Importance of emotional skills in early years

We feel angry when we are stuck in traffic. We feel disappointed when we fail a test. We feel irritated when we are hungry. We feel happy when our work is appreciated. We feel sad when a known person passes away. As humans, we are all prone to emotions with various triggers creating a variety of emotions. Emotional Regulation techniques enable us to manage and control these feelings.

Let us first understand the difference between emotions and feelings. Emotions are seen as preceding feelings. Emotions happen automatically based on external or internal triggers. Our feelings are reactions to these different emotions that we experience. Interestingly, emotions can have a more generalized triggers across all people but feelings are more subjective and are influenced by our own personal emotional experiences and also our specific personal interpretations of these experiences.

Emotion Regulation (ER) capabilities allow us to modulate and manage our emotional experiences. Emotion Regulation includes awareness of onset of emotion. It includes our ability to understand and accept these emotions. It also covers our ability to apply appropriate strategies or skills to manage these emotions. Finally, it encompasses the skills to control our impulses as otherwise we are prone to rush-in and respond to negative emotions in very unhealthy ways. 

According to research findings, when children and young people develop good social and emotional skills, it leads them to success not only in their school years but also during their whole lifetime. It is therefore somewhat unfortunate that sufficient attention is generally not paid to strengthening these important social and emotional skills in the early years. We need to appreciate that regulating emotions is an aspect of emotional competence which needs to be fostered and developed at an early age.

Research shows that early emotional development is nurtured by our close relationship with our primary caregivers. Thanks to mirror neurons, even infants, very early after birth, try to imitate the facial expressions of others. 

Let us examine the growth path of Emotion Regulation during our lifespan. The preschool years, defined as the ages of 3 through 5, are the critical years for the development of Emotion Regulation. During this time, growth in brain’s various executive functions not only enables pre-schoolers to suppress unacceptable behaviours but also to regulate attention to contextual surroundings and hold information in working memory. These new skills provide children with new means of navigating emotional situations, which are then combined with increased understanding of emotions. Children also learn typical social norms for emotional expression. They also recognize that others may have different emotional experiences from their own, and appreciate that their own expressed emotion need not match their inner experience. Each of these processes is important to the development of Emotion Regulation. It is during the preschool years that these foundational processes are developed good enough for the children, to shift from employing automatic reflexive strategies to thoughtful regulation of emotions.

Thus in the first year of life, children develop basic emotions of joy, fear, anger, sadness, surprise and interest. More complex self-referential emotions such as pride, shame, compassion, envy, embarrassment and guilt , which require appropriate evaluation of emotional stimuli, are developed towards the end of the second year of life. This development goes hand in hand with children’s increasing language development, which allows them to identify and express their feelings.

Interestingly, social referencing ability is acquired by the child  from the age of about nine months. Thus, in an unfamiliar or ambiguous situation, the child can “read” from the facial expression of the caregiver to get clues to evaluate the situation and then to adjust her own behaviour accordingly. Between the ages of two and five, children are continually improving their ability to use self-contained regulation strategies. This is a shift away from depending on external cues. The child learns to regulate her feelings and the associated expressions, more and more independently, quickly adapting them to social demands.

Simply put, self-regulation is the difference between a two-year-old and a five-year-old, where the latter is more able to control her emotions. 

This ability of self-efficacy is an important milestone in the child’s emotional development. We need to recognise that age-appropriate emotion regulation is key to future successful psychological development. This assumes importance since difficulties in emotion regulation are central to child psychopathology. Infants who are unfortunate to have had no stable, consistent caregivers are unable to regulate their emotions. 

According to the World Health Organisation report of 2021, many suicides happen impulsively in moments of crisis. This is mainly due to the breakdown in the ability to deal with life stresses, such as financial problems, relationship break-ups or chronic pain and illness.

Hence, it is essential to start teaching children the skills necessary for Emotion Regulation at an early age, so that they may learn how to manage the stressful triggers and develop into resilient beings.  Early training prepares them to manage stresses and strains on a daily basis, as they become older. 

Inability to control one’s emotions can manifest in a variety of ways, including temper outbursts and breakdowns, violence, withdrawal, anxiety, low self-esteem and academic difficulties. 

