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1 Threat Detection and Appraisal: Emotional Understanding and Intentional Regulation of Stressful Experiences

1 Threat Detection and Appraisal: Emotional Understanding and Intentional Regulation of Stressful Experiences

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9.1 Threat Detection and Appraisal: Emotional Understanding …


that initially functions implicitly to shape emotional responding, but with the

emergence of representational capacities during toddlerhood, these appraisals of

emotional experience become explicit. As language develops, representations of

emotion become increasingly “lexicalized,” and the involvement of attuned caregivers ensures that this vocabulary remains tightly integrated with toddlers’

authentic internal psychological and somatic experiences. Such noting and labeling

allow genuine emotional experiences to become objects of attention, thus bringing

them into conscious first-person awareness (Kopp 2008).

As described by Stegge and Meerum Terwogt (2007),

At first, these representations concern rather fragmented bits of knowledge… However,

these separate bits of knowledge become far more powerful in influencing behavior when

they are incorporated into more substantial theoretical notions about the emotion process…

Moreover, if a child understands that emotions wane over time (Harris 1983), that emotions

can be expressed in different ways, and that it is often better to think before we act, these

principles can be applied flexibly in a wide range of situations involving different emotions.

The development of emotional understanding generally involves the transformation from

implicit, separate bits of information to an explicit, coherent, and increasingly complex

knowledge about the emotion process… (p. 272)

At these early stages, when young children try to make explicit sense of their

mental life, they seem to rely heavily on external cues to infer their own

intrapsychic processes. Even 6-year-olds do not yet seem to appreciate that the

defining feature of an emotion is the conscious experience of the internal feeling

state (Stegge and Meerum Terwogt 2007). It is not until middle childhood that

children develop the capacity to introspect and to reliably use internal cues (such as

the conscious experiences of bodily states) to infer their own mental states,

including their thoughts and emotions. In fact, some researchers organize the

development of emotion comprehension from ages 3 to 11 into three hierarchically

arranged developmental phases (e.g., Ketelaars et al. 2010; Pons et al. 2004). As

explained by Pons et al. (2004),

The first period (around 5 years) is characterized by the understanding of important public

aspects of emotions: their situational causes; their outward expression; and those events or

objects that serve as external prompts or reminders that reactivate emotion. The second

period (around 7 years) is characterized by the understanding of the mentalistic nature of

emotions: the connection to desires and beliefs; and the distinction between expressed and

felt emotion. Finally, the third period (around 9–11 years) is characterized by an understanding of how an individual can reflect upon a given situation from various perspectives

and thereby trigger different feelings either concurrently or successively: conflicting feelings; distress at a failure to confess; and the cognitive regulation of emotion. (p. 146)

Second-order emotion awareness. Emotional awareness is a necessary condition for the conscious control of emotions, but it is only the first step. Deliberate

control also requires “second-order emotion awareness,” which refers to an explicit

recognition of the experience of a particular emotion in real time, and thoughts

about the psychological and somatic experience, including more complex reflections about the causes of emotions and what can be done to modulate them. As

explained by Stegge and Meerum Terwogt (2007), “[c]onscious reflection on the



Development of Coping during Middle Childhood …

emotional experience, its eliciting conditions, and the potential for action enables

the child to interrupt the operating emotion program and allows for flexibility.

Knowledge critically influences the quality and outcome of this process and is

needed for an optimal response to complex situational demands requiring a balance

between multiple, often conflicting concerns” (p. 271–272).

