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Emotion dysregulation: A theme in search of definition

  • Ross A. Thompson (a1)


Emotion dysregulation is defined as patterns of emotional experience or expression that interfere with goal-directed activity. This paper considers this functionalist definition from a developmental perspective with the goal of elaborating this approach with respect to its central questions. What are the goals that are impeded by emotionally dysregulated responding, and what alternative goals might motivate emotion dysregulation? What are the developmental processes by which these goals take shape, and what are the influences of the family context, and especially of central relationships in the family, in their emergence? How does this functionalist account address the complex interaction of experience and developing biological processes that also influence emotion regulation and dysregulation? Drawing on research literature concerning children at risk for affective psychopathology and considering relevant examples of the interaction of biology and context, this discussion offers a portrayal of emotion dysregulation as a biologically dynamic, experience-based aspect of adaptation to environments and relationships that, in conditions of risk for the emergence of developmental psychopathology, motivates patterns of emotional responding that serve immediate coping often at the cost of long-term maladaptation. Implications for emotions theory and the study of developmental psychopathology are also considered.


Corresponding author

Author for Correspondence: Ross A. Thompson, Department of Psychology, One Shields Ave., University of California, Davis, Davis, CA 95616-8686; E-mail:


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