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Developmental and Translational Models of Emotion Regulation and Dysregulation: Links to Childhood Affective Disorders


Location: Bethesda, MD

Sponsored by:
Division of Developmental Translational Research (DDTR)
Division of Services and Intervention Research (DSIR)

On April 3 and 4, 2006, the National Institute of Mental Health sponsored a meeting that brought together basic and clinical scientists in the field of emotion regulation to review current models, identify research gaps, and propose promising directions for future research. The meeting provided a venue for research scientists to explore potential links between basic behavioral science and neuroscience on emotion regulation and clinical research on affective disorders in preadolescent children.

Each participant was charged to address the following questions: (a) How can we gain clarity regarding precise definitions and terminology? (b) Can we develop and adopt a neurodevelopmental model of emotion regulation? (c) What can emotion regulation and dysregulation tell us about risk for depression? (d) How can research in this area be translated into intervention approaches?

The overarching goal of the meeting was to facilitate multidisciplinary dialogue and identify areas ready for translational work.

Major Themes

Listed below are some of the major themes and discussion points that emerged during presentations and/or discussion.

Conceptual/Developmental Issues of Emotion and Emotion Regulation: The workshop highlighted a full range of conceptual and methodological approaches for defining and assessing emotion and emotion regulation including observations of social interaction, physiology, imaging, and genetics.

  • Multidimensional approaches (e.g., examination of cognitive processes, neural activation, and cortisol levels in response to stressors) are critical for elucidating emotional processes.
  • Emotion regulation can occur both voluntarily and automatically.
  • Self-regulation of emotion serves as a powerful social mediator.
  • One major challenge is documenting which environmental factors are critical in shaping, and in turn, are shaped by emotion regulation.
  • Another challenge is lack of normative information about a number of key behaviors that we seek to describe.

Neural/Genetic Perspectives: The workshop examined brain mechanisms and neurodevelopmental processes involved in emotion regulation.

  • Theoretical accounts of emotion regulation need to show consistency with known biological constraints and data on neurobiological processes. Concepts from affective and cognitive neuroscience should be used to dissect the subcomponents of emotion and emotion regulation in a way that honors the distinctions made by the brain.
  • Brain-behavior paradigms aim to connect psychological phenomena to precise measurement of real-time neural activity for a deeper understanding of individual differences in emotion development.
  • A more accurate model of the activity of brain systems that subserve emotion regulation in children is likely to lead to a better understanding of emotional problems and disorders, adding a whole new dimension to diagnosis, prevention, and treatment.
  • Challenges include categorizing variations in experience and risk profiles; preliminary data suggests that children form perceptual categories for different emotion faces, but children with a history of abuse are overly inclusive in categorizing “ambiguous” faces as angry.
  • Behavioral flexibility in challenging emotional situations seems to be related to specific neurocognitive mechanisms, which can be identified and examined with specific laboratory tasks.
  • Emotion stimuli may simultaneously engage neural systems associated with the activation and regulation or control of an emotion; the patterns of neural activity in children may differ from those in adults.

Dysregulation and Linkages to Affective Disorders: Participants examined new models of emotion regulation and dysregulation and linkages between regulatory processes and affective disorders.

  • Although a focus on emotion regulation and its development may provide a broader perspective on pathways to mood disorders, there is limited research linking emotion regulatory processes to affective disorders.
  • Impaired emotional responses are acquired developmentally in a social context (e.g., infants born to women who develop depression differ with respect to positive and negative affect), and the process leading to the affective differentiation appears to be dynamic.
  • Consideration of normative developmental changes, particularly those involving brain maturation and cognition, is important in linking emotion dysregulation with the emergence of mood symptoms and disorders.
  • Emotion regulation response effectiveness may depend on the integrity and complexity of related neural circuits.
  • A focus on individual differences in emotion regulation is critical for understanding risk for psychopathology. Attempts to identify emotion regulation risk profiles (e.g., differentiation of anger and sadness on the basis of behavior patterns and physiological responses) can be fruitful in determining links to specific disorders.

Translational Implications for Interventions: The workshop addressed early parent child relational approaches and interventions with infants, preschoolers, and school age children.

  • Relational interventions for postpartum depression that target the mother’s depression and the parent-child relationship have been effective in ameliorating maternal symptoms and improving maternal perception of their children and themselves in the parenting role. In infants, these investigations have been effective in increasing attention regulation and reducing emotional dysregulation.
  • Promising intervention approaches include those that are dyadic and acknowledge the critical role of parents; take into account the developmental level and the context in which emotion regulation/dysregulation occurs; and are maximally engaging.
  • Emotion regulation is implicitly addressed in most depression interventions (e.g., CBT involves cognitive and behavioral strategies to manage dysphoria); but, given that it is a core feature of mood disorders, emotion regulation rarely has been the explicit target in intervention research.
  • Perhaps partly due to limitations in assessment of emotion regulation, little research has examined whether changes in emotion regulation capacity are associated with or mediate treatment gains; such research might inform refinements of interventions targeting affective disorders.
  • Emotion dysregulation is posited as a risk/etiological factor in various disorders; accordingly, successful early intervention and prevention programs have been developed in preschools that focus on emotion knowledge and emotion awareness. The utility of such programs for reducing/preventing affective disorders, specifically, requires further examination.


Significant problems and challenges include limited discussion and cross talk between basic emotion researchers, clinical researchers, and interventionists. Much intervention uses psychoeducation with the assumption that telling or teaching can lead to change. Laboratory measures and normative data can inform assessment of affective disorder. Work on emotion regulation must incorporate more fully what is known about brain plasticity. If we are changing behavior, we are changing the brain. To capture such change, intervention researchers should consider assessments of change for “outcome” indices.

Areas for future research include:

  1. Integrating basic research on emotion and emotion regulation processes and clinical research on affective disorders;
  2. Incorporating emerging neuroscience methods and knowledge of the brain into work on emotion and emotion regulation;
  3. Identifying emotion regulation risk profiles;
  4. Examining regulatory capacities across different developmental systems to determine how emotion control problems, as well as other control difficulties, emerge in affective disorders;
  5. Developing interventions with attention to emotion and emotion regulatory processes as well as interventions that target specific neurobehavioral systems;
  6. Considering the school and preschool context for translational work involving emotions; and (7) creating opportunities to work (and train) across disciplines.