An exploration of emotion language use by preschool-aged children and their parents : naturalistic and lab settings

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Fellows, Michelle Dyan, 1981-

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Emotion language use provides insight into a person's emotional landscape. However, little is known about how preschool aged children and their parents use emotion language in their real world interactions. To address the shortcomings of the current body of empirical work on naturally occurring emotion language, this dissertation asks the following four research questions: 1) How do children and parents use emotion words in their daily lives?; 2) How is children's emotion language related to parents' emotion language?; 3) How is emotion language use related to emotional functioning?; and 4) How does emotion language in a lab setting compare to a natural setting? This dissertation implements a naturalistic methodology tool to answer the above questions. Thirty-five preschool aged children and their parents were recruited to participate in a two-wave longitudinal study in which the children wore a digital recording device for one day at each of the time points to capture acoustic information about the emotion language and behaviors they and their parents use in their daily lives. Additionally, participants completed a traditional laboratory based paradigm used to study emotion language within families. Parents also completed self-report measures related to emotion functioning for themselves and their child. Results indicate that children and their parents use high rates of positive emotion but very low rates of negative emotion in their naturally occurring interactions. This is different from lab based paradigms that elicit high rates of both positive and negative emotion language from children and parents. Next, children's use of emotion words tends to match the emotion language of their mothers more than their fathers but gender of the child also plays an important role. Very little support emerged for the emotion regulation model, as evidenced by children who cry and whine the most and who have the most behavioral problems tending to use negative emotions the most. The preponderance of the evidence suggests that emotion language reflects emotional state rather than regulates it. And, finally, the ecological validity of laboratory studies of emotion word usage is called into question by the independence of emotion language elicited in the lab and the natural expression of emotion words in a natural setting. Implications for researchers conducting work in the area of emotion language and emotional development are discussed.