Parents need to be aware that giving-in to tantrums or going overboard to accommodate their children when they get upset and burst out, is counterproductive. Such a compromise will come in the way of kids developing self-discipline in managing their urges. Psychologist Matthew Rouse warns “In those situations, the child is basically looking to the parents to be external self-regulators. If that’s a pattern that happens again and again, and the child gets used to ‘outsourcing’ self-regulation, then that’s something that might develop into a habit.”

We are all witness to many children growing up without learning to control their urges, with disastrous consequences when they become adults.

Author and psychotherapist Fran Walfish has useful suggestions on effectively handling emotional anger or frustration of children. She advises us to combine clarity, kindness, empathy and firmness while managing the situation. She reminds us that, as trivial as they may seem, children are always entitled to their emotions. Instead of pointing out, for instance, how absurd it is for them to get angry even though they have already been warned that their screen time is coming to an end, we need to validate their frustration. We need to be empathetic towards our child and show that you do understand how hard it is for them to get off the screen. This empathetic approach when coupled with frequent praises for completing the relatively hard-to-do tasks, will yield the right results on the longer term. 

Adolescence constitutes a high-risk phase of life keeping mental health in mind, as most psychiatric disorders begin before the age of 25. Epidemiological studies, both in the context of the United States and Europe, indicate high rates of mental health disorders during adolescence, with anxiety disorders as the most common condition at 31.9%, followed by behavioural disorders at 19.1%, mood disorders at 14.3% and substance use disorders at 11.4%.

Research shows that there are major changes in brain architecture that occur during adolescence. In particular, during early and mid-adolescence between 11-15 years, brain systems that seek rewards and process emotions are more developed than cognitive control systems which are critical for good decision-making and future planning. This means, that self-regulation which leans on the thinking part of the brain is “out of balance” with the emotionally part of the brain which has developed faster. Knowing fully well that adolescents are likely to take poor decisions during adolescence which may have long-term negative consequences, there is clear need for us to actively support and guide them during this period. This is especially important for youth with history of adverse childhood experiences. For this group, interventions during adolescence and young adulthood may reduce the risk of mental disorders and build more resilience.

We need to appreciate that stress is one of the biggest challenges that youth face in all relationships, either at school or at home or at work. Any triggers that cause ongoing high intensity stress, can overwhelm existing skills and capabilities of youth. This can create toxic effects that negatively impact their development and produce long-term changes in their brain architecture. Ongoing, overwhelming experiences of stress can physically change the wiring of the brain to rely more heavily on emotional reactions than on reflection, reasoning, and decision-making. 

Given this vulnerability, it should come as no surprise that most common mental health disorders, including depression, substance abuse, eating disorders and anxiety have their onset during adolescence. 

In an ideal Emotional Regulation growth path, a toddler who throws tantrums will grow into a normal child who learns how to tolerate uncomfortable feelings without throwing a fit. He will then grow into a healthy adult who is able to control impulses, while sensing uncomfortable feelings within him. As an adult he will develop skills of self-regulation which requires taking the critical pause between a feeling and an action. This intentional pause gives time to think things through, to make the right plan and then only act. 

Adverse life experiences such as abuse, neglect, family-conflict and homelessness, radically impact the development of Emotion Regulation capabilities. Most mental health disorders emerge between late adolescence and young adulthood.

Two Emotion Regulation strategies are most prominent and well used. They are cognitive reappraisal which is referred to as ‘antecedent-focused’ strategy and the other is expressive suppression referred to as ‘response-focused’ strategy. 

The first type is aimed at modifying the emotional meaning and impact of a situation. This reappraisal is done in four ways.

Situation selection: Person can choose to avoid the emotional situation by not getting into it or by disengaging from it. As an example if socialisation with a certain group raises uncomfortable emotions, then he can stop getting into these social gatherings or move away from one.

Situation modification: Person can change the emotional situation with the aim to influence the internal emotions. As an example, in a tense discussions scenario where tempers are getting frayed, he can bring some humour or laughter.

Attentional deployment: Person can shift focus away from the emotional scenario. This can be done by distraction. 

Cognitive change: Person can change the emotional meaning of the situation. One method is to modify the significance assigned to an event, so as to reduce its emotional impact. As an example, we can tell ourselves that  “I know this is not easy, but I will give it a try and get over any difficulties. I am sure, I can find a way to solve the problem.”

