How kids keep their cool Young children’s use of cognitive strategies to regulate emotion LinDa j. Levine, roBin L. kapLan, anD eLizaBetH L. Davis
The development of young children’s use of cognitive strategies A rudimentary understanding of the links between emotions and goals or desires emerges early. Children first refer to emotions in spontaneous conversation around two years of age. By the age of three, children can predict that people will feel happy if they get something they want, and sad if they do not (Wellman, Phillips, and Rodriguez, 2000). By four or five years of age, children can predict emotional responses even when protagonists’ desires conflict with their own (Moore, Jarrold, Russell, Lumb, Sapp, and MacCallum, 1995). They also demonstrate an understanding of the association between emotions and beliefs (e.g., Harris, Johnson, Hutton, and Andrews, 1989). This understanding emerges as children get better at inhibiting their own salient mental states (desires and beliefs) and come to appreciate that people’s mental representations of the same events can differ. Several studies suggest, however, that children do not understand that emotions can be controlled by thoughts alone until middle childhood. For example, when asked how a protagonist could stop a negative emotion, eight-and 12-year-olds routinely described strategies to change mental states such as forgetting about an aversive event but five-year-olds referred primarily to behavioral strategies for changing the environment (e.g., Pons, Harris, and de Rosnay, 2004). Similarly, when five-and eight-year-olds and adults were asked to explain how a story protagonist’s emotion could change with no external cause, only two out of 20 five-year-olds indicated that cognitive strategies, such as merely thinking about something happy or reappraising a negative situation, could change a person’s emotional state without any external input (Flavell, Flavell, and Green, 2001). Findings such as these have contributed to a growing consensus that, until middle childhood, limited understanding of the relations between thinking and feeling restricts children’s ability to generate cognitive strategies for regulating emotion (e.g., Cole et al., 2004; Pons et al., 2004). Factors other than lack of knowledge may contribute to these findings, however. Children produce more sophisticated emotion regulation strategies
when asked about situations with which they have had extensive prior experience (Lagattuta, Wellman, and Flavell, 1997). Moreover, when possible, both children and adults prefer to change troubling situations directly, so that situations conform to their desires, rather than accept situations and change their goals or appraisals instead (Heckhausen et al., 2010). With limited prompting, then, young children may produce behavioral strategies even if they are capable of producing cognitive strategies. The roots of children’s understanding of cognitive strategies may be more apparent when children are asked about highly familiar situations and given ample opportunity to display their knowledge. Studies that have taken this approach reveal a more nuanced developmental progression from appreciating the usefulness of cognitive strategies suggested by others, to being able to produce such strategies with prompting, to being able to produce cognitive strategies in appropriate situations without prompting. Children as young as three possess a rudimentary understanding that remembering and forgetting events can influence people’s emotions (Lagattuta et al., 1997). Extending these findings, Dennis and Kelemen (2009) assessed preschool children’s understanding of cognitive strategies using a task that limited the verbal and memory demands on the child. Children watched as puppets described and acted out different strategies for alleviating negative feelings. Children then rated the effectiveness of each strategy. Three-and four-year-old children rated distraction as more effective than rumination, suggesting that preschoolers recognize the relative effectiveness of some cognitive regulatory strategies. Davis, Levine, Lench, and Quas (2010) investigated five-and six-year-old children’s ability to generate cognitive strategies like changing thoughts (e.g., deciding to think about something else) and changing goals (e.g., deciding to want something else) to regulate negative emotions. Children were presented with familiar hypothetical scenarios such as being unable to go outside to play or having to eat a disliked food. They were asked twice to suggest strategies that protagonists could use to make their sad or mad feelings go away (e.g., “If Billy couldn’t do [insert child’s strategy], then what could he do to make his sad/mad feelings go away?”). Children were also asked about strategies they had used in their own lives when faced with situations that made them mad, sad, or afraid. Over half of the children described at least one cognitive strategy to reduce negative emotion. Specifically, children described changing thoughts by forgetting, using distraction, or going to sleep (e.g., “Go to sleep, because when you sleep you don’t know if you have good days or bad”) and reappraising negative outcomes as positive, temporary, or unimportant (e.g., “He’ll eat the thing he doesn’t like knowing there’s something else he likes coming on”). They also described changing goals or desires (e.g., “He decided he didn’t want to go outside and play”). When relating their own personal experiences, cognitive strategies were the most frequent type of strategy that children reported. Moreover, the strategies children described were tailored to the emotion they intended to regulate. Consistent with functional theories of emotion, children were most likely to describe taking action when angry about obstacles to their goals, changing thoughts when frightened by situations characterized by uncertainty, and changing goals when saddened by irrevocable goal loss.