Although children’s mental models of the stress and coping process become

enriched during early childhood by the notion of mental states that reflect and guide

behavior (i.e., the acquisition of an affective and cognitive “theory of mind”), it is

not until middle childhood that children start to regularly apply these enriched

models to the domain of emotion. Hence, it is only after the 5- to 7-year shift that

children recognize more complex emotions and use them to interpret the meanings

of stressful experiences (Stegge and Meerum Terwogt 2007). These complex

concepts include “counterfactual” emotions, such as relief and disappointment,

which require the child to recognize what could have been, and contrast it to the

actual state of affairs; self-evaluative emotions, such as pride and shame, which

depend completely on the level of the normative standard that is applied; and

“mixed” emotions in which children come to realize that not only can two people

have different emotional reactions to the same situation, but that one person can

have two different reactions to the same situation, simultaneously feeling, for

example, pride and embarrassment when they publically win a prize. Or a single

person can have one emotional reaction to an event at the time (e.g., sadness at not

making it into the school orchestra) as well as an opposite reaction later (e.g.,

happiness because they then started their own highly satisfying rock band).

During middle childhood, children also begin to understand the complex relationships between thought and emotion. They realize, for example, that emotions

are built on beliefs, and so false beliefs can lead to real emotions (Harris et al.

1989). As pointed out by Stegge and Meerum Terwogt (2007), “[w]ith age, children

seem to become more aware of the fact that one thought automatically triggers other

related thoughts, that people therefore often have unwanted thoughts, and that it is

hard to get rid of them (Flavel et al. 1998)” (p. 273). Thus, during middle childhood, children’s mental models of stress and coping should come to incorporate

complex understandings of their own and others’ mental states during emotionally

evocative encounters.

Intentional emotion regulation. Although current theories of emotion

emphasize its important role in adaptive functioning, researchers have also identified situations in which individuals benefit from the capacity to deliberately guide

or direct the emotion system. Particularly salient are situations in which an individual’s local short-term goals (which are the default targets of the core emotion

system) are in conflict with alternative goals—either with those of other social

partners in the interaction or with the individual’s own long-term goals. In such

cases, individuals will show responses that are better adapted to these more

demanding goal complexes, if they can deliberately work with the core emotion

system to influence aspects of the emotion generation or expression process.

As explained by Stegge and Meerum Terwogt (2007), “two level emotion theories (Levenson 1999) assume that humans are endowed with a cognitive control

9.1 Threat Detection and Appraisal: Emotional Understanding …


system that acts on the activity of the core system in two ways. Cognitive processes

may change the appraisal of the input of the system, or they may change the

response probabilities and thereby influence the actual output of the system. Gross

and Thompson (2007) refer to these different processes as antecedent-focused and

response-focused regulation, respectively” (p. 270). Children are first able to

engage effectively in response-focused regulation. Only later do they learn how to

regulate emotions by intentionally shaping their antecedent causes.

Regulation of emotional expression. The earliest forms of intentional emotional regulation during toddlerhood and early childhood are enacted based on

demands from caregivers and other adults (Bridges and Grolnick 1995). And since,

in general, adults insist only that children behave appropriately (and do not concern

themselves with internal emotional experience), children’s compliance with social

demands typically requires only “response-focused” forms of regulation, consisting

of attempts to modulate emotional expressions. Such efforts include active

behavioral self-control, such as modulation of facial and vocal expressions (e.g.,

volume, intensity, content), restricting certain behaviors (e.g., venting, aggression,

explosion, tantrums, meltdowns), and expressing others (e.g., appearing happy to

receive an unwanted present or greet an unfamiliar relative).

Building on recognitions developed during early childhood that inner states

(such as thoughts and emotions) can differ between people and that they can also

differ from reality, children come to fully appreciate that the private inner character

of emotions allows them to be intentionally and selectively displayed to the world.

Growing awareness of complex thoughts and emotions, as well as the capacity to

use these representations to accurately map inner experience, make it possible for

children to more effectively differentiate internal emotional experience from its

external expression. Although preschoolers show an early understanding of dissemblance, or false emotional displays, it is not until middle childhood (between the

ages of 6 and 10) that children come to grasp the principles that motivate decisions

not to reveal emotions, such as self-protection or regard for others’ feelings (Stegge

and Meerum Terwogt 2007). Thus, during middle childhood, children begin to

independently mask their emotions and motivations, and to deliberately express

emotions or motivations that differ from their authentic internal states, for example,

they pretend not to feel bad about losing or they pretend to pay attention in school.

