Mother-toddler Coregulation of Emotion

Open Access
LeDonne, Emily N
Graduate Program:
Master of Science
Document Type:
Master Thesis
Date of Defense:
October 18, 2011
Committee Members:
  • Pamela Marie Cole, Thesis Advisor
  • coregulation
  • emotion expression
  • emotion exchange
  • parenting
  • toddler period
  • sequential data
  • time-series data
  • anger
Emotion coregulation occurs when dyadic partners mutually, reciprocally, and bi-directionally influence each other’s emotional experience (Cole, Teti, & Zahn-Waxler, 2003; Tronick, 1989). Coregulatory processes influence the development of child self-regulation skills and thus have mental health implications (Cole & Hall, 2008). Most research examining emotion coregulation has involved infants, but more recently its importance during other periods has been considered (e.g. Feng, Shaw, Skuban, & Lane, 2007). The proposed study focuses on toddlerhood because it is marked by rapid developmental changes, including heightened incidence of child assertion of goals that conflict with parental goals. How these developmental changes contribute to changes in coregulatory processes is not well understood. This thesis assesses the degree of coregulation of emotion in mother-toddler interaction in a context that optimizes participants having divergent goals: over an 8 minute period toddlers waited to open a gift until mothers completed work. Employing second-by-second coding, the thesis examined the overall number of seconds and percentage of time in which toddlers and mothers expressed emotions and the number of times their task orientation and emotions changed (i.e., shifted from one emotion to another, or decreased or increased in expression intensity) during the task. We aimed to establish the frequency of (1) child emotion and behavior changes as precursors to mothers’ orienting toward the child, and (2) change in expression in one interaction partner occurring after a change in the other while the two were oriented toward each other. Results indicated that mothers oriented toward toddlers for about 20% of task time. They were more expressive overall and shifted their expressions more when oriented toward their toddlers than when working. Toddlers expressed more intense emotions, overall happiness, and focus on the gift, and showed fewer shifts in emotion expression, when mothers were oriented toward them compared to when mothers worked. When we examined precursors to mothers’ orienting toward toddlers, we found that changes in toddler anger expressions and focus on the gift were more likely to prompt the mother to orient toward their toddler than shifts in happy expressions. Once oriented toward toddlers, mothers expressed anger infrequently (about 10% of the time). Mothers’ anger expressions evoked toddler anger expressions. However, toddler anger expressions were not as evocative for mothers, who were more likely to stop, rather than start, expressing anger after toddlers expressed anger. Results are discussed in terms of providing evidence for mutual, reciprocal, and bi-directional influences of mother-toddler emotion expressions during a frustrating task in which dyadic partners have competing goals. The thesis provides a rich descriptive picture of the emotional nature of the challenging wait, and demonstrates how mothers and children influence each other’s emotional expressions over the course of the task at a more micro-analytic level than most prior studies. Future research will build on this work to use variables generated from descriptive data to predict developmental outcomes and further explore the role of dyadic coregulation of emotion in the development of child self-regulation of emotion.