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1 Threat Detection and Stress Reactivity: Explicit Appraisals of Threat and Challenge

1 Threat Detection and Stress Reactivity: Explicit Appraisals of Threat and Challenge

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7.1 Threat Detection and Stress Reactivity …


control, and freedom of expression, these initially implicit appraisals are transformed through their reconstruction as explicit representations. It is important to

note that all of the representations involved in stress and coping are more than

“cool” cognitive calculations. They are “hot” convictions—dynamic, integrative,

and laden with social, emotional, and motivational connotations.

Functions of appraisals. Because discussion of these appraisal systems emanates

from work on infant social cognition (Hughes 2011), attachment and internal working

models (Sherman et al. 2015), as well as emotion understanding and regulation

(Thompson 2015), a wide variety of content has been suggested. Most important to

working models organized around stress and coping are appraisal systems that supply

a holistic running account of the meaning of incoming experiences as (current or

impending) threats and challenges relevant to the self’s goals and preferences

(Lazarus and Folkman 1985). These “primary stress and coping appraisals” likely

integrate multiple streams of expectations that contribute to interpretations of experiences as threats or challenges, safety or danger, opportunity or loss. These streams

would include content such as the extent to which goals are enabled or blocked,

features of the intentions of others that allow them to be distinguished as “friend or

foe,” an estimate of the action-outcome contingencies and a sense of the potential for

control, opportunities for interesting exploration and engagement, the location and

availability of the trusted backup system (i.e., caregiver), and so on.

Not coincidentally, these are the same kinds of appraisals involved in emotions

and emotion regulation, which functionalist theories of emotion assert are, in fact,

the vocabulary used by the stress and coping system to recognize, signal, and code

experiences of adaptive significance (e.g., Barrett and Campos 1991; Diamond and

Aspinwall 2003). As explained by Rothbart et al. (2011), “Neural object recognition and spatial processing systems address the questions “What is it?” and “Where

is it?,” whereas emotion processing networks address the questions “Is it good for

me?,” “Is it bad for me?” and “What shall I do about it?”. Emotional reactions thus

include not only evaluations, but preparations for action and physiological support

for those actions” (p. 207). For stress and coping appraisals, the endgame of

appraisals is to supply interpretations that detect “stressors” (transactions of adaptive significance), diagnose the source of the challenge or problem, and suggest

alternative responses to engage, remedy, or evade them. Consistent with research on

stress reactivity, it seems likely that stress and coping appraisal systems would be

organized hierarchically, with top priority given to threat and danger appraisals,

which are accorded privileged status in access to attention, neurophysiological

activation, and action. Appraisals thus have the potential to provide “actionable

information” for the action readiness and regulation systems from three time perspectives: as predictions before stressors are encountered, as ongoing appraisals and

re-appraisals during active coping efforts, and as interpretations to guide learning

from stressful encounters.

Linking internal experience and social relationships. The representation of

stress and coping experiences in appraisal systems ushers in the possibility that these

experiences can be the objects of mutual attention and conversation with caregivers,

thereby opening a rich avenue for toddlers to explore the description, understanding,


7 Development of Coping during Toddlerhood …

and differentiation of states of emotion and stress, as well as their causes and cures

(Thompson 2006). Discussions of these emotional stress experiences, if caregivers

are perceptive and sensitive, allow toddlers to begin to integrate internal often

invisible interoceptive emotional and motivational experiences with explicit

appraisal systems—that is, to begin to be able to talk about and understand their

arousal, distress, goals, concerns, and problems. This allows authentic information

about emotional and motivational states to become increasingly available to both

caregivers and toddlers to be used in joint coping efforts during the second year of life.

