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Emotional Development

Early infancy (birth-six months), Later infancy months) (7-12)

The process by which infants and children begin developing the capacity to experience, express, and interpret emotions.

The study of the emotional development of infants and children is relatively new, having been studied empirically only during the past few decades. Researchers have approached this area from a variety of theoretical perspectives, including those of social constructionism, differential emotion theory, and social learning theory. Each of these approaches explores the way infants and children develop emotionally, differing mainly on the question of whether emotions are learned or biologically predetermined, as well as debating the way infants and children manage their emotional experiences and behavior.

Early infancy (birth-six months)

Emotional expressivity

To formulate theories about the development of human emotions, researchers focus on observable display of emotion, such as facial expressions and public behavior. A child's private feelings and experiences cannot be studied by researchers, so interpretation of emotion must be limited to signs that can be observed. Although many descriptions of facial patterns appear intuitively to represent recognizable emotions, psychologists differ on the their views on the range of emotions experienced by infants. It is not clear whether infants actually experience these emotions, or if adults, using adult facial expressions as the standard, simply superimpose their own understanding of the meaning of infant facial expressions.

Between six and ten weeks, a social smile emerges, usually accompanied by other pleasure-indicative actions and sounds, including cooing and mouthing. This social smile occurs in response to adult smiles and interactions. It derives its name from the unique process by which the infant engages a person in a social act, doing so by expressing pleasure (a smile), which consequently elicits a positive response. This cycle brings about a mutually reinforcing pattern in which both the infant and the other person gain pleasure from the social interaction.

As infants become more aware of their environment, smiling occurs in response to a wider variety of contexts. They may smile when they see a toy they have previously enjoyed. They may smile when receiving praise for accomplishing a difficult task. Smiles such as these, like the social smile, are considered to serve a developmental function.

Laughter, which begins at around three or four months, requires a level of cognitive development because it demonstrates that the child can recognize incongruity. That is, laughter is usually elicited by actions that deviate from the norm, such as being kissed on the abdomen or a caregiver playing peek-a-boo. Because it fosters reciprocal interactions with others, laughter promotes social development.

Later infancy months) (7-12)

Emotional expressivity

During the last half of the first year, infants begin expressing fear, disgust, and anger because of the maturation of cognitive abilities. Anger, often expressed by crying, is a frequent emotion expressed by infants. As is the case with all emotional expressions, anger serves an adaptive function, signaling to caregivers of the infant's discomfort or displeasure, letting them know that something needs to be changed or altered. Although some infants respond to distressing events with sadness, anger is more common.

Fear also emerges during this stage as children become able to compare an unfamiliar event with what they know. Unfamiliar situations or objects often elicit fear responses in infants. One of the most common is the presence of an adult stranger, a fear that begins to appear at about seven months. The degree to which a child reacts with fear to new situations is dependent on a variety of factors. One of the most significant is the response of its mother or caregiver. Caregivers supply infants with a secure base from which to explore their world, and accordingly an exploring infant will generally not move beyond eyesight of the caregiver. Infants repeatedly check with their caregivers for emotional cues regarding safety and security of their explorations. If, for instance, they wander too close to something their caregiver perceives as dangerous, they will detect the alarm in the caregiver's facial expression, become alarmed themselves, and retreat from the potentially perilous situation. Infants look to caregivers for facial cues for the appropriate reaction to unfamiliar adults. If the stranger is a trusted friend of the caregiver, the infant is more likely to respond favorably, whereas if the stranger is unknown to the caregiver, the infant may respond with anxiety and distress. Another factor is the infant's temperament.

A second fear of this stage is called separation anxiety. Infants seven to twelve months old may cry in fear if the mother or caregiver leaves them in an unfamiliar place.

Many studies have been conducted to assess the type and quality of emotional communication between caregivers and infants. Parents are one of the primary sources that socialize children to communicate emotional experience in culturally specific ways. That is, through such processes as modeling, direct instruction, and imitation, parents teach their children which emotional expressions are appropriate to express within their specific sub-culture and the broader social context.