As the antecedent-focused strategies are implemented before the occurrence of full-blown emotion, they are generally more effective. The impact of emotion is less as they allow for early intervention in the emotion-generative process. 

The second type of regulation is response-focused Emotion Regulation which occurs after the emotion is fully experienced. Suppression is the most common form of this regulation. This refers to holding one’s emotional reaction in check while experiencing that emotion. As an example we may suppress the sad feelings in us after the death of a close friend or we may feel frustrated inside about our job but may suppress outward expression of the feeling. The downside, however, is that people who tend to adopt avoidance and suppression in response to negative emotions are more likely to experience psychological problems. Conversely, individuals who are able to reappraise problematic emotional events and take positive actions to deal with them are better at adapting to the vicissitudes of life. 

Regular physical activity and good sleep have also been shown to reduce the level of our emotional distress thus improving our emotional control. 

Sleep and Emotion Regulation have an impact on each other. Disturbed sleep reduces our capacity to effectively engage in understanding our strong  emotions. It limits our ability to clearly think through potential courses of action to control the situation and then to effectively implement the decided strategy. Similarly, poor Emotion Regulation can negatively impact sleep. For example, when every day emotional triggers are not adequately dealt with, pre-sleep arousal gets heightened. This results in our taking lot more time to get to sleep. It also results in a decrease of the duration of REM-sleep (Rapid Eye Movement) and affects the density of our sleep. Thus, good sleep quality appears to be important for effective Emotion Regulation and good Emotion Regulation appears to be important for good sleep quality.

Suicide is a major public health issue, with an estimated 800,000 people worldwide dying as a result of suicide each year. WHO report of 2014 says that the number of suicide attempts as opposed to completed suicides, may be closer to 20 times this figure. Most of the theories for suicidal tendencies point out to maladaptive responses to intense negative emotions or lack of effective Emotion Regulation. A research study suggests that some individuals are unable to tolerate the experience of psychological pain. In response to this, they turn to suicidal thoughts as a way of coping with and escaping from this pain. This is essentially due to their lack of skills to regulate their internal emotions.

According to escape theory of suicide, individuals wish to die when they feel overwhelmed by acute and unbearable emotions that prevent them from resorting to any regulation strategy. This intolerable emotional state, which is perceived as uncontrollable, leads patients to think of suicide as an effective way to escape these feelings.

Emotional Dysregulation happens when our brain is unable to properly regulate the signals related to our emotions. Without this ability, it is similar to the situation when the TV volume-control is stuck at a painfully high level. In effect, Emotional Dysregulation occurs when our very loud emotions are out of control, creating feelings in us of being overwhelmed, uncomfortable and in great pain.

Emotional Dysregulation in the age group of 5 to 12 years are outwardly visible when these children indulge in excessive arguments or resist and refuse to obey instructions or display high levels of aggression etc. Emotional Dysregulation in the age group 13 to 19 on the other hand, plays out in actions like refusing to engage in healthy activities or displaying risky behaviour or arguing with authority or showing physical aggression etc.

Emotion Dysregulation is conceptualized as difficulty or inability in several areas. These areas include the inability to monitor and evaluate emotional experiences and adapt to their intensity and duration. It also includes inability to modulate emotional reactions in order to meet situational demands. The Difficulties in Emotion Regulation Scale (DERS) is a well-validated and extensively used self-report instrument for Emotion Regulation problems.  The self-report scale measures responses in the following areas.

1. Nonacceptance of emotional responses

2. Difficulty engaging in goal-directed behaviour

3. Impulse control difficulties

4. Lack of emotional awareness

5. Limited access to Emotion Regulation strategies

6. Lack of emotional clarity

This tool is especially useful in helping patients with Borderline Personality Disorder, Generalised Anxiety Disorder or Substance Use Disorder. It helps to identify areas for intervention and support on how to respond to their difficult emotions. This scale takes a holistic and integrated view of Emotion Regulation, including the problems associated with the modulation of emotional arousal, the awareness, the understanding and the acceptance of emotions and finally the ability to strategize and act in desired ways.

