Motivation and emotion/Book/2010/Emotional development in children

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Emotional development in children
This page is part of the Motivation and emotion textbook. See also: Guidelines.

Overview[edit | edit source]

Emotional development begins during the first few moments of life and continues throughout childhood

Practically every facet of human life involves emotion, whether it is meeting friends for lunch, experiencing your first day of school, or getting married. As human beings, we are inherently interested in others’ emotions and constantly express our own. The ability to express, recognise and understand emotion enables us to behave in a socially competent and accepted way (White, Hayes & Livesey, 2005). If an individual did not have such skills, they would experience significant difficulty interacting with other individuals in all walks of life.

Emotion is evident very early in human life, with infants expressing distress through crying within their first few seconds of entering the world (Oatley, Keltner & Jenkins, 2006). Within just a few months, infants express joy through smiling and laughing (Kalat & Shiota, 2007). From here on, the development of emotion in children is rapid and significant.

This chapter will identify the framework of emotional development in children starting from the very first days of life. To begin, two theoretical perspectives pertaining to emotional development will be discussed. The emotions which exist in early infancy will be examined, leading to the aspects of social interaction and its influences upon emotional development. The understanding and recognition of emotions, a fundamental aspect of social interaction will then be evaluated. Further, the formation of emotional bonds and its importance to emotional development will be discussed. This chapter will also shed light on emotional development within children who experience autism spectrum disorders in contrast to normally developing children.

Focus questions

After studying this chapter, you should be able to answer the following questions:

  • What is emotional development?
  • What are the underlying theories of emotional development?
  • What emotions do newborn infants experience?
  • How does social interaction with others influence the development of emotion in children?
  • When and how do children begin to understand emotion in others?
  • How do infants develop emotional bonds with significant others?
  • What is autism?
  • How does the development of emotion differ between children with autism and typically developing children?

Definition of emotional development[edit | edit source]

To understand the numerous aspects of emotional development in children, it would be ideal to first gain an understanding of what emotional development itself. Emotional development is essentially the way emotions change or remain constant across the human lifespan (White, Hayes & Livesey, 2005).

Theoretical approaches to emotional development[edit | edit source]

The development of emotion has been investigated from numerous perspectives. Two theoretical frameworks will be presented in this chapter; biological and evolutionary and psychoanalytic perspective.

The discrete emotion of interest in an infant, as described in differential emotions theory

Biological and evolutionary perspective[edit | edit source]

Differential emotions theory[edit | edit source]

One theory of emotional development which holds significant biological and evolutionary ties is differential emotions theory which is also referred to as discrete emotions theory. Differential emotions theory traces back to Charles Darwin, and his proposal that basic human emotions are the products of evolutionary history which serve us in an adaptive way (Shaffer, 2005). For example, disgust displayed in infants when they taste something bitter is considered an inbuilt reaction that protects them from poisoned food by causing them to spit out the subnstance (Shaffer, 2005). Additionally, the distress expressed early in infancy alerts caregivers when they are hungry or tired, hence promoting their well-being (Shaffer, 2005).

Differential emotions theory stems from Charles Darwin's earlier work

Essentially, differential emotions theory stresses the innate, biological structure and universality of a core set of emotions in human beings (Mangelsdorf & Wong, 2009). Differential emotions theory proposed that infants attain a limited and particular set of emotions during the first few months of life, which are organised into a system of independent functioning (Ackerman, Abe & Izard, 1998). Additionally, emotions are considered to emerge during early development in a pre-adapted and conventional manner (Ackerman, Abe & Izard, 1998). Moreover, differential emotions theory proposes that the biologically programmed emotions are accompanied by discrete bodily and facial processed, evident early in infancy (Schaffer, 2005). For example, interest in infants encompasses raised brows, rounded mouth and pursed lips (Shaffer, 2005). In addition to interest, there are nine other discrete emotions including; joy, surprise, fear, anger, disgust, distress, contempt, shame and guilt (Reeve, 2009).

Psychoanalytic perspective[edit | edit source]

Unlike most areas of psychology, Sigmund Freud has not been as influential within the field of emotional development. One factor in particular contributes to this. Freud’s theory of emotion is essentially a “one-affect” theory and is primarily a theory of anxiety (Magai & McFadden, 1995).

In contrast, Erik Erickson, who was a follower of Freud’s work, proposed a stage theory of emotional development in humans. Erickson's theory is sometimes referred to as Erikson's stages of psychosocial development. Erickson puts forward that infants face imperative developmental tasks in emotional development in relation to eight successive stages. Each of these eight stages entails the completion of a certain task, with each task depending on the completion of the previous task (Hutchinson, 2003). The three stages relating directly to childhood are summarised below.