Socialization of emotion begins in infancy. Research indicates that when mothers interact with their infants they demonstrate emotional displays in an exaggerated slow motion, and that these types of display are highly interesting to infants. It is thought that this process is significant in the infant's acquisition of cultural and social codes for emotional display, teaching them how to express their emotions, and the degree of acceptability associated with different types of emotional behaviors.

Another process that emerges during this stage is social referencing. Infants begin to recognize the emotions of others, and use this information when reacting to novel situations and people. As infants explore their world, they generally rely on the emotional expressions of their mothers or caregivers to determine the safety or appropriateness of a particular endeavor. Although this process has been established by several studies, there is some debate about the intentions of the infant; are infants simply imitating their mother's emotional responses, or do they actually experience a change in mood purely from the expressive visual cues of the mother? What is known, however, is that as infants explore their environment, their immediate emotional responses to what they encounter are based on cues portrayed by their mother or primary caregiver, to whom they repeatedly reference as they explore.

Toddlerhood years) (1-2)

Emotional expressivity

During the second year, infants express emotions of shame or embarrassment and pride. These emotions mature in all children and adults contribute to their development. However, the reason for the shame or pride is learned. Different cultures value different actions. One culture may teach its children to express pride upon winning a competitive event, whereas another may teach children to dampen their cheer, or even to feel shame at another person's loss.

Emotional understanding

During this stage of development, toddlers acquire language and are learning to verbally express their feelings. In 1986, Inge Bretherton and colleagues found that 30% of American 20-month-olds correctly labeled a series of emotional and physiological states, including sleep-fatigue, pain, distress, disgust, and affection. This ability, rudimentary as it is during early toddlerhood, is the first step in the development of emotional self-regulation skills.

Although there is debate concerning an acceptable definition of emotion regulation, it is generally thought to involve the ability to recognize and label emotions, and to control emotional expression in ways that are consistent with cultural expectations. In infancy, children largely rely on adults to help them regulate their emotional states. If they are uncomfortable they may be able to communicate this state by crying, but have little hope of alleviating the discomfort on their own. In toddler-hood, however, children begin to develop skills to regulate their emotions with the emergence of language providing an important tool to assist in this process. Being able to articulate an emotional state in itself has a regulatory effect in that it enables children to communicates their feelings to a person capable of helping them manage their emotional state. Speech also enables children to self-regulate, using soothing language to talk themselves through difficult situations.

Empathy, a complex emotional response to a situation, also appears in toddlerhood, usually by age two. The development of empathy requires that children read others' emotional cues, understand that other people are entities distinct from themselves, and take the perspective of another person (put themselves in the position of another). These cognitive advances typically are not evident before the first birthday. The first sign of empathy in children occurs when they try to alleviate the distress of another using methods that they have observed or experienced themselves. Toddlers will use comforting language and initiate physical contact with their mothers if they are distressed, supposedly modeling their own early experiences when feeling upset.

Preschool years) (3-6)

Emotional expressivity

Children's capacity to regulate their emotional behavior continues to advance during this stage of development. Parents help preschoolers acquire skills to cope with negative emotional states by teaching and modeling use of verbal reasoning and explanation. For example, when preparing a child for a potentially emotionally evocative event, such as a trip to the doctor's office or weekend at their grandparents' house, parents will often offer comforting advice, such as "the doctor only wants to help" or "grandma and grandpa have all kinds of fun plans for the weekend." This kind of emotional preparation is crucial for the child if he or she is to develop the skills necessary to regulate their own negative emotional states. Children who have trouble learning and/or enacting these types of coping skills often exhibit acting out types of behavior, or, conversely, can become withdrawn when confronted with fear or anxiety-provoking situations.

