When considering the development of emotional regulation, it is important to consider not just the superficial means to that goal, but also the underlying mechanisms that make gaining emotional regulation possible. From infancy, children look to their trusted others, nearly always caregivers, to determine the emotionality of novel stimuli (Hutman, 2009). Identifying pleasurable and uncomfortable emotions would intuitively seem to be important building blocks to developing emotional regulation skills. When those skills begin to express themselves in friendships, children who demonstrate greater emotional regulation seem to enjoy a variety of benefits including a tendency to have more satisfying peer relationships (Spinrad, 2006). Determining the specifics of where and when emotional competence are most highly correlated should consider underlying mechanisms. How can future studies consider confounding factors like the gaining of belongingness and mastery in the means of gaining emotional competence?
Donaldson, 2006 studied adolescent involvement in sports and emotional well-being. Being a correlative study, it simply measured involvement in sports and emotional well-being through validated measures. Unsurprisingly, they found that degree of athletic involvement positively correlated with emotional well-being for adolescents. However, the study did not expressly consider previously mentioned underlying mechanisms for emotional well-being: namely, belongingness and mastery. Belongingness and mastery are well-established human needs (Deci, 2000). Being on a team contributes to fulfilling both of those needs through camaraderie and skill acquisition.
Donaldson’s study does not presume that athletics are the only way to gain emotional competence (2006). However, in its focus on athletics it ignores other avenues to belongingness, mastery and social referencing. In toddlerhood, children learn about the safety of novel stimuli by referencing caregivers. Beginning in childhood and intensifying in adolescence, teens begin to learn the safety and frameworks for adult interaction by referencing peers, and thus prepare to master the upcoming developmental crisis of intimacy versus isolation. Future studies should focus on the perceptual experience of athletics, drama clubs, religious groups and other purposeful activities. Additionally, exploring adolescents’ intrapsychic experience of membership will be an important element of future research. An adolescent must perceive their mastery to experience its benefits.
Organized activities seem to play a role in adolescent development of emotional regulation. What happens when those organized activities are unavailable or understaffed/underfunded? How do adolescents develop emotional regulation without positive adult influence? I am suspicious that although a few effective alternatives to “traditional” organized activities do evolve, such as kinship and neighborhood networks, developing appropriate emotional regulation skills requires some influence of consistent adult leadership. Peer created and managed alternatives, though an essential element of developing independence and priming for intimacy, are only one element of positive adolescent development. If positive and consistent adults are unavailable, by either personal or systemic obstructions, adolescents are left with only the peer-led option, which may contribute an intensification of the personal fable and the normalizing of reactive emotional states. Both factors would seem to, in turn, leave young adults unprepared for a world in both emotional expression and non-expression are socially relevant and appropriate at certain times (Kennedy-Moore, 1999).
Creating the space for organized activities and more informal multigenerational networks is a daunting task. From my perspective, it begins with those three words: “creating the space.” Adults cannot devote time to their neighborhoods if they are working long hours to make a living. Teachers will not devote time to afterschool activities if they are already overworked with classrooms of 35-40 children. Make classrooms smaller, pay people living wages, create safe community spaces and give communities and individuals the resources they need to require so they can devote their intrinsic resources to their children.
Deci, E.L., & Ryan, R.M. (2000). The “what” and “why” of goal pursuits: Human needs and the self-determination of behavior. Psychological Inquiry, 11(4), 227-268
Donaldson, S.J., & Ronan, K.R. (2006) The effects of sports participation on young adolescents’ emotional well-being. Adolescence, 41(162), 369-389.
Hutman, T., & Depretto, M. (2009) The emergence of empathy during infancy. Cognition, Brain, Behavior: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 13(4), 367-390
Kennedy-Moore, E. & Watson, J.C. (1999) Expressing emotion: myths, realities and therapeutic strategies. The Guilford Press: New York, NY
Spinrad, T.L., Eisenberg, N., Cumberland, A., Fabes, R.A., Valiente, C., Shepard, S.A., et al. (2006) Relation of emotion-related regulation to children’s social competence: A longitudinal study. Emotion, 6(3), 498-510