Table 1

Life stage Developmental task Characteristic
Infancy (Birth-1 year) Basic trust vs. basic mistrust Infants must form trusting relationships with caregivers or they will learn to distrust the world.
Early childhood (3-5 years) Autonomy vs. shame and doubt Toddler must develop self-confidence and a sense of accomplishment over themselves and their worlds and they use newly developed motor skills or they will develop shame and doubt about their inability to develop control.
Middle childhood (6-11 years) Industry vs. inferiority School aged children must develop a sense of competence to accomplish tasks or they learn to feel inferior or incompetent.

(Hutchinson, 2003).

Development of emotional experience and expression[edit | edit source]

What emotions do infants have? With this question in mind, consider the following scenario;

Fifteen month-old Sarah is sitting on the lounge-room floor playing with her jack-in-the-box toy while her mother, Sandra, sits nearby reading her book. Sarah is spinning the handle of her jack-in-the-box. When the clown pops up, she turns toward her mother and laughs with delight. After a number of unsuccessful attempts to put the clown back in to the box, Sarah becomes frustrated. She begins fussing angrily and looks to her mother for help. Sandra comes over and shows Sarah how to close the box. Sarah then begins turning the handle, starting the process again. This time however, her hand gets caught under the lid when closing it. She cries and holds out her hand to her mother, who comes over and comforts her. Not long after this, Sarah loses interest in the jack-in-the-box and begins playing with another toy (Gowen & Nebrig, 2002).

Here, Sarah has experienced and expressed a range of emotions. Joy and happiness were expressed through laughter, frustration when the clown would not fit back in to the box and distress when her finger was injured. In a simple scenario such as this, we can begin to understand the range of emotions experienced by infants throughout day-to-day-life.

Distress is the first emotion expressed by infants through crying

Emotional expressions are present from birth and form the basis of the communication between parent and child (Kasari & Sigman, 1996). Shortly after birth, facial expressions of infants include interest, disgust, sadness, anger and joy (Kasari & Sigman, 1996). Facial expressions are particularly imperative as they act as expressive signals of inner emotional experience (Kasari & Sigman, 1996). Biological needs such as hunger and pain for instance, are communicated through the expression of physical distress (White, Hayes & Livesey, 2005). Furthermore, social world interactions are signalled through expressions of interest and joy (White, Hayes & Livesey, 2005). Essentially, emotional expression provides a vital role in communication (Kasari & Sigman, 1996). Infants use numerous mechanisms to express emotions. Probably the two most common are crying and smiling.

Crying in infants[edit | edit source]

Crying or distress is one emotion that is present from birth. Infants cry when they are hungry, tired, and gassy or just generally feeling uncomfortable (Kalat & Shiota, 2007). Crying is a particularly important communication tool that tells a parent that something is wrong (White, Hayes & Livesey, 2005).

Social smiling is used by infants to initiate social interaction

Smiling in infants[edit | edit source]

Infant smiling reflects the up-and-coming emotional competencies in a young child (Messinger, 2009). There are two categories of smiling; the social smile and the reflex smile (White, Hayes & Livesey, 2005). Social smiling in infants begins to emerge, at a caregiver's delight, within the first four to six weeks of life. Social smiling in young infants communicates pleasure at the identification of a familiar face, such as a caregiver, through coordination of oral-facial muscles in to a social signal 's(Slentz & Krogh, 2001). Hence, caregiver's interpret an infant’s social smile as an indication of comfort and pleasure (Slentz & Krogh, 2001). From now on, an infant will use smiling as a tool for initiating social interactions (Slentz & Krogh, 2001). In contrast, the reflex smile appears in response to external stimuli, usually during irregular patters of sleep (White, Hayes & Livesey, 2005).

Anger, sadness and fear in infants[edit | edit source]

As mentioned above, distress is evident early in infancy due to hunger or pain. However, specific anger and sadness begins to appear over the first six months of life (Shaffer, 2005). Anger is most often displayed in situations where the infant becomes frustrated, such as an inability to wield control over toys (Shaffer, 2005). Sadness, like anger develops over the first six months of life, and is displayed in various situations, such as the inability to produce a positive response from a caregiver (Shaffer, 2005). Fear is one of the last primary emotions to emerge, and generally indicates that an infant considers a person, object or situation a threat (Shaffer, 2005).