Beginning at about age four, children acquire the ability to alter their emotional expressions, a skill of high value in cultures that require frequent disingenuous social displays. Psychologists call these skills emotion display rules, culture-specific rules regarding the appropriateness of expressing in certain situations. As such, one's external emotional expression need not match one's internal emotional state. For example, in Western culture, we teach children that they should smile and say thank-you when receiving a gift, even if they really do not like the present. The ability to use display rules is complex. It requires that children understand the need to alter emotional displays, take the perspective of another, know that external states need not match internal states, have the muscular control to produce emotional expressions, be sensitive to social contextual cues that alert them to alter their expressivity, and have the motivation to enact such discrepant displays in a convincing manner.

It is thought that in the preschool years, parents are the primary socializing force, teaching appropriate emotional expression in children. Moreover, children learn at about age three that expressions of anger and aggression are to be controlled in the presence of adults. Around peers, however, children are much less likely to suppress negative emotional behavior. It appears that these differences arise as a result of the different consequences they have received for expressing negative emotions in front of adults as opposed to their peers. Further, this distinction made by children—as a function of social context—demonstrates that preschoolers have begun to internalize society's rules governing the appropriate expression of emotions.

Carolyn Saarni, an innovator in the exploration of emotional development, has identified two types of emotional display rules, prosocial and self-protective. Prosocial display rules involve altering emotional displays in order to protect another's feelings. For example, a child might not like the sweater she received from her aunt, but would appear happy because she did not want to make her aunt feel badly. On the other hand, self-protective display rules involve masking emotion in order to save face or to protect oneself from negative consequences. For instance, a child may feign toughness when he trips in front of his peers and scrapes his knee, in order to avoid teasing and further embarrassment. In 1986 research findings were mixed concerning the order in which prosocial and self-protective display rules are learned. Some studies demonstrate that knowledge of self-protective display rules emerges first, whereas other studies show the opposite effect.

There also has been research done examining how children alter their emotional displays. Researchers Jackie Gnepp and Debra Hess in 1986 found that there is greater pressure on children to modify their verbal rather than facial emotional expressions. It is easier for preschoolers to control their verbal utterances than their facial muscles.

Emotional understanding

Beginning at about age four or five, children develop a more sophisticated understanding of others' emotional states. Although it has been demonstrated that empathy emerges at quite a young age, with rudimentary displays emerging during toddlerhood, increasing cognitive development enables preschoolers to arrive at a more complex understanding of emotions. Through repeated experiences, children begin to develop their own theories of others' emotional states by referring to causes and consequences of emotions, and by observing and being sensitive to behavioral cues that indicate emotional distress. For instance, when asked why a playmate is upset, a child might respond "Because the teacher took his toy" or by reference to some other external cause, usually one that relates to an occurrence familiar to them. Children of this age are also beginning to make predictions about others' experience and expression of emotions, such as predicting that a happy child will be more likely to share his or her toys.

Middle childhood years) (7-11)

Emotional expressivity

Children ages seven to eleven display a wider variety of self-regulation skills. Sophistication in understanding and enacting cultural display rules has increased dramatically by this stage, such that by now children begin to know when to control emotional expressivity as well as have a sufficient repertoire of behavioral regulation skills allowing them to effectively mask emotions in socially appropriate ways. Research has indicated that children at this age have become sensitive to the social contextualcues which serve to guide their decisions to express or control negative emotions. Several factors influence their emotion management decisions, including the type of emotion experienced, the nature of their relationship with the person involved in the emotional exchange, child age, and child gender. Moreover, it appears that children have developed a set of expectations concerning the likely outcome of expressing emotion to others. In general, children report regulating anger and sadness more to friends than mothers and fathers because they expect to receive a negative response—such as teasing or belittling—from friends. With increasing age, however, older children report expressing negative emotions more often to their mothers than their fathers, expecting dads to respond negatively to an emotional display. These emotion regulation skills are considered to be adaptive and deemed essential to establishing, developing, and maintaining social relationships.

Children at this age also demonstrate that they possess rudimentary cognitive and behavioral coping skills that serve to lessen the impact of an emotional event and in so doing, may in fact alter their emotional experience. For example, when experiencing a negative emotional event, children may respond by employing rationalization or minimization cognitive coping strategies, in which they re-interpret or reconstruct the scenario to make it seem less threatening or upsetting. Upon having their bicycle stolen or being deprived of television for a weekend, they might tell themselves, "It's only a bike, at least I didn't get hurt" or "Maybe mom and dad will make up something fun to do instead of watching TV."

