Emotional Development in Children: The Psychology of Emotion Development

Emotional development in children is a process which starts early, the first smile is seen when the child is around 6 weeks old – of course, this is likely an act of imitation as the child’s primary emotions (as outlined by Darwin) do not tend to develop fully until around 8 months of age. Of course, such primary emotions are universal through location, culture, gender and time, however they do vary in intensity and the effects such have upon the individual. We do not begin to see the emergence of what are known as evaluative emotions until approximately 3 years of age, this when the child can begin to feel subjective emotions such as shame or guilt as self-evaluative emotions.

It is also around this time that the child will begin to develop a sense of two selves, the I-self and Me-self these vary in that the self is separate from the world and has private internal feelings, this is when the child realises they have different experiences to other people around them, and that these experiences cannot be seen and are subjective. The Me-self simply refers to the often physical and identifiable characteristics which makes the child different from those around them.

Of course, we must consider that although I have drawn attention to development of self-evaluative emotions and abstract and subjective experiences, we must also assume that the younger the child is the more they are dependent on concrete (thus experienced) self-concept and are not good at hypothetical and even past experiences – so the emotion must be recent, visible or current for the child to complete understand them at such a young age. (Watson, 1990)

With increasing age, we see that children are far more able to refer to their emotions and use ‘emotive talk’, this meaning they are able to refer to emotions, talk of emotions, emotional behaviour and emotional consequences and to be able to incorporate emotional talk (e.g. ‘I am angry.’ Or ‘Sam is angry’) into their play. Language is said to play a reinforcement or strengthening role in their emotional development and children seem to benefit from emotional reference, especially between adult and child. (E.g. ‘Mummy is very upset you did that.’ Or ‘Why do you think mummy is upset?’) We notice also, it is around the same time that children begin to talk about emotions that they are developing stronger social bonds (so around the time of starting kindergarten or nursery) and better language abilities.

Despite the mentioning of primary emotions being a universal experience, psychologists have noted that females tend to experience – more importantly internalise – emotions such as guilt and shame more than boys do. Some are still unsure as to why this is , though the most likely reason is due to socialisation, as females are taught young that women are expected to be more emotional, perhaps due to future maternal expectations (see maternal deprivation and primary care giving later in this article). As the control and experiences of emotion become increasingly recognised with success – and thus then benefit social relationships among children – it could also explain why girls experience higher levels of emotions. So, more research on emotional talk differences between girls and boys would be useful in getting a better insight into this. It could also offer some suggestions as to whether girls score higher on Theory of Mind (ToM, the idea that people can understand that one’s emotions may differ from another’s in the same situation, as ones view point may differ – essentially, people are internally different as well as externally different)

Erickson (1950) made a good statement when he suggested that the concept of play was very important in emotional development, for not only did it offer stronger socialisation and so stronger links between people, but allowed the children to experiment with emotions and emotional reactions and differences. This also is important in relaxing the superego (a Freudian suggestion) of small children, as their morals are strict and thus they are more susceptible to feelings of guilt, particularly as they are at this point lacking in ToM. (so they will not perceive what does or does not hurt themselves may have a different effect on others. Play helps to stabilise this) Play is also a good development tool as before nursery – and thus the start of secondary socialisation – the child may have the opinions of their parents, as this is the majority of their emotional exposure.

However, more complex theories have been offered as explanations of emotional deviations. We see many mental health problems which link directly or impact directly upon emotion, these vary and include mood disorders (unipolar depression and bipolar), anxiety disorders (OCD and GAD) and even personality disorders (Borderline personality disorder, histrionic personality disorder and psychopathy). So it is then important to understand more on emotional development so we can further understand the likelihood of risk factors in mental health. (Essentially, are some more likely than others to develop mental health problems due to the upbringing they had? Or their emotional development?)

Much of this then comes down to something known as attachment, for many would believe that without infantile attachment – some are more specific as to the level and requirements than others – then the child will be stunted of any or most forms of emotion, and will certainly suffer emotionally, socially and perhaps physically. Five major perspectives have taken interest in attachment.

Psychoanalytic believers (i.e. Freud) would suggest that the child loves a parent – or care giver – because it is that person who is their life source (so the person who feeds them etc.). The learning theory would suggest that the child loves the caregiver because they reinforce the love (also known as behaviourism, Skinner.) The cognitive theory would suggest that a child loves because the child knows or is familiar with that person (Piaget). The ethological theory suggest that children love because they are born to love (Bowlby) and according to contact comfort theories, the child loves because the person is cuddly or comforting (Harlow).