Regulation of inner feelings. Developing the capacity to influence, not just the

behavioral expression of emotions, but one’s actual internal psychological and

somatic feeling states, is a more complex process. Expressions, which are facial and

motor behaviors, are in principle under the child’s direct control, but feelings

cannot be so directly manipulated. That is, although individuals have the power to

voluntarily initiate or inhibit a motor behavior, the emotion system is not set up the

same way—there are no such direct routes whereby an individual, through acts of

sheer willpower, can intentionally start or stop an internal emotional feeling state.

At first, during early childhood, young children use active behavioral strategies to

regulate their emotions (just as they do for problem-focused coping): They use

direct action to change the situation to bring it into line with their emotional



Development of Coping during Middle Childhood …

preferences; they use behavioral distraction to minimize the experience of negative

emotions; or they seek help or comfort to repair emotional distress

(Zimmer-Gembeck and Skinner 2011). They also use active behavioral strategies as

initial efforts at antecedent-focused regulation, such as refusing to go into

fear-inducing situations (e.g., getting on scary rides) or taking security figures or

objects with them. However, it is not until middle childhood that children become

able, not just to regulate their emotional expressions and experiences through

behavioral means, but also to directly and deliberately influence their actual inner

feelings cognitively—through a process known as reappraisal.


Reappraisal as an Emotion Regulation and Coping


Developments in representational capacities and understanding of internal states

such as thoughts and emotions open the door to one of the most flexible and

effective strategies of emotion regulation and coping available to children, namely,

the capacity to cognitively reappraise events by interpreting them in ways that are

effective in changing actual internal emotional, motivational, attentional, and

behavioral responses to them. This strategy has been studied by coping researchers

under a variety of terms (e.g., positive cognitive restructuring, focus on the positive,

positive reappraisal, positive thinking, and sometimes as secondary control coping

or accommodation; e.g., Ayers et al. 1996) as well as by emotion researchers (e.g.,

McRae et al. 2012). One of the reasons that reappraisal, which is a challenging

strategy to enact effectively, does not emerge until middle childhood is that it

involves the coordination of multiple cognitive and social processes. As explained

by McRae et al. (2012),

Reappraisal is a cognitively complex regulatory strategy that involves keeping the goal to

reappraise in working memory; generating alternative (re)appraisals by retrieving from

semantic memory information regarding the causes, significance and potential outcomes of

the emotional situation; selecting among these possible reappraisals; maintaining the

selected appraisal in working memory and finally monitoring the extent to which one is

successful in changing one’s affective state (Ochsner and Gross 2008). As such, reappraisal

depends on well-studied cognitive abilities, such as working memory, attention and

response selection that engages lateral prefrontal and parietal regions (Ochsner and Gross

2008; Kalisch 2009). This has led to the conceptualization of reappraisal as closely related

to cognitive abilities such as working memory (Schmeichel et al. 2008).

In addition to engaging cognitive control processes, reappraisal also involves representing

the mental states of the self and others (as one attends to one’s own emotional state or

rethinks those of others during the reappraisal process; Ochsner et al. 2004, 2009; McRae

et al. in press). Although reappraisal is largely considered a cognitive regulatory skill, it is

possible that developmental changes in these social processes, like representing another’s

mental state, are just as important in supporting reappraisal ability. These processes typically engage a network of regions centered on the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC), and

also includes the posterior cingulate cortex, superior temporal sulcus and the temporal

9.2 Reappraisal as an Emotion Regulation and Coping Strategy


poles. These regions are thought to support the ability to attribute mental states to the self

and others, which underlies many complex social cognitive abilities, such as self-referential

judgments, mentalizing, perspective taking and empathy (Amodio and Frith 2006; Frith and

Frith 2006; Singer 2006; Lieberman 2007; Olson et al. 2007; Olsson and Ochsner 2008;

Adolph 2009; Carrington and Bailey 2009). (p. 11–12)

Research on the development of reappraisal suggests that following its emergence at around the ages of 6 or 7, individuals become more proficient at its

effective use all throughout middle and late childhood, adolescence, and into early

adulthood (Gullone et al. 2010; Stegge and Meerum Terwogt 2007; Zeman et al.

