Emotional dysregulation is a term that is used when aspects of a person's emotional functioning are ineffective or inappropriate or risk compromising the accomplishment of later developmental tasks (Cicchetti, Ganiban, & Barnett, 1991; Cole, Michel, & Teti, 1994; Garber & Dodge, 1991; Keenan, 2000). The term acknowledges that emotions are always regulated (i.e., there is no pure emotion that is unregulated), but that a pattern of emotion regulation has a dysfunctional quality. Although there has been relatively little research on the emotional profiles of children with serious psychological problems, the key symptoms of most childhood disorders feature emotional difficulties, such as hostile defiance, anxiety, angry aggression, tantrums, moodiness, and irritability (Cole et al., 1994; Keenan, 2000). Without the benefit of emotion theory to guide our understanding of the emotional nature of symptoms, it might seem that strong emotions debilitate behavioral functioning.
Contemporary theories, however, regard emotions as adaptive. Emotions are defined as the processes of both appraising circumstances relative to one's well-being and readying to act on circumstances to maintain or regain well-being (e.g., Arnold, 1960; Barrett & Campos, 1987; Ekman, 1994; Frijda, 1986; Lazarus, 1991). This biologically based rapid radar and response system equips us to deal with the ever-changing nature of circumstances and to act without hesitation when necessary (e.g., fleeing from danger). Therefore, emotions motivate action, evolving as a system that is crucial to survival.