However, Schaffer (1996) was able to set some standard references for attachment dependent upon the child’s age. For example, it was suggested that until 2 months of age – we shall call this the critical attachment period – the child is easily able to attach to any human being, regardless of age, gender, or relation. Up to 7 months, the child will then grow an attachment to a single figure, this is often the mother. From 7 – 24 months the child will have specific attachments, this means they will likely seek the caregiver they want for a specific role, by the age of 24 months and beyond, the child has a more developed sense of ToM and understands that attachments – and so emotions – must be different from person to person and experiences differ.

With this in mind, we move swiftly onto maternal deprivation, and look at the suggestion that children who experience maternal deprivation are at an emotional disadvantage and will suffer from varying negative effects, these include emotional, physical and cognitive retardation, increased physical illnesses, promiscuous social life in later childhood and into adulthood. This could well be backed in s study by Pollak (2010) which suggests that in the cases of Romanian orphans, their physical state was poor and they suffered higher levels of cognitive and physical impairments and struggled more in social relationships. However, these situations were different as the children were experienced to often complete deprivation of both social relationships and movement. This then leads to some criticisms of work by people such as Bowlby, who was indeed a big believer in the negative effects of maternal deprivation. The studies involved often concerned themselves with children who experienced not a lack of maternal interaction but a complete absence of it, and further an absence of any parental interaction, the children were often institutionalised or in poor quality child care and the samples were small (as few as 14 – 15 participants) thus not only is there then a concern about the generalizability of these findings, but also the ecological validity which on both accounts would prove to be exceptionally low.

We also must question the role of the primary care giver, we can find it safe to assume that the child will and does benefit from a primary care giver, the question however is firstly, must this be the mother of the child? Secondly, must they be female? A lot of research assumes that children benefit from female interaction and not from male, yet little evidence has proven this and single fathers tend to prove as well as single mothers. So perhaps children need equal levels of male-female influence? Historically its known that many children – especially in affluent families – had little to no interaction with their mothers within the first few years (so the entirety of the critical emotionally period). Many children proved to be emotionally developed and successful individuals. Of course, again we must consider a lot when looking at this (a lack of records, fewer or no diagnoses, a lack of support for psychological studies and beliefs or an absence of psychology in general).

The idea that mothers alone must be the primary care giver has huge and negative social repercussions, not only does it pressurise women into certain roles – being more emotional, and feeling the evaluative emotions of guilt or shame when they cannot, for any reasons, care for the child and make them happy, it could also explain why women have an increased chance of getting the children in divorce, leaving work for the child and why women get a longer bonding period with the child (maternity leave) than fathers do. Feminist research has put a lot of effort into critiquing the work of Bowlby and attachment theories, they claim that the time in which Bowlby’s work was done was politically controversial – in that it was done soon after the second world war – and may have had economic/political benefits to suggest children needed females as their caregivers, as this could have children at home and reduce government funded nurseries. Furthermore, emphasis has been placed on hierarchical caregivers, in that the child often turns to many people for different things and does not simply depend upon one person in most cases, and of course, many have said that the biological significance is not there, the child has no increased and innate attachment to the mother, instead it is simply the formation of an attachment or relationship with adult caregiver(s) which is critical for the child.

Further critiques of attachment theories are around social implications of emotional development and tend to suggest that there is one attachment type out of four main attachment types which is secure and thus best. Although 66% of all attachments fall into this category, it has implications as most would be white, middle class children. This then suggests that all working class and ethnic minority children are going to be more deprived than white middle class children. This theory also does not take into account different societies and cultures (e.g. the Japanese culture in which mothers take on a very full time and caring role for the child). Besides, Rutter would explain the value of social relationships and suggest that even in cases of deprivation which may or may not negatively affect the child, it is still improved to the circumstances of complete privation of social contact in the child’s early years.

Furthermore, and finally we cannot focus our attention purely on the caregiver. Unlike was suggested and believed by John Locke, children are not born as blank slates and although much of their personality and development is acquired through observation of parents etc they are born with temperaments of their own. If the child and parent do not fit in their temperaments issues are going to arise in that the child and parent will not emotionally be able to connect, this then may lead to an involuntary deprivation of contact between child and mother. (Thomas and Chess,1 977)

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