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Toddler’s Emotions Vary by Context

Parents react to their toddlers' emotional displays with either supportive or unsupportive strategies. There is great importance in considering how to respond to toddlers' emotions within the appropriate context. Over time parental responses to emotions may impact how a child internalizes and manages their feelings. Researchers Luebbe et al. (2011) found that mothers who responded to their toddlers' emotions in punishing or minimizing ways had toddlers who increased in internalizing behaviors.

The method used for this study consisted of one hundred and six two-year-olds, and demographics such as race and socioeconomic status were taken into consideration. Before the study, mothers came into the laboratory to complete a consent form and questionnaires. During the procedure, the toddlers participated in various activities in their mother's presence. Then the toddlers participated in videotaped activities(episodes) designed to evoke low and high distress. For example, a little distress episode included a puppet show where the child watched two animal puppets talk with each other and invited the child to participate in three one-minute activities like playing catch. In a high distress episode, a twelve-inch robot was controlled by a remote behind a mirror and randomly made noises in the corner while the child sat on the mother's lap. To measure negative affect, a scale was used to assess behaviors that consisted of facial expressions that depicted fear or sadness or negative verbal responses such as crying or statements about distress. A one hundred and ninety-three item scale was used to measure internalizing behaviors, where parents rated their child's behavior in the past month. To measure responses to emotions, mothers completed two assessment scales about coping with toddlers' negative emotions. The two scales consisted of items that included scenarios of the child and parent they may encounter and how each would respond. The responses were then coded to be used for statistical analysis.

Toddlers who observe negative effects in situations where most toddlers remain neutral or enthusiastic is emotional dysregulation. When emotional dysregulation is present, that leaves a child vulnerable to maladaptation. Maladaptation is the failure to adapt to environmental circumstances. Maladaptation can negatively affect a child's behavioral outcome. Although this study did not find that supportive parental behavior can decrease internalization, it suggests that parents impact children's relationship with their emotions. Over time, children who increase in internalizing behaviors are more likely to repress their feelings. If a child learns to suppress their emotions, it can cause them to fail to regulate their feelings and present emotions in dysregulated ways. This research finding is important because it shows that emotions vary in context, and helping children understand that is what can help them mature in an emotionally regulated way.


Luebbe, A. M., Kiel, E. J., & Buss, K. A. (2011). Toddlers’ context-varying emotions,

maternal responses to emotions, and internalizing behaviors. Emotion, 11(3), 697–703.

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