Emotion regulation and temper tantrums in preschoolers: Social, emotional, and cognitive contributions




Giesbrecht, Gerald F

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The purpose of this study was to examine the contribution of different aspects of executive function (EF) and social understanding to emotion regulation (ER), and the influence of these aspects of self-regulation on temper tantrums. A model of self-regulation is presented in which ER, EF, and social understanding contribute to self-regulatory competence. General cognitive (i.e., language) and emotional (i.e., temperamental emotional reactivity) measures are included to increase the specificity of the relation between ER and other aspects of self-regulation. ER, EF, and social understanding were also examined in relation to temper tantrums. One hundred twenty seven preschool children and their parents completed batteries of ER, EF, and social understanding, as well as measures of verbal ability, temperament, and temper tantrums. This study extends previous research by including multitrait, multimethod assessment of EF, ER, and social understanding, and controlling for verbal ability and emotional reactivity. Exploration of temper tantrums offers a unique illustration of the manner in which aspects of self-regulation contribute to everyday displays of strong emotion in preschoolers. Overall, the results of this investigation provided evidence that aspects of EF and social understanding are related to ER and that these aspects of self-regulation are also related to temper tantrums. More specifically, this study makes three main contributions to understanding children’s ER. First, there was evidence that EF and social understanding were related to ER even after individual differences in emotional reactivity and verbal ability had been removed. Affective social understanding, but not cognitive social understanding, was a useful predictor in the regression model. Among the EF variables, there was evidence that individual differences in both response and delay inhibition contributed significantly to ER. This finding replicates and extends Carlson and Wang’s (2007) findings of partial correlation (controlling for verbal ability) between inhibitory control and ER. Second, individual differences in both delay inhibition and ER contributed to the prediction of temper tantrums, even after controlling for emotional reactivity. Social understanding variables were not included in this analysis because correlations between social understanding and temper tantrums were low. Finally, mediation analysis provided evidence that ER significantly buffers the effect of emotional reactivity on temper tantrums. That is, the effect of emotional reactivity on temper tantrums was significantly reduced by ER. This effect remained even after controlling for age. These findings suggest that inhibitory control and affective social understanding make unique contributions to understanding ER and that temper tantrums are related to inhibitory control and ER.



Emotion regulation, temper tantrums, executive function, social understanding