The study of the emotional development of infants and children is relativelynew, having been studied empirically only during the past few decades. Researchers have approached this area from a variety of theoretical perspectives, which differ mainly on the question of whether emotions are learned or biologically predetermined.
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. As infants become more aware of their environment, smiling occurs in response to a wider variety of contexts. Smiles 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 promotessocial development.
During the last half of the first year, infants begin expressing fear, disgust, and anger. Anger serves an adaptive function, signalling caregivers of theinfant's discomfort or displeasure, letting them know that something needs to be changed or altered. Although some infants respond to distressing eventswith sadness, anger is more common.
Fear emerges as children become able to compare an unfamiliar event with whatthey know. The degree to which a child reacts with fear to new situations isdependent on a variety of factors. One of the most significant is the response of its mother or caregiver. Infants repeatedly check with their caregiversfor emotional cues regarding safety and security of their explorations, andthey look to caregivers for facial cues for the appropriate reaction to unfamiliar adults.
During the second year, infants express emotions of shame, embarrassment, andpride. The reasons for the shame or pride are 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 dampentheir cheer, or even to feel shame at another person's loss.
During this stage of development, toddlers acquire language and learn 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 andphysiological states, including sleep-fatigue, pain, distress, disgust, and affection. This ability, rudimentary as it is during early toddlerhood,is the first step children take 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 labelemotions, and to control emotional expression in ways that are consistent with cultural expectations. Being able to articulate an emotional state in itself has a regulatory effect. 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 themselvesin the position of another).
Parents help preschoolers acquire skills to cope with negative emotional states by teaching and modeling the use of verbal reasoning and explanation. Children learn at about age three that expressions of anger and aggression are tobe controlled in the presence of adults. Around peers, however, children aremuch less likely to suppress negative emotional behavior. It appears that these differences are the results of the consequences children have experiencedwhen expressing emotions. Further, this socially contextual distinction demonstrates that preschoolers have begun to internalize society's rules governing the appropriate expression of emotions.
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. As such, one's external emotional expression need not match one's internal emotional state. For example, in Western culture, we teach children thatthey should smile and say thank-you when receiving a gift, even if they don'tlike it. The ability to use display rules is complex. It requires that children understand the need to alter emotional displays, take the perspective ofanother, 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.
Carolyn Saarni has identified two types of emotional display rules, prosocialand self-protective. Prosocial display rules involve altering emotional displays in order to protect another's feelings. On the other hand, self-protective display rules involve masking emotion in order to save face or to protectoneself from negative consequences. 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; others show the opposite.
Children ages seven to 11 display a wider variety of self-regulation skills.Sophistication in understanding and enacting cultural display rules has increased dramatically by this stage, such that 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. Several factors influence their emotion management decisions, includingthe type of emotion experienced, the nature of their relationship with the person involved, age, and 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 tofriends 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 anddeemed essential to establishing, developing, and maintaining social relationships.
Children at this age also demonstrate rudimentary cognitive and behavioral coping skills that serve to lessen the impact of an emotional event. 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 threateningor upsetting.
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. 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.
An important factor in the ways adolescents regulate emotional displays is their heightened sensitivity to others' evaluations of them, a sensitivity thatcan result in acute self-awareness and self-consciousness as they try to blend into the dominant social structure. David Elkind has described adolescentsas 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 are highly culture-specific, adolescents have the difficult task of learning when and how to express orregulate 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 fearfulemotions during times of distress. This reluctance was similarly supported byboys' belief that they would receive less understanding and, in fact, probably be belittled, for expressing both aggressive and vulnerable emotions.