Growth in the ability of infants, children, and adolescents to experience, express, and interpret their emotions and to understand the emotional content in the communication of other individuals.
Emotional development begins early in life and progresses along with the development of cognitive, language, and social skills. Early emotional development is predictive of a child's success in personal social relationships, academic performance, and mental health. However, most studies and policies for childcare and education have emphasized cognitive development as a marker of children's success, letting the evaluation of emotional development take a back seat. We have known for many years that interactions with parents, caregivers, teachers, and other adults influence a child's life but precisely how these relationships affect children's emotional and social development has been somewhat overlooked until recent years.
Scientific studies of the social and emotional development of infants and children began in the mid-twentieth century with the work of psychiatrist Erik Erikson (1902–1994), who proposed the “eight stages of man” in 1956. Through wide-ranging psychotherapy with children and adolescents from different strata of the socio-economic scale, Erikson postulated that each stage of development was a “psychosocial crisis” that had to be negotiated before an individual rose to the next stage. A variety of theoretical perspectives have been explored since then, including those of social constructionism, differential emotion theory, and social learning theory. Each of these approaches explores the way infants and children develop emotionally into adulthood, differing mainly on the question of whether emotions are learned or biologically predetermined. The way in which infants, children, and adolescents manage their emotional experiences and behavior is also a topic of some debate between psychologists.
Children's social and emotional development is shaped during the first five years of life along with cognitive and behavioral development. One developmental area does not develop without the others. To formulate theories about the development of human emotions, researchers focus on observable display of emotion, such as facial expressions and public behavior. An infant's or child's private feelings and experiences cannot be studied directly by researchers because of the absence of language skills in such young children, so interpretation of emotions must be limited to signs that can be observed. Although many descriptions of facial patterns appear 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 and derives its name from the unique process by which the infant engages a person in a social act. The smile expresses pleasure and is part of 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 within a wider variety of contexts, including seeing a toy they enjoyed previously or receiving praise for accomplishing a difficult task. Smiles such as these, like the social smile serve a developmental function. Laughter begins at around three or four months and requires a level of cognitive development so that the child can recognize and respond to incongruity. Laughter is usually elicited by actions that deviate from the norm, such as being kissed on the tummy or playing peek-a-boo. Because it fosters reciprocal interactions with others, laughter promotes social development and the expression of positive emotion.
Emotional expressivity in young infants may include the response of crying. However, most infant crying is related more to physical needs or reactions than to emotional needs. As such, crying may signal an infant's hunger, a dirty diaper, too cold or too hot, not feeling well, or needing sleep. Crying may also indicate a desire to be held and comforted or, in the older infant, separation from one or both parents, a sign of parent-infant attachment and the infant's ability to remember its parents’ faces, all indications of emotional development and experiences..
During the last half of the first year, infants begin expressing fear, disgust, and anger as cognitive abilities develop. Anger, often expressed by crying, is frequently expressed by infants, serving as an adaptive function as it signals discomfort or displeasure. Although some infants respond to distressing events with sadness, anger is more common.
Fear manifests during this stage in response to an unfamiliar person, object, sound, or event. Fear is a normal emotion in response to perceived danger, and it may be expressed by infants through facial expressions or crying. It can be triggered by something unexpected or a new experience, including the appearance of a stranger, losing sight of a parent suddenly, being taken from a parent into the arms of a stranger, dropping a toy or beloved object, or a sudden loud noise. The triggers of fears will change as the infant gains experience and discovers that previously feared stimuli are no longer threatening.
The ability to cope with fear also increases with age during normal development. The degree to which a child reacts with fear to new situations often depends on the response of the mother or caregiver. Caregivers supply infants with a secure base from which to explore their world, and 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. The infant's temperament may also be a factor, with more irritable infants responding more than those who are generally calm and secure.
Social referencing also develops within this stage as infants begin to recognize the emotions of others, and use this information when reacting to novel situations and new 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 situation. Although studies have confirmed this process, controversy remains 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? Nevertheless, it is known 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.
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. Parents are one of the primary sources of socialization of children, teaching them to communicate emotional experiences in culturally specific ways. 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. Infants are tuned in to the responses of their caregivers and learn from them.
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 underlying reasons for feeling shame or pride are learned. Different cultures value different actions. One culture may teach its children to express pride upon winning a competitive event, and another may teach children to dampen their cheer, or even to feel shame at another person's loss.
A significant trigger of fear in toddlers is the unfamiliar toilet, encountered during toilet training. The toilet itself is big, hard, and cold, makes loud noises and makes things disappears, and from a toddler's perspective, it is to be avoided. Toilet training is often an issue for parents as well, and their response to unsuccessful training may be emotional. It becomes essential for parents to regulate their own emotions and provide a comfortable environment in which the toddler, when ready, can feel confident. Children vary in the age at which they are ready, with boys typically becoming toilet trained later than girls. The degree to which a child reacts with fear often depends on the response of the mother or caregiver.