2006). Deliberate reappraisal becomes increasingly effective at dampening psychological and physiological reactions to emotionally evocative stimuli at the same

time that performance improves on classical cognitive control tasks subserved by

the lateral PFC. Perhaps these capacities increasingly allow individuals to more

effectively generate and maintain alternative interpretations of negative stimuli,

even though some of the specific neural mechanisms that contribute to the functioning of reappraisal may shift with age (McRae et al. 2012).

Emergence of reappraisal. Starting in early childhood, young children are able

to use conscious control to intentionally guide their behavior, but the emergence of

effective reappraisal means that, starting in middle childhood, they can begin to use

their thoughts (that is, the self-regulation of their verbal behavior) to deliberately

exert conscious control over their emotions, motivations, and other thoughts. This

astonishing capacity means that children now have the potential—by intentionally

directing their thoughts—to begin to down- or up-regulate neurophysiology, to

generate or change psychological states, and to cue up or dampen action tendencies.

At first, these burgeoning capacities (based on the realization that pleasant

thoughts make one feel good and unpleasant thoughts make one feel bad) may be

exerted by efforts at “thought stopping” (i.e., thought suppression) and then by

efforts to intentionally replace “bad” thoughts with thoughts about something else

(i.e., distraction). These early attempts are constrained by young children’s

assumption that there exits a one-to-one connection between thoughts and emotions

(as part of their general assumption that there exists only one perspective on

reality). However, when children become able to comprehend multiple perspectives, they realize that there are many different ways that any given situation can be

interpreted, and that individuals can choose to see an event in a different way than

they did spontaneously. For example, children can try to change their initial

emotional reactions to a scary scene in a movie by telling themselves that “it’s just a

movie” or “this isn’t real” or “it’s just plastic” in order to reduce its panic-inducing

properties, or they can think about a marshmallow as a fluffy cloud or a cotton ball

and thus make it easier to put off eating it.

The capacity to maintain access to multiple perspectives on an event has the

potential to do more than just shape emotional reactions. It should also allow

reappraisals to transform other aspects of coping, by rerouting attention, motivation,

and action tendencies. For example, as novel information is discovered or presented

(e.g., “He didn’t know you were waiting for the swing”), children’s spontaneous

negative reactions (e.g., protest or aggression) can be instantaneously transformed



Development of Coping during Middle Childhood …

to more constructive coping strategies, such as accommodation, problem-solving,

or negotiation. In fact, successful interpersonal problem-solving and negotiation

require the simultaneous consideration of multiple (sometimes competing) perspectives and goals, if all interaction partners are going to be satisfied by the

alternative strategies that are proposed, discussed, and implemented. Internal

working models that take multiple perspectives for granted also lead to coping that

starts with information-seeking as the initial default strategy in any interpersonal

conflict, in order to get on the table what each participant wants and was thinking,

before problem-solving or negotiation can commence.

