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5 The Emergence of a Hierarchy of Reactivity, Regulatory, and Coping Processes

5 The Emergence of a Hierarchy of Reactivity, Regulatory, and Coping Processes

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5.5 The Emergence of a Hierarchy of Reactivity, Regulatory…


This kind of differentiation and hierarchical integration is a familiar pattern

characteristic of development in many domains (Raeff 2011; Werner 1957). In the

development of coping, at this early period, it seems that the first neurophysiological subsystems charged with stress reactivity already during prenatal development are initially fused with regulatory actions in the form of reflexes. However,

starting at birth, through the regulatory participation of caregivers, the newborn’s

actions gradually become decoupled or differentiated from the direct control of

neurophysiological subsystems and are turned over to social partners for interpersonal stress reactivity and regulation postnatally. The neurophysiological systems

are, in turn, buffered by these social relationships, and space for “coping” is created,

even if the first forms of coping are almost completely external, carried out by the

soothing and comforting actions of the caregiver, and only guided or informed by

the expressive actions of the newborn.

This process adds to the hierarchy of reactivity and regulatory systems that, like

the development of the autonomic nervous system, prioritizes the most recently

emergent forms of regulation as the first line of defense. At this age, these are

interpersonal coping systems, which are still integrated with infants’ neurophysiology through the sensitive attunement of the caregiver to the authentic cues of the

infant. If this system is effective in establishing homeostatic functions, it can help

maintain the infant in a state of alert readiness to interact with the social and

physical context, smoothly utilizing the developing parasympathetic vagal system

to up-regulate resources for energy and attention when demands increase, and to

down-regulate arousal when demands subside. If these integrated systems are not

effective in dealing with stress, infants can fall back on their more primitive (and

energetically expensive) SAM and HPA systems for orchestrating stress responses.

In a securely attached dyad, the kinds of infant distress responses that these older

systems generate, which may be initially low in volume but can be amplified as

needed, also result in greater attention and participation by the caregiver to help

comfort and care for the infant.


Summary of Transformations of the Coping System

during the Neonatal Period

By the end of the first three months of life, infants’ coping equipment, which started

as a diffuse set of undirected expressions of distress and reflexive reactions fused to

a vigilant and reactive neurophysiological system, has become an integrated stress

reactivity and regulatory system that is tuned to safety and thus hyporesponsive—

capable of both supporting homeostatic functions and dispatching energetic

resources for responding to external demands. A scaffold for the progressive

reorganization of these systems is the development of a secure attachment relationship, in which caregivers respond to infants’ initially undifferentiated expressions of distress, protest, and other negative emotion, using increasingly more


5 Development of “Coping” in Newborns …

effective external coping strategies for repair and comfort (Barrett and Campos

1991; Kopp 1989). As part of this relationship, infants develop the capacity to be

comforted by caregivers and so begin to rely on an omnibus coping strategy,

namely, proximity seeking, that will support the future development of the entire

coping system.

Chapter 6

Development of Coping during Infancy:

Implicit Appraisals, Intentional Action

Regulation, and Co-regulated Coping


When all goes well, infants arrive at the end of the neonatal period in possession of

several ingredients that will become essential foundations for the next phase of

building a constructive coping system. They possess a bottom-up stress reactivity

subsystem that is alert but calm, tuned to a safe and caring social environment, and

so no longer regulated solely by reflexes and a nervous physiology. Instead, regulation is now handled jointly by the social engagement/attachment system. At the

same time, however, the external coping provided by caregivers remains well

integrated with neonatal stress neurophysiology through processes of caregiver

attunement to infant expressive signals. As a result, the developing stress reactivity

system has been augmented by the capacity to be smoothly regulated by caregivers’

presence and actions. Such a “coping” system, backed up by the omnibus strategy

of proximity seeking, is capable of handling routine homeostatic processes while at

the same time remaining responsive (but not over-reactive) to internal and external

allostatic demands. These early accomplishments have contributed to a

well-organized interpersonal system that serves as a platform upon which subsequent progress toward the development of healthy coping can be built.

The rest of the first year of life brings with it the emergence of many new

competencies. As described in detail in this chapter, three developments can be

highlighted as particularly important to age-graded improvements in coping. First,

infants’ stress reactivity and regulation begin to be guided more and more by their

implicit appraisals of challenging and stressful encounters, as described in work on

the development of internal working models of attachment figures and generalized

contingency expectations. Second, infants’ goal-directed coping actions become

sturdier and more robust as intrinsic motivation and sensorimotor intentionality

begin to take center stage. Third, the interpersonal coping system is transformed

from one in which caregivers do most of the external coping to one characterized by

increasing co-regulation. Together, these developments contribute to the kinds of

rudimentary “coping interactions” during the first year of life that may lead to

increasingly hardy neurophysiological and psycho-behavioral systems for dealing

with challenge and stress.

© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2016

E.A. Skinner and M.J. Zimmer-Gembeck, The Development of Coping,

DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-41740-0_6




6 Development of Coping during Infancy …

Threat Detection and Stress Reactivity: Emergence

of Appraisal Systems that Increasingly Guide Action


From the first weeks of life, infants learn from their interactions with social partners

and physical contexts, contributing to a growing understanding of the nature and

meaning of their transactions with the environment. Especially important to the

development of coping are understandings gleaned from goal-directed and

attachment-relevant encounters organized around “problems” marked by distress,

frustration, irritation, and other negative emotions. The salience of these problems

and their attendant emotions focus neonates’ attention on such episodes, the significance of which activates mechanisms of retention and learning described by

operant and associative conditioning (Harman et al. 1997; Maras and Baram 2012).

The repeated accommodation of reflexes to the demands of such challenging

interactions transforms these preadapted behaviors into habitual responses that are

embedded in implicit memory. These mechanisms soon lift infants’ stress responses

off of neurophysiological reflexes and onto action schema or habits (Rothbart and

Posner 2006) that are both more flexible and more open to learning, creating a space

for the development of coping appraisals.

Development of internal working models and contingency expectations. Based

on their experiences during stressful or challenging interactions, infants begin to

construct coping appraisals in the form of generalized expectations about what is

likely to happen when they feel distress or encounter problems (Sherman et al. 2015).

Such expectancies and appreciations, because they are based on cumulative experiences, can be considered adaptive, in that they can be used to more flexibly guide

infants’ goal-directed actions and communications, perhaps starting as early as 8–

10 weeks of age (Frankenhuis et al. 2013; Rovee-Collier 1999; Sodian 2011). One set

of such expectancies are based on caregivers’ responses to infants’ attachment

behaviors (i.e., their emotional appeals and expressions of distress), and have been

conceptualized and studied as “internal working models” of attachment figures

(Sherman et al. 2015). A second set of more problem-focused appraisals involve

infants’ generalized expectancies about the effects of their actions and have been

studied in work on contingency awareness, detection, estimation, and statistical

learning during infancy (Frankenhuis et al. 2013; Watson 1966).

Although questions remain about whether infant cognitive and memory capacities during the first year of life are sufficient to allow them to construct working

models that incorporate aggregated experience and predict others’ actions (Sodian

2011; Sherman et al. 2015), it is important to point out that “coping” or “attachment”

interactions have several features that seem to prioritize them for attention and

integration into generalized expectancies (Rovee-Collier and Cuervas 2009). These

interactions are emotional, they are social, and they are connected to infants’ own

signals and actions. Compared to, for example, emotionally neutral, object-related

“event-event” contingencies, infants seem primed to attend to, remember, and act on

“hot” interpersonal “action-event” contingencies—(Frankenhuis et al. 2013),

6.1 Threat Detection and Stress Reactivity: Emergence of Appraisal Systems …


perhaps because of their importance in tuning stress and threat detection systems.

Consistent with their depiction as “internal working models,” these generalized

expectancies, because they are experience based, are posited not only to be constructed as “running totals,” but also to be continuously updated, revised, and

reworked based on subsequent experiences.

Coping appraisals. In terms of coping, these kinds of generalized expectancies,

built up through associative and operant conditioning over the first months of life,

can be considered to work with neurobiological stress and threat detection subsystems through the mechanism of (implicit) appraisals of potentially stressful

environmental encounters (Thayer et al. 2012). Several mechanisms of effects have

been suggested (Dykas and Cassidy 2011). On the one hand, appraisals may support a calm and open interest to actual experiences, both challenging and threatening. On the other hand, these appraisals may contribute to the emergence of an

implicit positive bias. They may predispose infants to view potentially stressful

encounters as largely benign—because protection, comfort, and care are available,

events are predictable and responsive to one’s actions, and genuine expression of

states and preferences are understood, respected, and met with corresponding

complementary responses.

These kinds of implicit appraisals may introduce a buffer between stressful

encounters and infants’ neurophysiological stress reactivity, nourishing an optimistic bias that may help to counteract the normative precautionary negative bias of

these systems (Thayer and Lane 2009). Although research has not yet explored this

possibility in infants, such a combination of appraisals may even provide a psychological foundation for some of the hyporesponsivity of stress reactivity systems,

which may continuously be buffered or down-regulated by appraisals of potentially

arousing or distressing events, not as threats, but as manageable “challenges”

(Maier 2015; Thayer et al. 2012).

These biased appraisals should be helpful, even during episodes that actually are

stress-inducing, such as the inevitable experiences of caregiver unavailability,

unpredictability, noncontingency, frustration, or novelty—when infants’ needs are

not met or are actually thwarted. Benign implicit appraisals may allow infants to

discount these encounters as exceptions or anomalies (Sherman et al. 2015), and

meet them with more vigorous exertions—through both action and communication

—aimed at getting their needs met. Under these conditions, infants express their

genuine opinions by protesting or crying—implying that “I feel pain and I don’t

like it”—which is a realistic local appraisal and response. However, the larger

“neurosymphony” of stress reactivity is not necessarily activated (Nachmias et al.

1996), perhaps because it is shielded at the psychological level by benign implicit

appraisals that buffer experiences of threat, and at the social level by the presence of

the trusted caregiver as a backup.

It is important to note that, as internal working models of attachment relationships

and expectations of control emerge and are successively differentiated during the

second half of the infant’s first year, they serve two important functions in developing coping systems. On the one hand, implicit appraisals create a psychological

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