Social interaction and emotional development[edit | edit source]

Numerous aspects of the development of emotion are considered to be innate or general across cultures (Walden & Knieps, 1996). Nevertheless, input from the social environment is considered essential for the development of emotional functioning (Walden & Knieps, 1996). Growing children spend hours of their day observing others’ and their emotional reactions to various situations. As an onlooker to everyday events, an infant may watch a parent smile after tasting food, an older sibling cry as their tower of blocks falls to the ground, or a childcare workers look shocked when a drinking glass falls and breaks on the floor (Mumme & Fernald, 2003). Furthermore, the child may also participate in these events themselves (Mumme & Fernald, 2003). Whether the child is a participant in such events, or simply an onlooker, young children learn how to understand and predict the behaviours and emotions of other people and relate this understanding to regulate their own behaviour (Mumme & Fernald, 2003). One such way a young child learns through observation is through social referencing.

Young children learn about emotional reactions through observing other individuals such as their caregivers

Social referencing[edit | edit source]

Social referencing is a communication process in which infants dynamically use and seek out observed perceptions and understanding of unclear situations in order to guide their own understanding of such circumstances (Vaish & Striano, 2004). Hence, social referencing entails two aspects of a social information-processing skill; seeking input from other individuals and consequently using (or in some instances, not using) this information to form one’s own behaviour (Walden, 1991). Social referencing is one important way in which infants learn emotional responses (Walden, 1991). For instance, infants have observed to interact less with ambiguous toys and to be less friendly to strangers when a parent displays aversive affect toward them (Walden, 1991).

Imagine the following scenario;

A one year old infant is playing on the floor with his mother when an unfamiliar person enters the room. The mother stands up, smiles and extends her hand, and walks over to the stranger. The infant observes this behaviour, and loses interest, returning to his toys (Walker-Andrews, 1998).

Here, the infant has demonstrated social referencing, thus illustrating his ability to use others’ emotional reactions to regulate his own behaviour (Walker-Andrews, 1998). If the mother has responded differently to the stranger, say with fear or anger in her facial expression, voice or gesture, the infant probably would have reacted with more caution (Walker-Andrews, 1998).

Measuring social referencing[edit | edit source]

Social referencing is most commonly measured or assessed by presenting a child with unclear stimuli and having a parent or other adult express positive or negative emotional reactions to the stimuli (Walden & Knieps, 1996). A fundamental behavioural aspect of social referencing is information seeking acts such as referential looking or asking questions (Walden, Knieps, 1996). One primary example of social referencing in infants is demonstrated in the visual cliff, in which an infant is placed on a glass surface providing an invisible support over an apparent drop (Vaish & Striano, 2004). The visual cliff serves as the unclear or ambiguous situation. Experiments using the visual cliff carry the general prediction that infant’s behaviour will differ in appropriate ways with various emotional signals conveyed by the caregiver (Mumme, Fernals & Herrera, 1996).

Studies have used the classic "peek a boo" game as a way of demonstrating social referencing in infants

Visual cliff experiments have demonstrated the occurrence of social referencing among infants since the early 1980’s. In a well known study (Sorce, Emde, Campos & Klinnert, 1985) found infants to cross the cliff when the adult on the opposite side of the glass displayed interest or joy, while fewer infants crossed when the adult displayed fear or anger. When infants approached the edge of the visual cliff and saw fear expressed by the mother, none of the 17 infants crossed (Sorce et al, 1985). However, when the infants saw happiness expressed by the mother, 14 out of 19 infants crossed the visual cliff (Sorce et al, 1985). Overall, Sorce et al (1985) demonstrated social referencing to have a significant effect upon infant behaviour and the way they learn emotional responses.

Another method used to measure social referencing in infants is an adaption of the “peek-a-boo” game commonly used by caregivers. Walker-Andrews (1998) used the peek-a-boo game to investigate young infants’ perception of other individuals’ emotional expressions. Forty four and a half year old infants were assigned to one of four emotion change groups, including sad, anger, fear and as the control, consistent happy or surprise (Walker-Andrews, 1998).The infants were then shown three standard happy or surprise peek-a-boos followed by a fourth, which depended on the assigned group (Walker-Andrews, 1998). Results found the infants to discriminate facial and vocal expressions of anger, fear and sadness and happy or surprise when offered in a familiar situation (Walker-Andrews, 1998).

Findings from these studies have given insight and generally support the conception that infants can use emotional signals to regulate their own judgements and behaviour.

Interpreting facial expressions[edit | edit source]

Similar to social referencing is the ability of infants to interpret facial expressions of emotion through imitation. The ability to understand and recognise emotion through facial expression is an imperative aspect of social interaction (Heerey, Keltner & Capps, 2003). Additionally, Facial expressions are a primary indicator for normally developing children to understand the emotions and actions of others (Grossman, Klin, Carter & Volkmar, 2000).

