The impact of early individual differences in emotionality and emotion regulation on social and emotional development

Individuals differ widely in their emotional lives. These differences across individuals in the experience and expression of emotion are observable from the first months of life and they are relatively stable across development – such that how individuals respond to novelty from early in development can help us tell how you would respond to similar situations later in adolescence and adulthood. My work is based on research that highlights the importance of early individual differences in emotionality and emotion regulation, often conceptualized as temperament. Specifically, fearful temperament is a behavioral profile characterized by negative affect, high withdrawal, inhibition to novelty and is a strong predictor of later internalizing problems like anxiety and depression. In contrast, exuberance is an early behavioral profile marked by positive affect, high activity levels, high approach towards novelty and is a significant predictor of later externalizing and attention problems.

Although temperament is one of the best early predictors of later psychopathology, not all individuals characterized with a specific high-risk temperament go on to develop later socioemotional problems. This implies the presence of other factors, internal or external to the child, that interact with temperament to shape the emergence of maladaptive outcomes. In addition to examining the predictive power of early temperament on socioemotional problems, my work has also focused on how emotion regulation can ameliorate or exacerbate temperamental risk for psychopathology.

Affect-biased attention as a form of emotion regulation

My work has also focused on the regulatory impact of how children attend to and process social and affective information on social and emotional outcomes. I consider affect-biased attention as an automatic form of emotion regulation, which proactively shapes how individuals perceive, interpret, and ultimately respond to their environment. However, most of the available evidence comes from studies in the internalizing literature with adults, limiting its application to developmental psychopathology. As such, my colleagues and I proposed a developmental model of affect-biased attention to examine its role on the development of anxiety. Specifically, we suggest that affect-biased attention can help sustain early socioemotional and behavioral profiles over time, helping identify and explain the different developmental pathways stemming from a common early risk factor like temperamental risk. The model also emphasizes using a multi-method approach to investigate the neurocognitive mechanisms that underlie affect-biased attention.

Neural correlates of social information processing and risk for psychopathology

In addition to behaviorally examining the impact of how children attend to and process social information, my work has investigated the neural correlates of social information processing and its development. Moreover, I examine how individual differences in the neural correlates of social information processing predict risk for psychopathology. For example, in one recent study, I examined how young children process and respond to peer social rejection, a social threat. By adapting an ecologically valid experimental paradigm for EEG, I found that children’s behavioral and neural responses to social rejection predicted internalizing problems. Moreover, the relation between neural responses to social rejection and internalizing problems were stronger for children who displayed biased attention to threat. These results suggest that children with heightened threat processing in two measures are at the highest risk for internalizing problems.

Using a multi-method approach to study regulatory processes across development

Much of my research examines how individual differences in children’s ability to regulate their behaviors and emotions can serve as a mediator or moderator of the effects of the longitudinal relations between early temperament and later psychopathology. My work in self-regulation applies a developmental cognitive neuroscience framework that distinguishes between subcomponents of self-regulation such as the monitoring/detection of salient stimuli and the instantiation of control in response to such stimuli. Importantly, my colleagues and I have shown that this distinction helps explain seemingly paradoxical results, especially in the context of children’s temperament. In order to capture the multiple components of self-regulation, this work has lead me to study self-regulation across childhood using several methods, including autonomic physiology, computerized tasks, EEG, ERP, fMRI, and micro-analytic coding of behavior in the laboratory by using advanced statistical models.

Adapting and refining how we measure emotion and emotion regulation across development

My work integrates questionnaire, behavioral, physiological, and neuroimaging methods to study children emotional development. I have done this by developing novel experimental paradigms that allow me to examine how infants’ and young children’s behavioral and neural responses to emotionally-provoking situations with high ecological validity. Moreover, as developmental cognitive and affective neuroscience as a field strives towards larger and more representative samples, there is an increasing need for standardized tools and methods. We develop open-source methods that provide that provide objectivity, reproducibility, and QA of the EEG data, especially for studies with developmental populations. Some of these efforts have also lead to co-editing a forthcoming issue on Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience on novel EEG methods.