The development of representational models also shapes coping that is less

focused on emotion regulation per se and more concerned with problem-solving

and goal-directed action. Increasingly complex and nuanced working models

should make it possible for toddlers to “use their words” to identify their goals, to

sustain attention and maintain goals that are more durable over longer periods of

time, and to plan successively more complex action strategies before carrying them

out, including the incorporation of mediators or “tools” in their goal-directed action

strategies (e.g., Gardiner et al. 2012; Keen 2011; Rat-Fischer et al. 2012). These

representational capacities, used to map both emotional and goal-directed actions,

may help to functionally integrate toddlers’ internal experiences with their action

readiness, based on the contingencies among emotions, preferences, goals, action

tendencies, and strategies (Holodynski and Friedlmeier 2006). Moreover, the joint

representation of these internal states along with external affordances and conditions, may allow these elements to be more effectively coordinated and, with

practice, to become articulated in extended action sequences and flexible action

revision. Over time, this should lead to more coherent goal-directed interactions

with social and physical partners, even under conditions of greater arousal, challenge, and demand (Fonagy et al. 2007).

Social buffering through stress and coping appraisals. Like all representations, working models of stress and coping are built from first-person lived experience. Hence, similar to the ways in which social relationships get “under the skin”

through processes of social buffering of neurophysiological systems (Gunnar and

Hostinar 2015; Hostinar et al. 2014), the construction of social representations

would be one way that social relationships get “inside the head” (Thompson 2015).

These representations, built on the implicit appreciations described previously, can

be considered the beginnings of the kinds of appraisals coping theorists would

recognize as cognitive interpretations mediating between sensory inputs and the

reactions of stress systems, forming a rudimentary psychological buffer between

local external experiences (of both stress and support) and reactivity (both neurophysiological and psychological).

Hence, explicit appraisals can be seen as building out from implicit understandings to create overt filters that comprise a new layer of “apparent reality”

(Fridja 1988) and so both shape stress reactivity and participate in action regulation

under stress. Although they do not replace implicit appreciations, explicit appraisals

supplement them in important ways. Because sensitive caregivers are helping

toddlers construct them, explicit appraisals continue to be authentic representations

of toddlers’ genuine states and actual experiences while allowing both partners a

7.1 Threat Detection and Stress Reactivity …


“space” to jointly access accounts of stressful and challenging transactions that

were previously underground (i.e., implicit). At the same time, because appraisals

are built on social interactions (which, as highlighted previously, are typically well

integrated with physiology through processes of caregiver attunement), they should

also continue to be authentic and well integrated with earlier developing neurophysiological sensory–perceptual–motor systems and social engagement systems,

allowing for their increasingly smooth coordination.


Action Regulation: From Emotional Action

Regulation to Self-awareness in Coping

A second major transformation in the coping system during toddlerhood is presaged

by a shift in the nature of action regulation, which comes to be coordinated by an

increasingly agentic self. During infancy and early toddlerhood, detection and

responses to challenges and threats are largely carried out automatically by coordinated attentional, emotional, and motivational systems, which converge to create

action readiness that can be colloquially described as “yum” or “yuck.” These

attentional–emotional–motivational systems trigger (1) approach reactions (“yum”)

that are aimed at engaging with attractive objects, people, or events, and at sweeping

away obstacles to that engagement (Carver and Harmon-Jones 2009) or (2) avoidance

or withdrawal reactions (“yuck”) that are aimed at reducing contact with repulsive

objects, people, or events, or recovery from such contact (Roth and Cohen 1986). By

the end of infancy, these attentional–motivational–emotional subsystems are sometimes referred to simply as “emotional action regulation,” because emotional systems

seem to predominate in coordinating infants’ and toddlers’ appreciations and action

readiness in stressful situations (Holodynski and Friedlmeier 2006; Kopp 2009).

Age-graded emotion regulation and coping strategies. Although rudimentary

or precursor forms of ways of coping from all 12 families discussed previously can

be seen during the first year of life, it is during toddlerhood that prototypical

members of all these families have been observed and studied, both as ways of

coping and as strategies of emotion regulation (e.g., Zimmer-Gembeck and Skinner

2011, for a review of coping; Kopp and Neufeld 2003, for a review of emotion

regulation strategies). Calkins and Hill (2007) summarize the normative developments of emotion regulation up to this period, but they may as well be referring to

the development of coping, when they explain,

Early efforts at emotion regulation, those occurring prior to about 3 months of age, are

thought to be controlled largely by innate physiological mechanisms (Kopp 1982;

Derryberry and Rothbart 2001; Rothbart et al. 2000). Such efforts are characterized primarily by general reactivity to stimuli and by approach (i.e., turning toward) versus

withdrawal (i.e., turning away) from pleasant versus aversive stimuli. By 3 months of age,

primitive mechanisms of self-soothing, such as sucking, simple motor movements such as

moving away, and reflexive signaling in response to discomfort, often in the form of crying,

are the primary processes operating, independent of caregiver intervention (Kopp 1982;

Rothbart et al. 1992).


