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Emotional Development

Emotional Development In Infancy And Toddlerhood, Emotions And Early Relationships, Emotional Development During Adolescence, SummaryEmotional Development during Childhood

When you're drawing up your list of life's miracles, you might place near the top the first moment your baby smiles at you …Today, she looked right at me. And she smiled …Her toothless mouth opened, and she scrunched her face up and it really was a grin …The sleepless nights, the worries, the crying—all of a sudden it was all worth it …She is no longer just something we are nursing and carrying along—somewhere inside, part of her knows what's going on, and that part of her is telling us that she's with us (Greene 1985, pp. 33-34).

In his journal of the early years of his daughter's life, reporter Bob Greene depicted the important roles that emotions ply in children's development. He noted the impact that his daughter' first smile had on him, washing away the worry and fatigue of early parenting. He also revealed the belief that emotions make us human and contribute significantly to the meaning of relationships. His daughter's smile was interpreted to mean that she was gaining awareness of her environment. Moreover, her smile meant that she was no longer merely a creature who needed feeding and cleaning, but that she was telling him that "she's with us"—becoming an active contributor to family relationships.

Although the diary entry points out the importance of emotions in everyday life, a national survey released by the organization Zero to Three revealed that parents have relatively little knowledge and information about their children's emotional development. Although parents believed that what they did as parents had the greatest influence on their children's emotional development, they also said that they had the least information in this area.

This lack of information about children's emotional development may stem in part from emotions being internal processes that are difficult to study. Because of this, for many decades researchers ignored the study of emotions. More recently, the study of emotions and emotional development has seen a resurgence of interest as developmental scientists agree that the study of emotions is central to an understanding of child development. Additionally, more sophisticated methods have been developed to study emotions.

Historically, emotions have proved remarkably difficult to define. This might seem surprising given that emotions are such a common human phenomenon. Emotions have been considered to be synonymous with certain patterns of facial expression, physiological reactions, muscular feedback, or brain activity. None of these definitions has proved adequate, and emotions are now considered to be closely linked with what a person is trying to do: They reflect a person's attempt or readiness to establish, maintain, or change the relation between the person and his or her environment. For example, a child who overcomes obstacles to a goal is likely to experience happiness. In contrast, a child who has a goal blocked is likely to experience anger. A child who gives up a goal is likely to experience sadness. These are not the only ways that emotions can be generated, but this functional definition of emotion helps us understand that emotions organize and coordinate both intrapsychic
(e.g., thoughts and motivations) and interpersonal (e.g., social interactions) processes.

Self-Conscious Emotions

Around eighteen months of age, toddlers develop a more sophisticated sense of self that is marked by self-recognition and the emergence of self-conscious emotions, such as shame, pride, and embarrassment. Michael Lewis developed a poignant method to study this development. A toddler is placed in front of a mirror and then the parent wipes some rouge on the child's nose before moving the child back to the mirror. Although children under eighteen months are unlikely to show signs of embarrassment at the rouge on their nose, children between eighteen and twenty-four months do. Self-recognition makes possible a more sophisticated understanding of the self and brings about new levels of emotional development.

During childhood, children's emotionality becomes more advanced. Their emotionality is focused less on themselves, and their advanced cognitive skills allow for more sophisticated responses when emotions are experienced.

Vicarious Emotional Responding

As noted earlier, emotions are viewed as important determinants and consequences of interactions with others. Thus, emotions can be caused by observing and recognizing what is happening to others. For example, when five-year-old Rachel became sad when her infant sister cried because she was sick, Rachel's feeling of sadness was the result of the condition of her sister rather than what was happening directly to herself. This type of emotional responding is known as vicarious emotional responding—responses that occur because of exposure to someone else's emotional state.

Janet Strayer and Nancy Eisenberg identified different types of vicarious emotional responses. For example, empathy is an emotional state that matches another person's emotional state—feeling bad because someone else is feeling bad. In contrast, sympathy refers to feeling sorry or concerned for others because of their emotional states or conditions. When Rachel felt sad when her sister cried, she was displaying sympathy. Sympathy frequently, but not always, results from empathy.

Martin Hoffman found that empathy appears fairly early and increases across childhood. Although infants cannot distinguish their own feelings from those of others, they occasionally respond to others' emotions. For example, infants often cry when they hear another infant crying. During early childhood, children tend to act and think in ways that focus on their own needs and desires. They are likely to respond to another's emotional distress in ways that they themselves find comforting. When three-yearold Ben saw his mother crying, he became sad and brought her his favorite stuffed animal to cheer her up. In this situation, Ben projected his own needs onto his mother.

As children develop the capacity to take the perspective of others, they increasingly become aware of other people's feelings. Until later childhood, however, children's empathic and sympathetic responses are limited to the feelings of familiar persons in familiar situations. Preschoolers, for example, are likely to be emotionally responsive to everyday events (such as getting hurt or being made fun of) that cause distress to familiar people or animals. During later childhood, the scope of children's concerns generalizes to conditions of unknown others who are less fortunate than themselves (such as the poor).

