How to help children process their negative emotions


A recent study of indigenous people in southern Chile challenges some Western assumptions about children’s emotional capabilities and highlights the potential value of spending time outdoors to help children regulate their emotions.

“I think many people, particularly in Western cultures, think children are less capable than they actually are,” says Amy Halberstadt, a professor of psychology at North Carolina State University and corresponding author of a paper on the work. “Our study shows that this is not universal.

“For example, our work with the Mapuche people makes clear that they have different expectations about their children’s ability to manage fear.

And the role they feel nature plays in helping children maintain their emotional equilibrium is also distinct.”

For the study, researchers conducted a survey of 271 parents and teachers in southern Chile.

One hundred six of the study participants were Mapuche, an indigenous people of the region. The remaining 165 were non-Mapuche.

Survey questions were developed based on interviews and focus groups.

The questions were aimed at gaining a better understanding of cultural differences regarding the beliefs that adults have about children and children’s emotions.

One finding was that Mapuche parents and teachers were significantly more likely than non-Mapuche to expect their children to be able to control fear.

“To be clear, we’re not talking about children being stoic about their fear,” Halberstadt says.

“We’re talking about an expectation that children understand a situation and either take action or accept the situation without becoming afraid.”

“The Mapuche believe that part of growing up is learning not to be afraid, and this is something that is actively fostered,” says Dejah Oertwig, co-author of the paper and a Ph.D. student at NC State.

“Mapuche parents support the development of emotional skills like this one through the way they help children interpret the world around them.”

The study found that Mapuche also place a great deal of value on a child’s relationship with nature.

“The Mapuche believe children should respect, but not fear, nature,” Halberstadt says. “They also believe nature can help children become calm, cope with sadness in a positive way and otherwise regulate negative emotions.

“Parents here in the U.S. may want to view these approaches as possible strategies they can use at home,” Halberstadt says.

“I don’t think there are necessarily prescriptions for success in any one approach, but broadening our appreciation of what’s possible for kids could yield positive outcomes for young people.

It might be a good idea to see if spending more time outside, and respecting and appreciating nature, do help us regulate our own emotions or help our children find balance.”

Funding: The work was done with support from Chile’s FONDECYT, under grant number 1191956.

Examining emotion reactivity and recovery following minor problems in daily life can deepen our understanding of how stress affects child mental health.

This study assessed children’s immediate and delayed emotion responses to daily problems at school, and examined their correlations with psychological symptoms. On 5 consecutive weekdays, 83 fifth graders (M=10.91 years, SD=0.53, 51% female) completed brief diary forms 5 times per day, providing repeated ratings of school problems and emotions.

They also completed a one-time questionnaire about symptoms of depression, and parents and teachers rated child internalizing and externalizing problems. Using multilevel modeling techniques, we assessed within-person daily associations between school problems and negative and positive emotion at school and again at bedtime.

On days when children experienced more school problems, they reported more negative emotion and less positive emotion at school, and at bedtime.

There were reliable individual differences in emotion reactivity and recovery.

Individual-level indices of emotion responses derived from multilevel models were correlated with child psychological symptoms. Children who showed more negative emotion reactivity reported more depressive symptoms.

Multiple informants described fewer internalizing problems among children who showed better recovery by bedtime, even after controlling for children’s average levels of exposure to school problems.

Diary methods can extend our understanding of the links between daily stress, emotions and child mental health. Recovery following stressful events may be an important target of research and intervention for child internalizing problems.

The adverse effects of psychosocial stress on child mental health are often mediated by difficulties with effectively managing emotions (Crowell, Puzia, & Yaptangco, 2015Repetti, Taylor, & Seeman, 2002).

School is one source of such stress; negative events such as making a mistake on a test or arguing with a peer are common in the daily lives of school-aged children.

If chronic or severe, problems at school can elevate risk for internalizing (i.e., anxiety, depression) and externalizing (i.e., disruptive behaviors, aggression) problems (Reijntjes et al., 2011Reijntjes, Kamphuis, Prinzie, & Telch, 2010). However, the way that children react and cope in the face of daily stressors can mitigate their effects on psychological functioning (Clarke, 2006Sontag, Graber, Brooks-Gunn & Warren, 2008). Some children may even demonstrate positive development despite exposure to such adversities (Luthar, Cicchetti, & Becker, 2000).

