of life (Zero to Three's Diagnostic Classification Task Force, 1994), and scientific inquiry into questions of young children's mental health has increased exponentially in recent years. Young children can experience problems related to sad, depressed affect (Cicchetti and Schneider-Rosen, 1986; Cicchetti and Toth, 1998; Kovacs, 1989), anxious fear (Albano et al., 1996; Thompson, in press(b); Vasey, 1998) and angry behavioral problems (Shaw et al., 1994, 1996; White et al., 1990). This emerging knowledge is bringing issues of early emotional development and regulation to the forefront of discussions about prevention, early detection, and early treatment of disorders in young children.1 Over recent years,

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Reports of extensive pharmacotherapy for preschoolers with behavioral disorders have raised critical questions about existing diagnostic and treatment practices for social and emotional problems in young children and related concerns about the general lack of scientific evidence to guide appropriate intervention (see, for example, the recent NIH Consensus Statement on the Diagnosis and Treatment of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, 1998). The committee did not specifically address these vitally important issues and does not include a discussion of them. This is not to imply, however, that we minimize their significance. To the contrary, these issues constitute an urgent topic for both scientific inquiry and guidelines for practice.



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