The capacity to entertain multiple perspectives also enables the child to be

receptive to the reappraisal process when it is initiated from the outside by an adult

or another child. This creates new modes through which others can provide comfort

or instrumental aid—by suggesting more realistic or constructive ways of viewing

the (past or present) stressor. These external reappraisals (if they resonate with

children’s authentic experiences) may genuinely reduce their feelings of threat or

harm, and so open the path to new problem-solving strategies or to accommodation

and acceptance of the current situation as “not such a big deal.” The notion of

reappraisal as an effective coping strategy may also allow a child to initiate the

process for a peer, for example, one whom they have inadvertently harmed, by

explaining, “I didn’t do it on purpose, I did it on accident.” Through such productive discussions of multiple alternative perspectives, children not only achieve

better problem- and emotion-focused coping, but they also enhance the

perspective-taking skills and capacities for empathy and compassion of all those


Emotion and constructive coping. In highlighting the power of reappraisal to

shape emotions, motivations, and action tendencies, it is important to reiterate that,

contrary to what is often assumed about emotion regulation, coping does not benefit

from diminishing emotions. As argued by many emotion researchers, adaptive

action requires access to the full range of genuine emotions whether these are

experienced as “good” or “bad.” All emotions (and motivations and action tendencies) provide essential information about actual external threats as well as

important clues about bottom-up neurophysiological processes, goals, and other

internal states, all of which are indispensible for coordinating actions that are well

tuned to internal conditions and external demands. Hence, ways of coping or

emotion regulation that suppress emotion are only adaptive in a very limited range

of circumstances. They are expensive to execute in terms of regulatory resources

and they reduce access to useful information (Gross and John 2003). In general,

expressive suppression is utilized less and less as an emotion regulation strategy

across middle childhood and adolescence (Gullone et al. 2010), at that same time

that individual differences in suppression are consistently linked to higher levels of

threat appraisal and avoidant coping at each age (Zalewski et al. 2011).

Instead, constructive coping benefits from access to all spontaneous emotions

(motivations and action tendencies), as long as individuals can “hear” these messages in ways that allow other sources of information to register as well, in order to

maintain flexibility of expression and action. For coping, the defining anchor of

9.2 Reappraisal as an Emotion Regulation and Coping Strategy


appraisal and reappraisal is “reality,” that is, an unelaborated and non-reactive view

of events as they actually are. Sometimes “negative” emotions interfere with that

(e.g., when a child takes an unintended slight personally) and sometimes “negative”

emotions enhance that (e.g., when a child’s anger correctly signals that an actor

means them harm). The capacity to tolerate and meaningfully interpret negative

emotions and to sort the “real” ones from the “manufactured” (or ego-involved

ones) takes a lifetime to develop (Brown et al. 2007), but it begins with the

emergence of the capacity to reflect on, reconsider, and reshape emotions and

motivations though cognitive means some time during middle childhood.

In many ways, the development of the capacity for effective reappraisal marks

the full integration of appraisal and coping processes. Up to this point, children’s

internal working models can be considered to act as the “note-takers” of stressful

experiences—appraisals are constructed from lived experiences (including lived

discussions about real experiences), and so the flow of traffic goes from experience

to appraisals. At younger ages (beginning in infancy), appraisals also start to guide

action and so, through action, they play a role in shaping experiences. However,

with the capacity for reappraisal, these working models can exert potentially strong

influences on stressful experiences very directly, releasing or eradicating emotional

distress and destructive impulses. Such unmediated power saves a great deal of

wasted energy, which might otherwise be expended in service of initially more

emotionally evocative appraisals.


Development of Problem-Focused Coping

and Executive Functions

At the same time that children show improvements in emotion-focused coping, they

are also experiencing gains in abilities that underlie the development of

problem-focused coping, specifically, advances in executive functions. Although

the bulk of the research on executive functions (EF) examines individual differences

and development during early childhood, a growing set of cross-sectional and

longitudinal studies are accumulating which indicate that there are both quantitative

improvements and qualitative shifts in these capacities past the age of five (Best and

Miller 2010; Best et al. 2009; Chevalier 2015; Lee et al. 2013). During middle

childhood, some of the most important age-graded changes involve the emergence

of the capacity to optimally coordinate problem-solving strategies with the demands

of the specific task, and to flexibly update how strategies are deployed based on

feedback from previous efforts.