One approach to further understanding the link between exposure to negative events at school and child mental health is to investigate same-day emotion responses to these problems (Repetti, Robles, & Reynolds, 2011). Emotions are defined as affective responses to specific events. They often give rise to behaviors, and can be modulated through the use of various coping strategies (Gross, 2015).

Using intensive repeated ratings of school problems and emotions from 83 fifth graders, this study assessed children’s emotion responses to daily school problems, and examined how between-person differences in emotion responses were associated with child psychological symptoms. For most children, fifth grade marks the final year of elementary school, before their transition to middle school.

The rigor and demands of school work steadily increase throughout elementary school in preparation for middle school, and the quality of peer relationships during this period can predict physical and mental health in adolescence (Bogart et al., 2014). Assessing risk factors for mental health problems during this period, using measures that minimize recall and response bias, is an important priority.

The current study uses daily repeated measures of school problems and negative and positive emotions to differentiate between emotion reactivity and recovery.

 Emotion reactivity is operationalized as a significant within-person association between school problems and emotion measured at school. Separate from emotion reactivity is recovery, which is represented by a child’s within-person association between problems rated at school and emotion rated at bedtime.

Complete recovery is marked by the absence of a significant link between problems at school and emotion at bedtime.

Daily diary studies have traditionally examined spillover, defined as the short-term process by which stressful experiences in one setting negatively influence experiences in another setting. Accordingly, emotions triggered by negative events at school often influence interactions at home (Bai, Reynolds, Robles & Repetti, 2016Lehman & Repetti, 2007).

This study focuses on emotion reactivity to and recovery from negative events at school, and examines between-person variability in the daily link between school problems and emotion.

Emotion reactivity to daily school problems

School-age children react to school problems with concurrent elevations in negative emotion (Morrow, Hubbard, Barhight, & Thomson, 2014Schneiders et al., 2006) and decreases in positive emotion (Flook, 2011Schneiders et al., 2006).

For example, in an 8-day diary study, fifth grade children reported more negative emotion on days when they experienced any type of peer victimization (Morrow et al., 2014).

Likewise, stressful events were linked to low positive emotion, in an experiential sampling study of young European adolescents (Schneiders et al., 2006). Negative and positive emotion uniquely affect child functioning in both the short- and the long-term.

In the short-term, negative emotion may spill over from the school to the home and generate more stressful events (e.g., parent-child conflict) that day (Lehman & Repetti, 2007). In contrast, positive emotion promotes action, social connection, motivation and cognitive flexibility – attributes needed for learning, problem solving, and support seeking (Fredrickson, 2001).

A decrease in positive emotion may lead children to withdraw from possibly helpful social interactions with teachers, parents, and peers.

At the trait level, poor negative and positive emotion regulation is closely linked to child psychopathology (Gilbert, 2012Repetti et al., 2002).

In particular, poor regulation of positive emotion has been linked to bipolar disorder and externalizing disorders (Gilbert, 2012), whereas low positive emotion uniquely differentiates child depression from other internalizing disorders (Chorpita & Daleiden, 2002). Given their unique effects on child psychological functioning and development, negative and positive emotion are important targets of research investigation.

The current study attempts to replicate previous findings of negative emotion reactivity and build on the emerging evidence of positive emotion reactivity to school problems, using diary data.

We focus on individual differences in children’s negative and positive emotion responses to negative events. Although many studies have used intensive repeated methods to describe within-person associations between school problems and emotion, few have explored individual differences in the strength of that association.

Two studies examining how child psychological functioning moderates same-day links between negative events and emotion indicate that emotional reactions to spontaneously occurring negative events vary between individuals (Schneiders et al., 2006Timmons & Margolin, 2015).

However, we know of only one diary study that derived individual measures of negative and positive emotion reactivity in children; Robles and colleagues (2016) obtained individual measures of emotion reactivity to marital conflict and related them to biological markers of aging. Our approach addresses a significant gap in the research literature inasmuch as individual differences in emotion reactivity to everyday stress may represent an important component of child mental health.