Negative emotions can be described as any feeling which makes us feel miserable and sad. These emotions make us dislike ourselves as well as others thus reducing our confidence and self-esteem. Typical emotions that can become negative are hate, anger, jealousy, rejection, fear and sadness. Some examples. “ I get jealous when the girl I like goes with the other fellow”. “I am angry that I do not do too well in my tests”. “ I am afraid that my girl-friend will ditch me, as I do not measure up to her expectation”.

Based on research in the areas of clinical psychology, health psychology and psychoneuroimmunology (PNI), a clear relationship has been established between negative emotions such as anxiety and sadness on the one side and inflammation in the body on the other side. When we fail to regulate negative emotionsproperly, we create biological wear and tear on our body that can increase the risk for morbidity and mortality. 

The field of Emotion Regulation has largely focused on intrinsic ER or regulation of one’s own emotions. But recent research has started investigating extrinsic ER which is a process where a person influences the emotional state of another. This action is done consciously and voluntarily with an intent to regulate the mood of the other person. This kind of Extrinsic Emotion Regulation (EER) is very common between couples and is referred to as Interpersonal emotion regulation (IER). It is based on the premise that people not only regulate their own emotions but also seek to influence, affect, or modify other people’s emotional experiences which improves the quality of their relationship.

Some people are better equipped in regulating the emotions than others. These people are credited with possessing higher Emotional Intelligence (EI), which makes them aware of both their internal emotions and the feelings of others. While it may appear for the outsider that these persons with higher EI are just “naturally calm,” in actuality, they do experience negative feelings but do not express them. They have just developed coping strategies that allow them to self-regulate in difficult emotional situations. 

Infants have limited abilities to regulate themselves at the beginning of life. When babies are upset, they depend heavily on their primary caregivers to cope and restore their emotional balance. They learn how to communicate and manage their feelings based on the caregiver’s responses to their negative emotions​. Coregulation with parents is like teaching children how to ride a bike. 

Coregulation is an interpersonal process of managing emotions in which participants continuously adjust their responses in a coordinated pattern to co-create and maintain a positive emotional state. Coregulation is important because it is a way for parents to help their children develop emotional self-regulation.

It therefore becomes important for caregivers such as parents, teachers, coaches and other mentors to first focus on their own capacity for self-regulation. To successfully co-regulate, caregivers will need to: 

·  Pay attention to their own feelings and reactions during stressful interactions with a child, youth or young adult. 

·  Pay attention to their own thoughts and beliefs about the behaviours of others. 

·  Use strategies to self-calm and respond to children effectively and compassionately. 

Caregivers greatly benefit when they take recourse to deep breathing and self-talk. When a caregiver responds calmly to a child, youth, or young adult, it greatly helps to keep the young person’s feelings under control.  It also acts as a model of Emotion Regulation skills for the child to imitate. 

2 thoughts on “Importance of emotional skills in early years”

  1. This and the last one on rituals are extremely helpful, apart from having been well researched and articulated in an accessible language.

    The piece on rituals helps us understand how well educated and otherwise rational and sensible people allow rituals to take over their daily lives, sometimes to the point of becoming dysfunctional. For reasons I cannot go public with, I believe it is far more important than people might believe. The current piece helps us understand why many of us behave the way we do. Sadly it goes back to a stage in life that we cannot travel back to – our childhood.

    Knowledge of how the human mind and brain work is as essential as an understanding of basic human physiology. The latter helps us remain healthy physically. The former can lead us to greater happiness and mental well being.

    I am glad that I got to read these two pieces.

    I am amazed at the dedication with Shri Raghavan writes these pieces. Given where he is in life I cannot see this as anything other than pure labour of love – for the discipline and for people who might benefit from his writing.

    I salute him.🙏

  2. It is indeed very unfortunate that the importance and understanding of ER and its pivotal role in allowing us a “normal life” dawns upon most of us very late …. if at all!
    I believe future generations can greatly benefit if young “parents to be” are sensitised to these issues and understand that importance of providing an emotional stable and progressive environment to their children through early childhood, the importance of which I feel can never be overstated! Correcting a crumbly foundation is always intensely complicated and never without collateral damage.
    Thank you very much for putting all this together and sharing it. I wish more and more people get the opportunity to read this…

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