Developmental differentiation of executive functions. Because the construct of

executive functions has largely been defined by the series of cognitive

problem-solving tasks that are used to assess it, any discussion of its development

typically begins with the question of whether it is a unitary or multi-dimensional

construct. Although methodological challenges (chief among them problems of



Development of Coping during Middle Childhood …

developmental measurement equivalence) have thus far prevented a definitive

empirical answer, recent evidence suggests that the capacities considered to be

fundamental aspects of executive functions, namely, inhibition, switching, and

working memory/updating, become more differentiated from each other over middle

childhood (see Lee et al. 2013, for a review). Early studies of 3- to 5-year-olds

indicated that performance on measures of these components may be largely

undifferentiated, but by age 6, two factors can be reliably distinguished (one marked

by performance on updating tasks and one by performance on tasks tapping both

inhibition and switching), and starting at age 15, three can be distinguished (Lee

et al. 2013). At this point, the bulk of the developmental evidence suggests that it is

probably wise to treat these capacities as distinguishable but closely related (Miyake

et al. 2000). This makes it possible to investigate important developmental questions

about EF, such as whether the relations among the components change with age,

whether they show distinct developmental trajectories, whether the ages of maturity

and periods of most rapid change differ, and whether the regions of the PFC

recruited by these components change differentially with age (Best et al. 2009).

Mean level changes and differences in executive functions. Quantitatively,

research generally documents linear increases in efficiency of the functioning of

individual components of EF, although the ages at which trajectories level out differ

among components (for details, see Best et al. 2009; Best and Miller 2010).

Performance on tasks of inhibition (tapping the capacity to suppress a dominant

automatic prepotent response) typically shows the most rapid improvement during

early childhood, when errors are greatly reduced, but also shows significant

improvements from ages 5 to 8, especially in motor and oculomotor response

inhibition. Performance generally levels out from age 10 to 12, when fewer errors

of inattention, impulsivity, and distractibility are seen, with little further improvement during adolescence, although some refinements in speed and accuracy on

tasks tapping complex cognitive inhibition have been found.

Results from neuroimaging studies and those using EEG measures show that

discernible changes in the brain regions recruited to solve inhibition tasks from

middle childhood to adulthood do not always parallel age-graded changes in task

performance. Specifically, studies suggest transitions from diffuse to more focalized

activity in the prefrontal cortex (PFC) and its networks from middle childhood to

adolescence, followed by migration of activity in frontal regions during late

childhood and adolescence. These changes, along with decreases in EEG activity in

specific brain areas, have been interpreted as indicating greater efficiency in the

neural networks that support inhibition from ages 7 to 17 (Best et al. 2009). As

explained by Best and Miller (2010),

A synthesis of these neuroscience studies does not suggest a one-to-one correspondence

between changes in brain activity and changes in task performance. Instead, task performance often changes subtly, if at all (e.g., Johnstone et al. 2007), whereas the pattern of

neural activity may change dramatically. It seems that school-age children can successfully

complete response inhibition tasks (with concurrent WM requirements or not) but, in doing

so, enlist a more global pattern of activation than they will later on. With development

comes localized and efficient activation in specific PFC regions (e.g., ventral PFC) pertinent

9.3 Development of Problem-Focused Coping and Executive Functions


to task completion. These dramatic changes in neural activity may translate into only subtle

improvements in response inhibition, such as greater efficiency and less effort. (p. 1647)

Performance on tasks that assess working memory capacity (WM, or the ability

to maintain, update, and manipulate information over brief periods of time without

reliance on external cues or aids) shows a very different developmental pattern,

consisting basically of linear increases from early childhood to late adolescence

(Gathercole et al. 2004). Improvements in WM have been documented during early

childhood (Garon et al. 2008) and suggest that by age 6, “the executive component

of WM is sufficiently developed to be used during complex tasks that require the

coordination of WM subcomponents” (Best and Miller 2010, p. 1649). Although

the ages at which performance on WM tasks levels off differ across studies, in

investigations in which tasks were equated for the complexity of the non-EF portions of the task, evidence suggests relatively straightforward linear improvements

across age. For example, in a self-ordered computer search task in which children

were looking for tokens behind different “doors,” the number of search locations

was increased in order to increase WM demands. With two locations, 4-year-olds

could perform as well as adolescents and adults; with 3 locations, performance

leveled off at age 6; with 4 locations, at age 17; and with 6–8 locations, performance did not reach asymptote even by adulthood.