Emotion recovery from daily school problems

As with emotion reactivity, negative and positive emotion recovery may vary significantly between individuals and be influenced by gender, age and cognitive functioning. Investigations of emotion recovery based on laboratory analogs of peer rejection often monitor changes in child emotion over several minutes (Adrian, Zeman, & Veits, 2011).

These studies focus on cognitive and behavioral responses that are expected to modulate children’s emotion expressions over brief periods of time (e.g., distraction, problem solving). However, the time course of emotion recovery, separate from emotion reactivity, is not well understood.

Diary methods can complement laboratory observational methods by assessing the lingering effects of everyday stress on child emotion over several hours, including the transition from school to home contexts.

A lack of recovery would suggest that problems at school negatively affect emotions across contexts, whereas recovery may reflect effective emotion regulation.

The successful modulation of an emotional response to a minor stressor may promote self-efficacy and resilience against the detrimental effects of subsequent stressors (Rutter, 2012). Despite their potential unique contribution, diary studies of recovery are rare and limited to the examination of the effects of stressors on next day mood (Chung, Flook, & Fuligni, 2011).

Although these studies can control for various day-level covariates, it is not possible to accurately account for all that can happen to influence emotion over 24 hours.

Emotion response to stress and child psychological symptoms

Emotion reactivity and recovery may be key processes that link school-related stress to child psychological problems (Crowell et al., 2015Reijntjes et al., 2011Reijntjes et al., 2010). The association between emotion regulation and internalizing problems has been established through a number of studies (Hastings, Zahn-Waxler, & Usher, 2007McLaughlin, Hatzenbuehler, & Hilt, 2009).

However, analyses of the link between emotion regulation and externalizing problems have not been as consistent (Cooley & Fite, 2015Hastings et al., 2007Herts, McLaughlin, & Hatzenbuehler, 2012).

Although most investigations suggest that better emotion regulation is linked to fewer externalizing problems or aggression, Hastings and colleagues (2007) found that greater positive affect during a socially challenging laboratory task was associated with more externalizing problems.

In addition, while there is abundant research differentiating adaptive coping strategies such as cognitive reappraisal, from maladaptive ones like rumination (Aldao, Nolen-Hoeksema, & Schweizer, 2010), we know little about how these strategies may help children recover from stressful events throughout the day.

Observational methods improve on questionnaires by directly assessing immediate emotional and behavioral responses to specific events (e.g., Morris et al., 2011). Still, few studies of emotion responses to stressful events examine how emotion intensity changes over several hours.

Even fewer have assessed the links between problems at school, emotional responses to these events, and child psychological functioning.

Although higher levels of daily stress are typically associated with poorer psychological functioning, mild negative events such as doing poorly on a test or arguing with a friend may also afford children the opportunity to practice coping and promote positive development (Repetti & Robles, 2016).

An empirical study of recovery may help to differentiate possible gains associated with exposure to mild stress from detrimental effects. Studies using experience sampling method or daily diaries suggest that child emotion reactivity to and recovery from daily stress are concurrently associated with child adjustment (Neumann, van Lier, Frijns, Meeus, & Koot, 2011Silk, Steinberg & Morris, 2003). Silk and colleagues (2003) examined declines in negative emotions over 1 hour time periods following negative events during a 1-week long experiential sampling methods study.

They found that children who were more likely to react to a negative event with negative emotion and not recover within an hour had more psychological problems than those who reacted and then recovered.

The current study extends past research by using multilevel modeling methods to derive continuous between-person measures of reactivity and recovery. We examine how between-person differences in reactivity and recovery are associated with psychological symptoms, over and above exposure to school problems.

Some evidence points to possible gender differences in the association between emotion regulation and psychological functioning. Individual differences in constructs related to emotion regulation, such as distress tolerance or rumination, may be linked to internalizing problems among girls but not boys (Daughters et al., 2009Tompkins, Hockett, Abraibesh & Witt, 2011). Moreover, teachers and clinicians often rate boys as having more externalizing problems than girls (Bruchmüller, Margraf & Schneider, 2012Miner & Clarke-Stewart, 2008). Our study tests whether the association between emotion reactivity and recovery and psychological problems differ by gender.

North Carolina State University


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

Questo sito usa Akismet per ridurre lo spam. Scopri come i tuoi dati vengono elaborati.