Emotional Development Lab at Lehigh University

Our Research

How do children learn about themselves, others, and relationships? Although there are likely multiple influences that shape children’s early social and self understanding, our research focuses mostly on relational influences. Right from the start, children find themselves in intense emotional relationships that provide them with a rich environment in which they learn about themselves and others. We focus on trying to understand how aspects of these close relationships, including both broad relational qualities (such as attachment security) and more specific relational process (such as mother-child discourse), relate to children’s emotional understanding, moral development, self understanding, and representations of relationships. 

Parent-child conversations and children's emotional and moral development

We study the role that parent-child conversations play in fostering children’s emotional and moral understanding.  

For young children, conversations with parents help to make explicit the hidden, and often confusing psychological world that underlies behavior, relationships, and self-understanding (such as emotion and intention).  Second, conversations with parents provide a way in a child can exchange information about (and ultimately compare) their shared emotional and relational experiences with others. As a result, there are good reasons to believe that discourse between parents and children is one avenue through which preschool children construct an understanding of relationships, emotions, and morality.  Therefore, differences in the ways in which mothers choose to discuss emotional, moral, and relational issues likely have important consequences for a child’s construction of understanding.  Thus, our research has focused on trying to understand how differences in the content, style, and affect (or tone) of mother-child discourse relate to young children’s construction of emotional and moral understanding.  In addition, we are interested in factors that predict the quality of conversations between parents and young children about emotions and morality (including child temperament and attachment security).  

For older children and adolescents, conversations with parents (especially surrounding moral dilemmas such as bullying) become one important way in which moral values are communicated to children.  Conversations about moral issues likely make children aware of the needs of others and encourage children to reflect upon the moral messages that parents transmit in these conversations.  Furthermore, parents often use inductive techniques when discussing real moral transgressions (i.e., they discuss the effect of the child’s actions on others) and this too likely promotes moral understanding.  Therefore, there are good reasons to believe that conversations about moral dilemmas are important contexts in which moral values are socialized and we are currently exploring this issue in a study with mothers and adolescents (between the ages of 13-16).   

The structure of conscience

In early childhood, research has suggested that conscience in early childhood is composed of two higher-order dimensions:  moral affect (such as guilt) and internalized conduct.  These dimensions appear to be relatively stable across early childhood.  What is less clear is whether this structure remains stable or becomes more differentiated across childhood and into adolescence and young adulthood.  I have become increasingly interested in this question.  In a 2008 paper (Laible, Eye, & Carlo, 2008), we showed that in middle adolescence, the structure of conscience was similar to that in early childhood, involving two components:  moral affect (that included shame, empathy, guilt, & empathic anger) and moral cognition (that included moral reasoning and values internalization).  In addition, these two components of conscience were differentially predicted by temperament and parenting and were related to different aspects of prosocial and moral behavior.  We hope to continue to work to explore the structure of conscience in different age groups and by examining factors that predict conscience.  

Proactive regulation: The prevention of misbehavior

Proactive regulation is a parenting technique in which parents structure the environment in such a way to create desired outcomes for the child.    Accident prevention (such as baby-proofing the house) is a common type of proactive regulation that parents use to keep children safe.  More interestingly, however, parents also use proactive regulation to anticipate and prevent children’s misbehavior.  For example, Holden (1983) found that mothers use a wide variety of strategies in supermarkets to avoid children’s misbehavior (e.g., by avoiding high-conflict aisles with tempting items, or by distracting the child in such aisles). There are reasons to believe that such proactive prevention of children’s misbehavior has positive consequences for both children’s socialization and the relationship between the parent and the child.  First, by structuring the environment in such a manner that children behave appropriately, proactive regulation scaffolds children’s understanding of appropriate conduct.  In Holden’s (1983) early study of proactive regulation, mothers who used proactive regulatory techniques in the supermarket had children who complied more often with maternal demands than mothers who used reactive techniques (i.e., who disciplined the child after his/her misbehavior).  Second, however, proactive regulatory techniques also likely limit conflict between parents and children, and thus, promote a more harmonious and mutually responsive orientation between the two. 

Despite arguments by several socialization theorists that the parent’s use of proactive regulatory techniques likely benefit the child and the parent, research on the influence of parental use of proactive regulation and children’s socialization outcomes has been limited.  As a result, we are attempting to study how proactive prevention of children’s misbehavior relates to children’s conscience (or moral development), compliance with parental requests, emotion regulation, and the quality relationship between the parent and child. 