Neuroimaging studies of the brain activity associated with WM performance

indicate both qualitative (location) and quantitative (amount of activity) changes

across childhood and adolescence. Children relied more heavily on premotor and

ventromedial regions of the PFC, which then shifted more to frontal regions during

adolescence, including the first significant activation of the anterior cingulate; in

contrast, adults showed increased focalization in the left dorsolateral PFC as well as

a fourfold increase in anterior cingulate activity. As summarized by Best et al.

(2009), these findings suggest that “large improvements in WM in early childhood,

along with qualitative changes in brain recruitment, are followed by more subtle

refinements consisting of quantitative changes in activation and focalization of

brain regions related to WM” (p. 187).

Finally, research also documents regular age differences and changes after age 5

in performance on tasks that tap the capacity for shifting (i.e., the ability to switch

between mental states, operations, or tasks by inhibiting a previously activated

mental set and activating a new one). Although children as young as 3 to 4 years old

can shift between two simple rule sets, it is not until age 5–6 that children can

generalize to new examples. Performance on more complex tasks (i.e., with more

numerous and complex rules) steadily improves across middle childhood and

adolescence. Moreover, “shift costs” (i.e., losses in response time or accuracy

between trials that require shifting versus those that do not) decrease steadily from

ages 7 to 15, although there is some evidence that older children and adolescents

increasingly privilege accuracy over response time, in that response time increases

as accuracy increases during this developmental period, suggesting that, as they get

older, children and adolescents are more likely to slow down responses on shift

trials in order to insure accurate responding (Best et al. 2009).



Development of Coping during Middle Childhood …

The neurophysiological developments that parallel these changes are summarized by Best and Miller (2010),

During development, adult levels of processing feedback about performance on a shift task

are reached first for the medial PFC (important for violations of processing expectations),

and then for the left dorsal PFC (important for hypothesis testing and seeing the need for

adjustment of behavior). The first development occurs between ages 8 and 10 and adolescence and the second between adolescence and adulthood. Thus, because cognitive

shifting requires the child to switch between multiple response sets based on feedback,

neural networks involving the ACC and regions of the PFC that are responsible for

monitoring and detecting conflict (e.g., performing a response and receiving negative

feedback) seem to be critical to successful shifting. (p. 1652)

In sum, meta-analyses of cross-sectional and longitudinal studies of EF have

identified developmental trajectories suggesting rapid periods of growth from ages

5 to 8, moderate to strong developmental improvements from 8 to 14 years, and

slower development and refinement during later adolescence (Romine and

Reynolds 2005), with distinctive trajectories for different components such that

“inhibition shows prominent improvement during the preschool years and less

change later on. WM and shifting, on the other hand, appear to emerge in the

preschool years but really improve the most afterwards in a more linear fashion.

Planning ability, which typically is measured by more complex tasks, seems to

make the largest gains in later childhood or adolescence” (Best et al. 2009, p. 190).

As summarized by Peterson and Welsh (2014), “decades of clinical and experimental analysis of cool executive functions, across several levels of analysis (e.g.,

brain damage, computational models), have brought clear consensus that the dorsolateral prefrontal cortical system mediates this complex set of goal-oriented

cognitive processes, although the precise mechanisms underlying these phenomena

are still in question” (p. 49).

