Date published: 9/15/2016

Decades of research in adults have shown us that the ability to regulate our emotions and impulses is critical for mental and physical health. By comparison, we know relatively little about how emotion regulation skills develop in the first place. In my lab, we seek to understand how the building blocks for effective emotion regulation are laid during childhood and adolescence.

Our emotions give our lives challenge and meaning, but when they get the better of us the consequences can be devastating. Indeed, numerous mental and physical health problems including anxiety, depression, substance dependence and disordered eating have been tied to dysfunctional emotion regulation. Over the last 20 years, neuroimaging research has revealed that effective emotion regulation in healthy adults relies on connections between the prefrontal cortex, which is important for making complex decisions and controlling impulses, and evolutionarily old structures that help generate emotions, such as the amygdala and ventral striatum. Importantly, these connections that are critical for emotion regulation start to develop during childhood and continue to mature into one’s early 20s. As such, the experiences we have and the habits we form during childhood and adolescence are very important for laying the foundation for our ability to regulate our emotions for the rest of our lives.

In my lab, we use a variety of techniques including behavioral observation (for example, seeing what children do to resist tempting, but unhealthy foods), questionnaires, computerized tasks, and functional neuroimaging to study two aspects of emotion regulation. The first aspect we study is how people of different ages regulate their emotions using cognitive strategies. We are not only interested in general age effects but also how our environments shape emotion regulation. For example, we are currently conducting a large-scale study examining how orphanage care during the first two years of life influences emotion regulation and risk taking during adolescence. The second aspect of emotion regulation that my lab is currently exploring is how our families and friends influence our emotional experiences at different points in the lifespan. We are exploring this topic in a variety of ways, including testing how social support figures buffer individuals of different ages against anxiety, how children learn fears from observing their parents’ behavior, and how adolescents decision making differs when they are making choices for themselves as opposed to their parents or peers. While this work is primarily basic in nature, many of our projects have natural translational extensions to clinical disorders.

I grew up in Bethesda, Maryland and received B.A. degrees in Psychology and Cognitive Science from the University of Virginia. While at UVA, I discovered my interests in the biological bases of emotional and social processes. After graduating, I spent two years conducting neuroimaging research at the National Institute of Mental Health and subsequently obtained my Ph.D. in Psychology at Columbia University. After spending three years as a postdoctoral researcher at Columbia, I joined the UCLA Department of Psychology in March, 2016.