Interestingly, developing children are accustomed to faces almost from birth, showing immense interest in the faces around them (Thornton, 2002). In fact, infants as young as one month old have been found to imitate facial expressions and gestures, such as an adult poking out their tongue (Thornton, 2002). This phenomenon, known as facial mimicry, which occurs frequently in infants and children, is the tendency to imitate facially or vocally with individuals we interact with (Bourgeois & Hess, 2008).

Although it is clearly understood that interpretation of facial expressions is an important aspect of social interaction, it is generally unknown how this influences emotional development (Kalat & Shiota, 2007).

Understanding and recognition of emotions in infants and children[edit | edit source]

Box 1: Children's understanding of emotion through art

A recent study has demonstrated that children as young as three are sensitive to and understand the emotional meaning expressed in other children's art. Misailidi & Bonoti (2008) presented children aged between three and six years of age with a series of drawings expressing either happiness, sadness, anger or fear. Results from the study showed that;

  • By three years of age, children showed an understanding of the emotion expressed in the drawings
  • The emotions of happiness, sadness and fear were the most common to be recognised by the children

(Misailidi & Bonoti, 2008)

Understanding and recognition of emotions is how an individual construe and encode emotional signals from others (White, Hayes & Livesey, 2005). Generally, infants begin to recognise emotional expressions in others’ by six months of age, and this is commonly demonstrated through social referencing (Walker-Andrews, 1998), which was mentioned earlier in the chapter. However, gaining a full understanding of others' emotional and mental state is a gradual process which doesn't fully development until years later. A fundamental aspect of the ability for a child to understand and recognise others’ emotions is the development of a theory of mind.

Theory of mind[edit | edit source]

Imagine that the following scenario is described for a child: a girl comes home, places her doll in a cupboard and then leaves the room. Later on, her mother comes in to the room and moves the doll to a different cupboard. When the girl comes back to get her doll, where will she look?

The correct answer to this question will ultimately depend on the child knowing about the beliefs of the girl in the scenario (Moore & Frye, 1991). Put differently, it will depend on the child having a theory or mind. Theory of mind is an understanding or awareness that people have mental states including beliefs, feelings and desires (Thornton, 2002). Having a theory of mind remains an essential ability to having a full and functional adult social interaction (Thornton, 2002). Try to imagine what it would be like having a relationship with another person that had no awareness of such mental states. It would be more like interacting with a mechanical device or robot than a person. What it's like for a person who doesn't have a theory of mind will be discussed further in the chapter.

Measuring theory of mind[edit | edit source]

When do infants realise that they themselves, and other individuals, have minds? This particular question has been in the past debatable, and has generated a great deal of research and controversy (Thornton, 2002). Numerous experiments have been designed in an attempt to identify the age in which children develop a theory of mind. Such tasks are in general, a “pass or fail” nature (Taylor, 2005). Essentially, to pass them, infants must exhibit their understanding that reality can in fact be misunderstood and hence that the mind is a representational unit which actively constructs mental representations (Taylor, 2005).

The most commonly known and used test for theory of mind in children is the “false belief task” (Doherty, 2009). Among the numerous tasks used to measure false belief in children, two models in particular, known as unexpected transfer tasks, have been used so extensively that they have become known as the standard false belief tasks; the Maxi-chocolate and Sally-Anne test (Krachun, Carpenter, Call & Tomasello, 2010). Generally, false belief tasks are acted out for children with props and dolls (Doherty, 2009). However, other demonstrations use real people, pictures or videos of real people (Doherty, 2009). Nevertheless, the design of the experiment doesn’t seem to affect the basic finding (Doherty, 2009).

Children generally understand the emotions, beliefs and mental states of others by age four; which is a vital component of functional social interaction

The first task, the Maxi-chocolate task, originally developed by Wimmer and Perner, is described to children in the following format;

Maxi is helping his mother to unpack the shopping bag. He puts the chocolate into the GREEN cupboard. Maxi remembers exactly where he put the chocolate so he can come back later and get some. Then he leaves for the playground. In his absence his mother needs some chocolate. She takes the chocolate out of the GREEN cupboard and uses some of it for her cake. Then she puts it back not into the GREEN cupboard but into the BLUE cupboard. She leaves to get some eggs and Maxi returns from the playground, hungry. Test question: Where will Maxi look for the chocolate? (Doherty, 2009).