Development of “hot” executive functions. It should be noted that all of this

research focuses on “cool” executive functions, which may limit the extent to which

it indexes the processes that would be recruited during coping, which by definition

takes place during “hot” transactions. As pointed out in previous chapters, less is

known about the developmental course of “hot” executive functions, that is, cognitive control in conditions that activate emotional and motivational systems (e.g.,

reward or threat). In general, performance on tasks tapping “hot” executive functions, such as those involving monetary rewards or food, show the same gradual

improvement over middle childhood and extend into adolescence (Peterson and

Welsh 2014). Although researchers originally hypothesized that emotion and

motivation undermine conscious control because they interfere with cognitive

processes or strengthen bottom-up reactivity, many now argue that neurocognitive

evidence suggests that the brain networks involved in hot EF (mainly the orbitofrontal cortex) are fundamentally different from those used for cool EF (increasingly

anterior regions of the lateral PFC) (Zelazo 2015; Zelazo and Carlson 2012).

Researchers have suggested that a key skill common to success on hot EF tasks

(such as delay discounting, reversal learning, extinction, and gambling) involves the

flexible reappraisal of the affective or motivational significance of external events

9.3 Development of Problem-Focused Coping and Executive Functions


(Zelazo and Carlson 2012). As representations of goals shift from more immediate,

concrete, and appetitive to more abstract, distal, and complex, their processing also

seems to shift from the regions used for hotter to cooler EF (Zelazo 2015). This may

help explain findings from delay of gratification studies, in which children’s wait

times increased when they were instructed to view the marshmallows in abstract

terms (like a “fluffy cloud”; Mischel and Mischel 1987). A supplementary explanation for improvements on hot tasks focuses on the construction of “somatic

markers,” in which individuals create “hot” emotion-laden representations of the

negative consequences of past choices to direct behavior away from those situations

when making future choices (Bechara et al. 2000). Consistent with this hypothesis,

adult patients with brain damage in the orbitofrontal and ventromedial regions did

not show negative anticipatory emotional responses when they approached risky

situations, like gambling tasks in which early immediate rewards are offset by

subsequent high losses (Bechara et al. 2000).

Both of these possible explanations involve the increasingly more effective

integration of “hot” and “cool” information during problem-solving on tasks

involving regulation of emotion and motivation. In delay of gratification tasks,

consummatory motivation is tempered by “cool” representations of the reward; and

in gambling tasks, “hot” information about losses is incorporated into expectations

about risky outcomes. Taken together, findings from such studies of hot EF suggest

that the increasingly strong representational capacities developing during middle

childhood confer advantages to older children in guiding behavior adaptively

during the kinds of motivationally and emotionally evocative interactions likely to

characterize coping.

Development of executive functioning and coping during middle childhood.

With the continued improvement and successive refinement of these fundamental

capacities, the skills that children can drawn upon to solve the complex problems

presented by coping transactions expand dramatically during middle childhood. At

younger ages, when children developed the capacity to inhibit impulses or other

prepotent responses, they could create a “pause” to “stop and think” during stressful

exchanges. At older ages, children can use this “pause” to engage their more

advanced skills, for example, using working memory to construct more complex

appraisals of the situation, to suggest a wider variety of alternative strategies, and

eventually to shift their responses so that they can more successfully negotiate

complex instrumental and interpersonal problems.

As described in the work on planning, these increasingly efficient and effective

skills should also allow children, over middle childhood, to begin to take action in

advance, that is, to direct and evaluate behavior when faced with a novel situation

and so start to anticipate and approach difficult tasks in a more organized, strategic,

and efficient manner. In fact, planning is sometimes considered to be an executive

function, tapped by tasks like the Tower of Hanoi that require children to prepare

multiple steps in advance, to evaluate the effects of their actions, and to change

course if needed. Depending on their complexity, performance on such tasks shows

a protracted course of development, at least through adolescence and perhaps even

into adulthood (Best et al. 2009).

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