The Origins of Gender Differences in Emotion Regulation: Insights from Developmental Psychology
Posted on Feb 14, 2011 by Karen Niven
Cultural stereotypes would have us believe that men and women should differ in the way that they experience and display emotion. One only has to think of films and television to be reminded of the way emotions are a part of stereotypical images of men or women. Women are usually portrayed as sensitive, emotional, sweet-natured and dependent while “leading” men are presented as being aggressive, controlled, assertive and independent.
The media also tends to depict women as more in touch with their emotions (e.g., pictured crying at films) and having a greater understanding of emotions in themselves and others (e.g., seen talking at length about emotional situations with their female friends). In contrast, men are portrayed as having more difficulty expressing their feelings, to such an extent that they may erupt in fits of rage, frustration or aggression. Research highlights both these stereotypical beliefs and how these gender roles are reflected in behaviour. To illustrate, Fabes and Martin (1991) asked a large sample of undergraduate students to judge the frequency with which males and females experience and express emotions, finding a general belief that men do not express what they feel. Equally, Kring and Gordon (1998) looked at differential responding to emotional films, finding that women were, in fact, more emotionally expressive, reflected through self-reports and skin conductance. Indeed, it seems that it is more socially acceptable for women to display emotions such as happiness, sadness and fear and men to display anger, frustration and aggression.
Women are also considered to be more emotionally perceptive than men. Most women are more attuned to picking up on others’ emotional states and will often encourage discussion about them, whereas men often appear to seemingly not notice or if they do, brush it off (certainly not choosing discussion!).These variations in emotional display rules lead one to wonder how men and women come to experience and deal with emotion so differently. It is thought that the socialisation behaviours that parents use in responding to their children may go some way to explain how these gender differences. The strategies that parents use in response to children’s emotional expression can have a strong impact on their developing regulation, with behaviours such as distraction, reappraisal and physical comfort associated with better emotion regulation in both younger (e.g., Kopp, 1989) and older children (e.g., Morris et al., 2011). Gender has been found to influence reactivity and regulation of emotion in childhood, with boys already tending to react with more anger, whereas girls with more fear and sadness (Buss, Brooker & Leuty, 2008). From an early age, girls have also been found to engage in more socially mediated regulation (seeking contact and proximity to caregiver) than boys. It has been suggested that this may be a result of the influence of the parents, with them promoting more anger reactions in boys and encouraging more dependency in girls.
But how are these purported gender differences reflected in the emotional development of infants and toddlers? And at what point do these societal expectations affect this variation between boys and girls?
Our study on emotional development looks at how young children learn to cope with frustrating or anxiety-provoking events, and how this develops across the first three years of life. In our frustration task, for example, we allow children to play with a novel, interactive toy for a brief time before it is taken away and placed behind a glass screen. This task is designed to elicit frustration by preventing the child from playing with something that they want. At 15 months of age, boys and girls respond in much the same way, with our data showing no significant differences in the way they react to this frustrating event. By 2 years, however, quite dramatic gender differences suddenly became apparent, with boys showing more anger (both facially and behaviourally), protest and struggling than girls.
Equally, the way in which girls and boys regulate their emotions starts to become quite distinct by the age of 2. Girls demonstrated better emotion regulation overall, particularly in the way in which they used self-soothing strategies to deal with their emotions (e.g. thumb-sucking, hair stroking etc).
Interestingly, gender differences arose not only in children’s responses to this frustrating situation but also in the way in which parents responded to their children during the event. Mothers demonstrated greater sensitivity to girls than boys, empathizing, mirroring and responding more to girls’ emotions than to boys. It seems that even from this very early age, parents are implicitly encouraging their daughters to express their emotion more openly as well as understand and make sense of their emotion; and perhaps allowing their boys to express their anger because it is more socially accepted for them to do so.
We have just begun our final wave of data collection where we will see the children one last time at the age of 3. We are curious if we will continue to see even greater differences in how boys and girls display and regulate their emotions at this age. By age 3, children are now adept at using language, and one might expect differences in how children use language to regulate their emotions, perhaps with girls using greater social communication with their mothers and thus remaining less frustrated than boys. To be continued!
Kyla Vaillancourt, Frances Warren & Pasco Fearon
Buss, K. A., Brooker, R. J., & Leuty, M. (2008). Girls most of the time, boys some of the time: Gender differences in toddlers’ use of maternal proximity and comfort seeking. Infancy, 13, 1-29.
Fabes, R.A., & Martin, C.L. (1991). Gender and age stereotypes of emotionality. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 17, 532-540.
Kopp, C. (1989). Regulation of distress and negative emotions: A developmental view. Developmental Psychology, 25, 343–35.
Kring, A. M., & Gordon, A. H. (1998). Sex differences in emotion: Expression, experience, and physiology. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74, 686-703.
Morris, A. S., Silk, J. S., Morris, M. D. S., Steinberg, L., Aucoin, K. J., & Keyes, A. W. (2011). The influence of mother-child emotion regulation strategies on children’s expression of anger and sadness. Developmental Psychology, 47, 213-225.