During this stage of development, toddlers acquire language and are learning to verbally express their feelings. Children at 20 months of age can correctly label emotional and physiological states, expressing that they feel fatigue, pain, distress, disgust, and affection. Although this ability may be rudimentary in early toddlerhood, it is the first step in the development of emotional self-regulation skills. Emotional regulation 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 communicate this state by crying, but cannot alleviate the discomfort on their own. In toddlerhood, however, children begin to develop skills to regulate their emotions, mainly because of the emergence of language as a tool to assist in this process. Being able to articulate an emotional state in itself has a regulatory effect because it allows children to communicate their feelings to someone who can help them manage their emotional state. Speech also enables children to self-regulate, using soothing language to talk themselves through difficult situations.
Toddlers also begin to exhibit empathy, a complex emotional response to a situation, 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. 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 may use comforting language and initiate physical contact with their mothers if they are distressed, essentially modeling their own early experiences when feeling upset.
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 the 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 act out, or, conversely, become withdrawn when confronted with fear or anxiety-provoking situations.
Beginning at about age four, children acquire the ability to alter emotional expression, a skill of high value in cultures that require frequent disingenuous social displays. Psychologists call these skills “emotion display rules,” referring to culture-specific rules regarding the appropriateness of expressing emotions in certain situations. Children learn that one's external emotional expression need not match one's internal emotional state. For example, in Western culture, children are taught that they should smile and say thankyou when receiving a gift, even if they really do not like it. The ability to use display rules is complex. It requires that children understand the need to alter emotional displays, take the perspective of another person, 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. Many psychotherapists dispute the validity of such display and would encourage children to represent themselves honestly to feel good about the interaction.
During the preschool years, parents are still the primary socializing force, teaching appropriate emotional expression. Evidence suggests that parents introduce their children to cultural display rules on emotions but the parents’ actual understanding of their own children's emotions may be restricted because the social situation is parent/child Children learn at about age three that expressions of anger and aggression are to be controlled in the presence of adults, but not necessarily their own parents. Around peers, children are less likely to suppress negative emotional behavior, apparently because they have received consequences 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. Sometimes, in children who later undergo counseling for behavior problems, these underlying issues around expressing emotions that do not represent honest feelings are the very source of negative feelings about oneself that erupt into negative behavior. Psychotherapy can be useful to teach children (and adults) to be aware of and honestly express their emotions. Children's emotional development level is important to their readiness for attending school and achieving academic success. Research has shown that emotionally well-adjusted children have a greater opportunity for early success in school and children with emotional difficulties may face the risk of early school difficulty.
Developmental psychologist Carolyn Saarni (1945–2015), an innovator in the exploration of emotional development, 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. There is no consensus on which emotional display rules develop first, prosocial or self-protective.
Children aged 7–11 display a wider variety of selfregulation skills, with increased understanding and enacting of cultural display rules. By now, children begin to know when to control emotional expressivity as well as have a sufficient repertoire of behavioral regulation skills to effectively mask emotions in socially appropriate ways. Research has indicated that children at this age have become sensitive to the social contextual cues that serve to guide their decisions to express or control negative emotions. Several factors influence emotion management decisions, including the type of emotion experienced, the nature of their relationship with the person involved in the emotional exchange, as well as age and gender. In general, children report regulating anger and sadness more to friends than to mothers and fathers because they expect to receive a negative response from friends such as teasing. However, older children report expressing negative emotions more often to their mothers than to 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 rudimentary cognitive and behavioral coping skills that help to lessen the impact of an emotional event and may also alter their emotional experience. For example, when experiencing a negative emotional event, children may respond by rationalizing, or by implementing 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.”
During mid-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 more than one emotion can be experienced at a time. Children may 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 about age ten that children fully understand 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. In addition, 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.
Adolescents readily regulate their emotions and have developed a wide vocabulary with which to discuss, and thus influence, emotional states in themselves and others. However, the hormonal surge that occurs during adolescence can often lead to exaggerated emotional expression for some. Adolescents are adept at interpreting social situations as part of the process of managing emotional displays and have developed a set of expectations, referred to as scripts, that allow them to understand how various people will react to their emotional displays. Then, in turn, they will regulate their displays in accordance with these scripts. Studies have shown that younger adolescents begin breaking 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.
Not surprisingly, 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 is similarly supported by boys’ belief that they will receive less understanding and, in fact, probably be belittled, for expressing both aggressive and vulnerable emotions. Evaluation of gender differences in infants to age one year showed that male infants had greater difficulty than female infants in maintaining emotion regulation, indicating that greater capacity for self-regulation may be the main gender difference.
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