In general, findings show that children begin to pass this task at approximately 4 or 5 years old (Doherty, 2009). Almost indefinitely, children under the age of 4 will answer that Maxi will look in the blue cupboard (Taylor, 2005). Hence, children predict Maxi’s behaviour and actions upon the basis of their own true beliefs instead of Maxi’s false belief (Taylor, 2005). This is known as a “realist error”; when responses are based upon reality instead of on a substitute mis-representation of reality (Taylor, 2005).

The Sally-Anne test enacts the following situation with either dolls and props or real people: Sally has a basket and Anne has a box. Sally puts a marble into her basket, and then she goes outside to play. While Sally is outside, Anne takes the marble from the basket and puts it into her own box. When Sally comes back inside, she wants to play with her marble. Test question: Where will Sally look for the marble? (Frith, 2001). On the whole, to answer the questions posed in the Maxi-chocolate and Sally-Anne test correctly, a child needs to understand that Maxi and Sally’s mental state, rather than reality, will establish where Maxi and Sally will look (Thornton, 2002).

As above, children under the age of four will usually fail the Sally-Anne test, reporting that Sally will look in the box for the marble, finding it difficult to understand that Sally does not know the marble is now in Anne’s box simply because they now have this knowledge (Goodman & Scott, 1997). Additionally, children over the age of four generally pass the test, reporting that Sally will look in her basket for the marble, predicting that Sally will act on her false belief (Goodman & Scott, 1997).

Understanding and recognising emotion, beliefs and mental states in others’ is a complex process. It is unlikely that at one moment, children have no understanding of mental states and a good understanding the next (Thornton, 2002). Rather, the development of a theory of mind is gradual (Thornton, 2002). Overall, previous studies indicate that children develop a theory of mind by the age of four.

Development of emotional bonds[edit | edit source]

Attachment[edit | edit source]

A girl crying during her mother's absence

Best known through Bowlby’s work throughout the 1970’s and 80’s, attachment theory is not a theory of emotional development as such, however it is centred on the influence of emotion upon the development of social relationships (Strongman, 2003). The creation of a secure attachment with important individuals is considered an imperative component of emotional development during the first year of infancy (Gowen & Nebrig, 2002). Attachment theory proposes that at the earliest opportunity, an infant is disposed to attach to a caregiver (Strongman, 2003). During the first few months of life, an infant who has developed social smiling will reactively smile back at any individual (Kalat & Shiota, 2007). However, at around six to nine months, an infant will becomes more selective, won’t smile at just anybody, and grows to know and trust certain individuals (Kalat & Shiota, 2007).

Essentially, attachment develops in young infants from the basic need for dependency on others for nurturance and protection (Gowen & Nebrig, 2002). Infants generally develop attachment with a select few, most typically those who care for them (Gowen & Nebrig, 2002). The type of attachment an infant forms with one significant person can differ compared to the attachment formed with another (Gowen & Nebrig, 2002).

Measuring attachment[edit | edit source]

Attachment assessments are considered particularly important, especially in relation to clinical applications, just as they are for intelligence and psychological disorders (McKinsey-Crittenden, Claussen & Kozlowska, 2007). A classic measurement of attachment in infants is known as the Strange situation procedure, developed by Mary Ainsworth.

The Strange Situation is implemented most commonly when the infant is 12 to 18 months old and is not normally used with infants with neurological problems (Gowen & Nebrig, 2007). The procedure usually lasts around twenty minutes and takes place in an unfamiliar environment (McKinsey-Crittenden, Claussen & Kozlowska, 2007). The strange situation involves up to seven episodes, with the episodes least stressful occurring first (Schaffer, 1996). After an introductory episode, the infant and parent are simply observed in the unfamiliar room to determine how far the infant will move from the parent to explore its surroundings and play with toys (Salter-Ainsworth & Wall, 1978). With the parent still present, a stranger enters the room (Kalat & Shiota, 2007). Once the stranger has moved closer to the infant, the parent will leave the room, return after a few minutes and the stranger will then leave (Salter-Ainsworth & Wall, 1978). The mother will then interest the infant in the toys again, before leaving the infant in the room by itself (Salter-Ainsworth & Wall, 1978). Finally, the stranger enters the room again for some time before the parent returns (Salter-Ainsworth & Wall, 1978).

Of course, the experiment is stopped if the infant becomes too distressed, but the scenarios are intended to be mildly to moderately stressful for the infant in order to assess how the infant uses the parent to deal with such stress (Gowen & Nebrig, 2007). The infant’s attachment to the parent is then examined by looking at the infant’s behaviour during the experiment, such as how quickly the infant is comforted by the parent (Gowen & Nebrig, 2007).

