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 preparation of children for expressive reading constructionism, differential emotion theory, and social learning theory.
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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. Emotional understanding During this stage of development, toddlers acquire language and are learning to verbally express their feelings. American 20-month-olds correctly labeled a series of emotional and physiological states, including sleep-fatigue, pain, distress, disgust, and affection. 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. Empathy, a complex emotional response to a situation, also appears in toddlerhood, usually by age two.