Childhood Anger

Anger is a common emotion at any developmental period. The causes of anger, however, change across childhood. For instance, at age five months, Carlos may become angry because he is hungry, with the anger occurring out of Carlos's basic needs not being met. At five years of age, however, Carlos may become angry because his sister took away his toy, with this anger resulting from Carlos's lack of control over the situation. Most of young children's anger occurs as a result of conflicts over materials, resources, and space. With age, anger is more likely to result from how one is treated. Thus, the causes of anger become increasingly social.

How children express anger also changes with age. For instance, when his sister took his toy away when he was age three, Carlos expressed his anger in the form of a tantrum. His mother, however, helped him find better ways to express his feelings, and by age six Carlos is able to tell his sister he is angry and request that she give him back his toy. As a result, the temper tantrums of the "terrible twos and threes" diminish as children find better ways to express their anger and make adjustments.

Language and Emotion

Before the age of two or three, children's expression of emotion occurs nonverbally, through facial, vocal, and gestural expressions. Once children develop the ability to use their words to express how they are feeling, they become better able to express, regulate, or explain their own (and others') emotions. The increased understanding that comes from the use of emotion language promotes, maintains, and regulates social interactions.

Emotion language has been found to emerge around twenty months and increases rapidly during the third year. By two years of age, children refer to a range of feeling states in themselves and others. Lois Bloom and her colleagues found that once children acquire the words for naming the emotions they are feeling, they begin to integrate these into their conversations. Because emotions are relevant and important, young children's talk often focuses on their emotional experiences.

Parents' use of emotion language has important consequences for children's emotional development. For example, when Kaneesha's mother saw her crying and asked her why she was sad, her mother had defined Kaneesha's emotional state. Repeated exposure to these labels can lead to differences in how children experience and express emotions. Parents, for instance, are more likely to talk about sadness and less likely to discuss anger with their daughters than their sons. After repeated exposure to these emotional labels, it is not be surprising that boys may be more likely to experience or express anger than girls, whereas girls are more likely to experience or express sadness. This pattern is consistent with common gender-emotion stereotypes in many Western countries.

Understanding Emotions

As cognitive development becomes more advanced, young children become increasingly aware of their own and others' emotions. As a result, children begin to develop a more complex understanding of the causes and consequences of emotions, how to control emotions, and the nature of emotional experiences. For example, although infants as young as one year of age can express ambivalence, a child's understanding of mixed emotions does not emerge until later in childhood. The work of Susan Harter and her colleagues has shown that children are first able to understand that people can experience two different, consecutive emotions (e.g., feeling scared and then feeling sad) at age six. Soon thereafter, children are capable of understanding that two related emotions of can co-occur (i.e., being both sad and afraid at the same time). By age ten, they are able to understand that mixed and unrelated emotions can occur simultaneously (e.g., feeling both happy and sad at the same time). This type of enhanced understanding gives children a better grasp of how emotions are tied to their social lives.

Two children leave flowers at London's Kensington Palace following the death of Princess Diana. As children develop the capacity to take the perspective of others, they increasingly become aware of other people's feelings, such as grief and sadness. (David & Peter Turnley/Corbis)

Emotion and Autonomy/Identify Formation

During this transition period, adolescents confront the challenge of developing autonomy—the capacity to think, feel, and act on their own. The quest for autonomy not only involves separation from parents and the development of self-reliance but also raises issues related to emotionality. One aspect of autonomy involves the need for the adolescent to realize that her emotions are independent from those of her parents, a process referred to as "emotional autonomy." During this period, adolescents may feel pulled between the need for close emotional ties with their parents and the need to develop their own emotional responses. For parents, the difficulty arises as to how to encourage emotional autonomy and independence while avoiding tension and conflict. If parents and teens can compromise and adapt during this period of change, it can be a positive time of exploration for both.

Anxiety and Depression

When emotional development becomes distorted, outcomes for children and teens can be put at risk. If not effectively dealt with, unresolved issues of emotional development can lead to more serious emotional disorders. At least one in five children and adolescents displays symptoms of emotional disorders, with anxiety and depression as the most common types.

Anxiety disorders include, among others, panic disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and phobias (excessive fears). Although most children encounter feelings of anxiety or fear, these usually do not become debilitating. Anxiety disorders generally have an onset early in childhood and persist into adulthood. Additionally, anxiety disorders may become exacerbated over time and sometimes lead to other disorders, such as depression.

Depression is generally characterized by hopelessness, low self-esteem, and sadness, and not only affects children's emotionality but also their physical well-being. Beginning in the 1970s, the age of onset of depression started decreasing, and by the early twenty-first century, depression commonly begins during adolescence. Estimates of clinical depression range from 4 percent to 12 percent of adolescents, with older adolescents having higher rates. Before puberty, rates of depression are low and occur equally in boys and girls. After puberty, girls report increased depression, with rates about twice those of boys.

Evidence is growing that problems with hormonal activity in the brain and nervous system often result in depression. The onset of puberty and associated hormonal changes may influence adolescents' emotional states. Also, some teens seem more prone to depression because they have cognitive styles in which they define their circumstances in terms of hopelessness and self-blame.

Additional topics

Social Issues ReferenceChild Development Reference - Vol 3