From here, infants are coded based upon their behaviour and are classified as having one of three types of attachment.

  1. Securely attached; Infant displayed reasonable amount of closeness seeking to parent. Infant is upset by parent’s departure, however greets them positively when they return.
  2. Insecurely attached: avoidant; Infant avoids parent, particularly when parent returns after leaving. Infant is not significantly upset when left alone with the stranger
  3. Insecurely attached: resistant; Infant is greatly upset when parent leaves the room. When parent re-enters the room, the infant is difficult to comfort.

Shaffer (1996).

Overall, the development of attachment is varied among infants. It does however identify the aspects of the social bonds that infants develop with their caregivers.

Emotional difficulties in atypical development[edit | edit source]

Box 2: What's it like to have a autism spectrum disorder?

Consider this real life account from a woman with Asperger’s disorder.

“Mum took me to the local play centre, but I was unable to interact with the other children. All I wanted to do was the stay in the book corner for the whole morning. One of the highlights for the other children was finger painting, but I would not touch the stuff, as I have revulsion of sticky substances on my skin. One day, the play centre organised a cartoon film viewing for the children; I was three years old. The moving animated figures of Tom and Jerry terrified me, and I screamed so much that I had to be taken out. The other children loved it”.

Birch, J. (2003). pp 14.

Autism and Aspergers Disorder[edit | edit source]

Despite widespread research and literature that suggests a natural developmental process among infants and children, children with atypical development experience a significant struggle with emotional expression and understanding.

Emotional expression provides a vital role in human communication. Aspects such as facial expression communicate emotional states, hence influencing others’ to respond (Kasari & Sigman, 1996). Furthermore, the ability to understand the emotions and mind of others is considered imperative to social communication (Kuusikko et al, 2009). Thus, a disturbance to such emotional signalling could have detrimental effects upon social interactions (Kasari & Sigman, 1996). One such disturbance in children includes autism.

Autism is one of many related disorders, together known as autism spectrum disorders (ASD). The American Psychiatric Association (2000) defines autism as a complex developmental disorder characterised by three primary symptoms:

  1. Impaired development in social interaction
  2. Impaired development in communication, and
  3. Restricted repetitive stereotyped patterns of behaviour, interests and activities

In relation to social impairment, autistic children are generally uninterested in the characteristics of others and don’t tend to respond when other children attempts to initiate contact to gain their attention (Siegal, 2007). Additionally, autistic children engage in solitary activities and generally pay attention to objects instead of people (Siegal, 2007).

An example of restricted repetitive patterns of behaviour, interests and activities in a young autistic child; can stacking

The characteristics of autism have been discussed for decades. Kanner (1943) examined eleven children suspected of having autism. One of these children, Elaine, aged seven, was brought to Kanner by her parents as she had been experiencing troubles adjusting. Elaine didn’t understand other children’s games, didn’t show interest in stories read to her, often wandered off by herself, was particularly interested in animals of all kinds and often mimicked them (Kanner, 1943). This account captures all three of the primary symptoms of autism described above.

Autism varies in degree of severity and can come about at all levels of ability, therefore is it now accepted that there is a “spectrum” of autistic disorders (Frith, 2001). At one end of the spectrum is Asperger’s Disorder, which is considered a milder form of autism (Frith, 2001). In contrast to autism, Asperger's disorder is characterised only by a significant impairment in social interaction and the development of restricted repetitive stereotyped patters of behaviour, interests and activities (American Psychiatric Association, 2000). Compared to autism, there are no significant delays in language acquisition in Asperger's disorder (American Psychiatric Association, 2000).

Such a definition suggests that individuals with autism spectrum disorders are “cut off” from the world around them (Taylor, 2005). Indeed, the severe impairment in social interaction makes it significantly difficult for children with autism to interact socially with other individuals.

Emotional expression in children with autism spectrum disorders[edit | edit source]

Leo Kanner is an early figure in child autism research

As previously mentioned, the emotional expressions present in a young infant, such as smiling and crying, are the basis for communication between caregiver and child (Kasari & Sigman, 1996). One key indicator of ASD in infants is the absence of facial expressions such as joy (American Psychiatric Association, 2000). Absences of facial expressions in autistic children have been documented for a number of years. Kanner (1943) For instance, found children with autism to display vacant expressions with no communicative signals whatsoever. Hobson & Lee (1998) found fewer autistic children, compared to non autistic children to smile or wave goodbye when interacting with others. Without the ability to express emotion, it is easy to see the difficultly for children with ASD to communicate with others, and vice versa.