7 Development of Coping during Toddlerhood …

The period between 3 and 6 months of age marks a major transition in infant development.

First, sleep-wake cycles and eating and elimination processes have become more predictable, signaling an important biological transition. Second, the ability of the infant to use

simple motor actions voluntarily to modify arousal levels begins to emerge. This increase in

control depends largely on the development of attention mechanisms and simple motor

skills (Rothbart et al. 1992; Harman et al. 1997; Kochanska et al. 2001) and leads to

coordinated use of attention engagement and disengagement, particularly in contexts that

evoke negative affect. When confronted by aversive stimuli, infants are now capable of

engaging in self-initiated distraction, which involves moving attention from the source of

the negative arousal to more neutral stimuli. For example, the ability to shift attention from

a negative event (e.g., something frightening) to a positive distractor (e.g., a toy, pet, or

parent) may allow infants to modulate their experience of negative affect.

By the end of the first year of life, infants become much more active and purposeful in their

attempts to control affective arousal (Kopp 1982). First, they begin to employ organized

sequences of motor behavior that enable them to reach, retreat, redirect, and self-soothe in a

flexible manner that suggests they are responsive to environmental cues. Second, their

signaling and redirection become explicitly social as they recognize that caregivers and

others may well behave in a way that will assist them in the regulation of affective states

(Rothbart et al. 1992; Diener et al. 2002). Successful use of such behaviors is critical in

making the transition from passive, caregiver-directed regulation to active self-regulation

(Calkins 2002).

During the second year of life, the transition from passive to active methods of emotion

regulation is complete (Rothbart et al. 1992). Although toddlers are not entirely capable of

controlling their affective states by this age, they are capable of using specific strategies to

attempt to manage affective states, albeit sometimes unsuccessfully (Calkins and Dedmon

2000; Calkins et al. 1998). Moreover, during this period, toddlers begin to respond to

caregiver directives and, as a consequence of this responsivity, compliance and behavioral

self-control begin to emerge (Kopp 1989). This shift is supported by developments in the

motor domain as well as changes in representational ability and the development of language skills. Brain maturation contributes as well, and by the end of toddlerhood, children

have executive control abilities that allow for the control of arousal and regulation of

emotional reactivity in a variety of contexts (Rueda et al. 2004). The use of more coordinated motor and language translates into greater skill at dealing with peers and teachers in

the preschool environment and for negotiating for autonomous behavior (e.g., “I do it

myself”) in the home environment. (p. 233)

Emergence of an agentic self. During the second year of life, the coordinated

systems guiding coping (i.e., emotional action regulation, intrinsic motivation, and

the sensorimotor intentionality of infancy) are transformed by the child’s increasing

awareness of the self as an intentional agent, with goals and rights of its own (e.g.,

possessions, opinions, and preferences). As explained by Brownell and Kopp (2007)

Early in the toddler period children’s awareness of agency emerges in the context of

walking, goal-directed activity, and primitive communicative activities that dominate the

first half of the second year of life (e.g., Adolph et al. 2003; Bullock and Lütkenhaus 1988;

Wenar 1976). The latter part of the second year and early months of the third year feature

the powerful ascendancy of self-awareness, including a sense of ownership and personal

space (e.g., Hay 2006; Lewis 1994; Lewis and Brooks-Gunn 1979), language for describing

oneself and one’s wants and feelings (Shatz [2007]), symbolic representations of self’s and

others’ actions in play (Lillard [2007]), and the self-aware use of strategic behaviors to

modulate negative emotions (Kopp 1989)… Thus, with toddlerhood comes the recognition

of one’s own agency and with it, pleasure in one’s goal-directed achievements, recognition

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