Emotional understanding

During middle childhood, children begin to understand that the emotional states of others are not as simple as they imagined in earlier years, and that they are often the result of complex causes, some of which are not externally obvious. They also come to understand that it is possible to experience more than one emotion at a time, although this ability is somewhat restricted and evolves slowly. As Susan Harter and Nancy Whitsell demonstrated, seven-year-old children are able to understand that a person can feel two emotions simultaneously, even if the emotions are positive and negative. Children can feel happy and excited that their parents bought them a bicycle, or angry and sad that a friend had hurt them, but they deny the possibility of experiencing "mixed feelings." It is not until age ten that children are capable of understanding that one can experience two seemingly contradictory emotions, such as feeling happy that they were chosen for a team but also nervous about their responsibility to play well.

Displays of empathy also increase in frequency during this stage. Children from families that regularly discuss the complexity of feelings will develop empathy more readily than those whose families avoid such topics. Furthermore, parents who set consistent behavioral limits and who themselves show high levels of concern for others are more likely to produce empathic children than parents who are punitive or particularly harsh in restricting behavior.

Adolescence years) (12-18)

Emotional expressivity

Adolescents have become sophisticated at regulating their emotions. They have developed a wide vocabulary with which to discuss, and thus influence, emotional states of themselves and others. Adolescents are adept at interpreting social situations as part of the process of managing emotional displays.

It is widely believed that by adolescence children have developed a set of expectations, referred to as scripts, about how various people will react to their emotional displays, and regulate their displays in accordance with these scripts. Research in this area has found that in early adolescence, children begin breaking the emotionally intimate ties with their parents and begin forming them with peers. In one study, for instance, eighth-grade students, particularly boys, reported regulating (hiding) their emotions to (from) their mothers more than did either fifth-or eleventh-grade adolescents. This dip in emotional expressivity towards mothers appeared to be due to the boys' expectations of receiving less emotional support from their mothers. This particular finding demonstrates the validity of the script hypothesis of self-regulations; children's expectations of receiving little emotional support from their mothers, perhaps based on past experience, guide their decisions to regulate emotions more strictly in their mothers' presence.

Another factor that plays a significant role in the ways adolescents regulate emotional displays is their heightened sensitivity to others' evaluations of them, a sensitivity which can result in acute self-awareness and self-consciousness as they try to blend into the dominant social structure. David Elkind has described adolescents as operating as if they were in front of an imaginary audience in which every action and detail is noted and evaluated by others. As such, adolescents become very aware of the impact of emotional expressivity on their social interactions and fundamentally, on obtaining peer approval. Because guidelines concerning the appropriateness of emotional displays is highly culture-specific, adolescents have the difficult task of learning when and how to express or regulate certain emotions.

As expected, gender plays a significant role in the types of emotions displayed by adolescents. Boys are less likely than girls to disclose their fearful emotions during times of distress. This reluctance was similarly supported by boys' belief that they would receive less understanding and, in fact, probably be belittled, for expressing both aggressive and vulnerable emotions.

Janice Zeman

Further Reading

Bretherton, Inge and Janet Fritz, et al. "Learning to Talk about Emotions: A Functionalist Perspective," Child Development 57, (1986): 529-48.

Gnepp, Jackie, and Debra Hess. "Children's Understanding of Verbal and Facial Display Rules," Developmental Psychology 22, no. 1, (1986): 103-08.

Malatesta, Carol Zander, and Jeannette Haviland. "Learning Display Rules: The Socialization of Emotion Expression in Infancy." Child Development 53, (1982): 991-1003.

Zahn-Waxler, Carolyn, and Marian Radke-Yarrow, et al. "Development of Concern for Others," Developmental Psychology 28, no. 1, (1992): 126-36.

Additional topics

Psychology EncyclopediaChild Development