Understanding and recognition of emotions in children with autism spectrum disorders[edit | edit source]

As mentioned earlier in the chapter, having a theory of mind is a vital component of emotional development. It is a general suggestion that children with autism do not develop a theory of mind until well after the age of four years (Siegal, 2007). This deficit is said to account for the non-social nature of autism (Siegal, 2007). The basis for theory of mind in children with ASD is that they do not grasp how the behaviour of others can be guided by a false belief (Siegal, 2007) such as those shown in the Maxi-chocolate and Sally-Anne tasks described earlier in the chapter. Unlike typically developing children, theory of mind abilities in children with ASD seem to be resistant and do not improve until much later in life (Siegal, 2007). In contrast, individuals with Asperger’s disorder have been found to pass theory of mind measurements which test false belief (Bowler, 1992).

In addition to theory of mind, interpreting facial expressions has been discussed earlier in the chapter as a vital component of social interaction and emotional communication in children. Essentially, being able to “read” facial expression in others’ can tell us a lot, providing context and meaning to the words we hear (Thornton, 2002). Recent studies have suggested that children with autism have a significant impairment in face and facial expression recognition (Joseph & Tanaka, 2003). Interestingly, researchers from the University of California suggest that areas of the brain in autistic children do not respond to visual cues that respond in those without autism (University of California, 2007).

On the whole, the development and experience of emotion in children with ASD is a entirely different experience compared to normally developing children. An inability to express and understand emotions makes social interaction incredibly hard, and in most cases non-existent for children with ASD.

Summary[edit | edit source]

Emotions are an integral part of our lives. We experience them every day and they exist as the foundations of human social interaction. This chapter has made it clear that emotional development begins during the first few moments of life as a newborn infant cries due to stress of an unfamiliar environment. From this point on, emotional development becomes an intricate and rapid journey for a child.

This chapter has identified and discussed two theoretical perspectives relating to emotional development: biological and evolutionary, and psychoanalytic. Both theories take quite diverse standpoints of the way in which emotion is developed. It seems that social interaction with others’ is imperative to emotional development, with social referencing providing a key example supporting this idea. Research has found that infants often use other people’s emotional reactions to inform their own behaviour, particularly in ambiguous situations.

Additionally, having an understanding and the ability to recognise emotions in others is vital to both emotional development and social interaction. This is more commonly known as theory of mind within psychology, which is an understanding that other people have mental states, beliefs, emotions and desires.

The development of emotional bonds is typically displayed through attachment. This chapter defines attachment as the close emotional bond infants’ form with a significant person, most commonly a caregiver. Although attachment theory is not a theory of emotion, it does highlight the influence emotion has upon the development of close bonds.

Finally, ASD was discussed in relation to emotional development. Overall, children with ASD have great difficulty with social interaction resulting in an inability to develop a theory of mind. Moreover, research has found that children with ASD do not express emotion compared to typically developing children.

On the whole, emotional development in children is a multifaceted process, which can take one of many paths.

Key Terms[edit | edit source]

Emotional development: the way emotions change or remain constant across the human lifespan (White, Hayes & Livesey, 2005).

Social smiling: the way young infants’ communicates pleasure at the identification of a familiar face, such as a parent, through coordination of oral-facial muscles in to a social signal (Slentz & Krogh, 2001).

Social referencing: a communication process in which infants dynamically use and seek out observed perceptions and understanding of ambiguous situations in order to guide their own understanding of such circumstances (Vaish & Striano, 2004). Social referencing is most commonly measured in the visual cliff experiment.

Theory of mind: an understanding or awareness that people have mental states including, beliefs, emotions and desires (Thornton, 2002). Theory of mind is most commonly measured using the Maxi-chocolate and Sally-Anne tasks.

Attachment theory: proposes that throughout infancy, and infant is disposed to attach to their caregiver figure (Strongman, 2003). Attachment is commonly measured using the Strange Situation procedure, developed by Mary Ainsworth. There are three types of attachment; securely attached, insecurely attached: avoidant and insecurely attached: resistant.

Autism: a complex developmental disorder characterised by impaired development in social interaction, communication and restricted repetitive stereotyped patterns of behaviour, interests and activities (American Psychiatric Association, 2000).

Asperger’s Disorder: characterised only by a significant impairment in social interaction and the development of restricted repetitive stereotyped patterns of behaviour, interests and activities (American Psychiatric Association, 2000).

