Academic journal article Merrill-Palmer Quarterly

Longitudinal Links between Maladaptive Anger Regulation, Peer Problems, and Aggression in Middle Childhood

Academic journal article Merrill-Palmer Quarterly

Longitudinal Links between Maladaptive Anger Regulation, Peer Problems, and Aggression in Middle Childhood

Article excerpt

Learning to regulate one's negative emotions is seen as one of the major developmental tasks in childhood (Hay, Payne, & Chadwick, 2004). Children with deficits in emotion regulation are at risk for various problematic outcomes (for a review, see Mullin & Hinshaw, 2007). In particular, the link between anger regulation and aggression is well established (e.g., Gilliom, Shaw, Beck, Schonberg, & Lukon, 2002; Helmsen, Koglin, & Petermann, 2011). However, to date, only a few studies have investigated whether deficits in anger regulation directly contribute to the development of aggressive behavior or whether the association between anger regulation and aggression can be explained by mediating variables. The present study was designed to address this gap. The focus was on problems with peer relationships (henceforth referred to as peer problems) as a potential underlying variable, as problems in relationships with peers (e.g., peer rejection, victimization) have been found to be both a consequence of deficits in anger regulation and a predictor of aggression. Thus, deficits in anger regulation may increase the risk of having problematic peer relations, which in turn may lead to aggression. This study examined the prospective links between maladaptive anger regulation and aggressive behavior in middle childhood over a 10-month period by using an observational measure to assess anger regulation in situ and analyzing the role of peer problems in the pathway from anger regulation to aggression.

The Experience and Regulation of Anger in Childhood

Anger is an emotion that is typically elicited through events that block the achievement of an individual's goal and is conceptualized as an approach emotion that is associated with an impulse to act (Lewis, 2010). Emotion regulation is defined as "the processes by which individuals influence which emotions they have, when they have them, and how they experience and express these emotions" (Gross, 1998, p. 275). Strategies used to regulate emotions may be adaptive or maladaptive (Eisenberg & Spinrad, 2004), but their adaptivity is defined relative to the outcome variables in question and the context in which they are used (Gross, 1998). Therefore, we defined the adaptivity of anger regulation strategies specifically in terms of their consequences for the two outcomes examined in this study: peer problems and aggression. Accordingly, strategies are considered as adaptive or maladaptive to the extent that they reduce or increase the likelihood of peer problems and aggression.

The assessment of anger regulation in middle childhood has typically relied on self-reports or parent reports (for a review, see Adrian, Zeman, & Veits, 2011). However, it has been questioned whether these data sources can provide reliable evidence on how children manage their anger in specific situations (Underwood, 1997). Therefore, we employed a behavioral observation method that records children's anger regulation strategies in response to an anger-eliciting situation (Rohlf & Krahé, 2015).

The Link Between Anger Regulation and Aggression

Theoretically, the link between anger and aggression can be explained by the action tendency that is associated with angry feelings, as this action tendency is assumed to activate aggression-related motor impulses (Berkowitz & Harmon-Jones, 2004). Accordingly, the likelihood of aggressive behavior increases if a person is unable to effectively reduce the frequency and intensity of anger by using adaptive regulation strategies. This theoretical link between deficits in anger regulation and aggression has been supported consistently in cross-sectional and longitudinal studies in childhood (e.g., Gilliom et al., 2002; Helmsen et al., 2011). A longitudinal study that examined the direction of the relation between emotion regulation and psychopathology, including aggression, has found that emotion dysregulation predicted increases in aggression over time, whereas emotion dysregulation was not predicted by aggressive behavior (McLaughlin, Hatzenbuehler, Mennin, & Nolen-Hoeksema, 2011). …

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