Moral extensivity and children's racial and gender attitidues

In connection with colleagues at Arizona State University (Dr. Nancy Eisenberg & Dr. Tracy Spinrad) and the University of Missouri (Dr. Gus Carlo), we are currently exploring how the development of children’s attitudes about race and gender (both explicit and implicit).  We plan to not only examine the influence of neighborhood factors (e.g., racial composition), school factors (e.g., teacher attitudes) and family factors (such as socialization) on children’s attitudes, but also the consequences for those attitudes on moral extensivity (i.e., the degree to which children are empathic and prosocial to individuals who are of a different race and gender).

Our Team

Deborah Laible, Ph.D.

Deborah Laible, Ph.D.

Principal Investigator

I am an Associate Professor in the Psychology Department at Lehigh University who joined the Lehigh faculty in 2005 after being an Assistant Professor at SMU. My research focuses on how children construct an understanding of themselves, others, and relationships. Specifically, I am interested in  how aspects of close relationships with parents or peers relate to children’s emotional understanding (i.e., affective perspective taking), conscience development (including empathy, internalization of values, and prosocial behavior), self understanding (and self-esteem), and representations of relationships.

Erin Karahuta

Erin Karahuta

Ph.D Student

I am doctoral student of psychology at Lehigh University. I graduated with a B.A. from the University of Pittsburgh. My research focuses on children’s social and emotional development and how parenting and the quality of parent-child interactions influences children’s outcomes. More specifically, how do toddlers and preschoolers learn to understand others’ emotions, engage in helping behaviors, and display moral emotions such as empathy? I explore the role parents play in children’s moral development through their beliefs about emotions and their sensitivity when interacting with their kids.

Clare van Norden

Clare van Norden

Ph.D Student

I am a doctoral student in Lehigh’s Psychology Department. I completed my B.A. in psychology at the University of British Columbia. My research interests focus on moral development during childhood and adolescence. In particular, I am interested in moral emotions such as empathic anger, and how individual differences shape the way bystanders of different ages respond to the mistreatment of others.

Our Publications

Laible, D., McGinley, M., Carlo, G., Augustine, M., & Murphy, T. (in press).  Does engaging in prosocial behavior make you see the world through rose colored glasses?  The links between social information processing and prosocial behavior, Developmental Psychology pdf

Murphy, T. M., & Laible, D. J. (in press). The influence of attachment on preschool children’s empathic responding, International Journal of Behavioral Development.   

Laible, D. & Thompson, R., & Froimson (in press).   Early socialization:  The influence of close relationships.  In J. Grusec & P. Hastings (Eds.), Handbook of Socialization (Rev. Ed.).  New York: Guilford.

Laible, D. & Karahuta, E.  (in press).  Prosocial behaviors in early childhood: Helping others, responding to the distress of others, and working with others.  In L. Padilla-Walker & G. Carlo (Eds.),  The Complexities of Raising Prosocial Children: An Examination of the Multidimensionality of Prosocial Behaviors.  New York, NY:  Oxford University Press.  

Laible, D. & Murphy, T. (in press).  Constructing moral, emotional, and relational understanding in the context of mother-child reminiscing.  In Weinraub, C. & Recchia, H. (Eds), Talking about Right and Wrong: Parent-Child Conversations as Contexts for Moral Development.   New York: Cambridge University Press.

Laible, D., Murphy, T., & Augustine (2013).  Constructing emotional and relational understanding:  The role of mother-child reminiscing about negatively-valenced events, Social Development, 22, 300-318.  pdf

Laible, D. & Murphy, T., & Augustine, M. (2013).  Predicting the quality of mother-child reminiscing surrounding negative emotional events at 42- and 48-months, Journal of Cognition and Development, 14, 270-291.

Murphy, T. & Laible, D. (2012).  Attachment and empathy:  The mediating role of emotion regulation, Merrill Palmer Quarterly, 58, 1-21.   

Panfile, T. M., Laible, D. J., Eye, J. L. (2012).  Conflict frequency between mother-child dyads across contexts: The links with attachment security, Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 27, 147-155.

Laible, D. (2011). Does it matter if preschool children and mothers discuss positive vs. negative events during reminiscing? Links with attachment, family emotional climate, and socioemotional development, Social Development, 20, 394-411.

Laible, D., Carlo, G., Panfile, T., Eye, J., Parker, J. (2010).  Emotionality and emotion regulation:  A person-centered approach to predicting socioemotional adjustment in young adolescents, Journal of Research on Personality, 44, 621-629.

Laible, D., Panfile, T., & Makariev, D. (2008). The quality and frequency of mother-toddler conflict: Links with attachment and temperament. Child Development. 79, 426-443.

Laible, D. & Carlo, G., & Eye, J.  (2008).   Dimensions of conscience development in mid-adolescence:  Links with temperament and parenting, Journal of Youth & Adolescence, 37, 875-887.