Does emotion regulation affect peer problems and emotional problems?

Forrest, C. L., Gibson, J. L., Halligan, S. L., & St Clair, M. C. (2020). A Cross-Lagged Analysis of Emotion Regulation, Peer Problems, and Emotional Problems in Children With and Without Early Language Difficulties: Evidence From the Millennium Cohort Study. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, 63(4), 1227-1239.

Aim of the paper

We wanted to find out if children and young people with DLD develop differently from their peers in terms of social and emotional wellbeing. We know that adolescents with DLD can experience more feelings of anxiety and depression, but we’re not really sure how these difficulties develop. We investigated whether a difficulty with regulating emotions in the early years could be responsible for peer problems and emotional problems in later childhood and adolescence.

Emotion regulation difficulties = Child has trouble controlling their emotions and may over-react or act impulsively.

Emotional problems = Child has many worries, is nervous and feels unhappy or downhearted

Peer problems = Child has difficulty making friends or very few friends, is picked on

What was found

Using the Millennium Cohort Study we looked at emotion regulation difficulties, peer problems and emotional problems at 3, 5, 7, 11 and 14 years old. We compared children who were ‘at risk of DLD’ (rDLD) to children with no language difficulties. We found that children at risk of DLD had more difficulty managing their emotions, had more problems with friends and were more likely to experience feelings of worry or sadness than children without language difficulties. Poor emotion regulation at age 3, 5 and 7 was responsible for later peer and emotional problems at age 5, 7, 11 and 14 for both groups. There was a stronger link between poor emotion regulation abilities at age 3 and emotional problems at age 5 for the rDLD group. That is, children who struggled to manage their emotions at age 3 also had more feelings of sadness and worries at age 5. This effect was stronger in the rDLD group than for the group of children without a language difficulty. A similar finding was found in middle childhood - feelings of sadness and worries at 5 years of age led to more difficulties managing emotions at 7 years of age in children at risk of DLD. We also found that peer and emotional problems were associated with each other across development. That is, children who had difficulties with friends at age 3 also experienced more feelings of sadness and worries at age 5. Similarly, those with more feelings of sadness and worries at age 3 had more difficulties with friends at age 5. So children who have fewer friends felt more sadness but also children who feel sad have fewer friends.

What does this mean?

This paper tells us that children and young people with language difficulties, such as DLD, have more difficulties with friends and poorer emotional wellbeing. We also know that children with language difficulties have more difficulty controlling their emotions than children without language difficulties. These early difficulties controlling emotions can increase feelings of sadness and worry. This might be because they have trouble labelling emotions or experience fewer social situations where they learn to control emotions. Perhaps more focus on naming emotions and modelling social situations could help to improve social and emotional difficulties. However, more research needs to be done in this area to figure out what is causing the difficulties in controlling emotions.

Where can I read this paper?

This is an open access paper so anyone can read it. Click here for the full paper.