See also

References[edit | edit source]

American Psychiatric Association. (2000). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (4th ed. Text revision). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Association

Birch, J. (2003). Congratulations! It’s Asperger Syndrome. Retrieved from:

Bourgeois, P., & Hess, U. (2008). The impact of social contact on mimicry. Biological Psychology, 77, 343-352. doi: 10.1016/j.biopsycho.2007.11.008

Bowler, D. M. (1992). Theory of mind in asperger’s syndrome. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 33, 877-893. doi: 10.1111/j.1469-7610.1992.tb01962.

Benson, B. J., & Haith, M. M. (2009). Social and emotional development in infancy and early childhood. Retrieved from:

Doherty, M. J. (2009). Theory of mind: how children understand others’ thoughts and feelings. Psychology Press, Hove, East Sussex

Frith, U. (2001). Mind blindness and the brain in autism. Neuron, 32, 969-979. Retrieved from: Garber, J., & Dodge, A. K. : Walden, A. T. (1991). The development of emotion regulation and dysregulation. Retrieved from:,+social+referencing&hl=en&ei=5fPJTM_5IIfJcZaxrdUO&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=3&ved=0CD0Q6AEwAg#v=onepage&q=infant%20development%2C%20social%20referencing&f=false

Goodman, R., & Scott, S. (1997). Child Psychiatry. Retrieved from:,+sally-anne+test&hl=en&ei=tYHLTNXhFI7fcZu5lJwO&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=5&ved=0CEYQ6AEwBA#v=onepage&q=theory%20of%20mind%2C%20sally-anne%20test&f=false

Gowen, J. W., & Nebrig, J. B. Enhancing early emotional development. Paul H. Brookes Publishing, Baltimore, Maryland.

Grossman, J. B, Klin, A., Carter, A. S., & Volkmar, F. R. (2000). Verbal bias in recognition of facial emotions in children with Asperger’s syndrome. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 41(3), 369-379. Retrieved from:

Heerey, A. E., Keltner, D., & Capps, M. L. (2003). Making sense of self-conscious emotion: linking theory of mind and emotion in children with autism. American Psychological Association Inc, 4, 394-400. doi: 10.1037/1528-3542.3.4.394

Hobson, R. P., & Lee, A. (1998). Hello and goodbye: a study of social engagement in autism. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 28(2), 117-27. Retrieved from:

Hutchinson, E. D. (2003). Dimensions of human behavior: the changing life course. Retrieved from:

Joseph, R. M., & Tanaka, J. (2003). Holistic and part-based face recognition in children with autism. Journal of Child and Psychological Psychiatry, 44(4), 529-542. Retrieved from:

Kalat, J. W., & Shiota, M. N. (2007). Emotion. Thomson Wadsworth Publications, Belmont, CA.

Kanner, L. (1943). Autistic disturbances of affective contact. Nervous Child, 2, 217-250. Retrieved from:

Kasari, C., & Sigman, M. (1996). Expression and understanding of emotion in atypical development: Autism and Down syndrome. In M. Lewis M. W. Sullivan, Emotional development in atypical children (pp. 109-130). Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Publishers, Mahwah, New Jersey

Krachun, C., Carpenter, M., Call, J., Tomasello, M. (2010). A new change-of-contents false belief test: children and chimpanzees compared. International Journal of Comparative Psychology, 23, 145-165. Retrieved from:

Magai, C., & McFadden, S. H. (1995). The role of emotions in social and personality development: history, theory and research. Plenum Press, New York, NY

Mangelsdorf, C. S., & Wong, S. M. (2009). Independence/Dependence. In Benson, B. J., & Haith, M, M., Social and Emotional Development in Infancy and Early Childhood. Elsevier Publications, San Diego, CA

McKinsey-Crittenden, P. Claussen, A. H., & Kozowska, K. (2007). Choosing a valid assessment of attachment for clinical use: a comparative study. ANZJFT, 28(2), 78-87. Retrieved from:

Messinger, D. (2009). Smiling, In Benson, B. J., & Haith, M, M., Social and Emotional Development in Infancy and Early Childhood. Elsevier Publications, San Diego, CA

Misailidi, P., & Bonoti, P. (2008). Emotion in children’s art: do young children understand the emotions expressed in other children’s drawings? Early Childhood Research, 6, 189-200. doi: 10.1177/1476718X08088677

Moore, C. & Frye, D. (1991). The acquisition and utility of theories of mind. In D. Frye & C. Moore, Children’s theories of mind: mental states and social understanding (pp. 1-15). Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Inc, Hillsdale, New Jersey

Mumme, L. D., & Fernald, A. (2003). The infant as onlooker: learning from emotional reactions observed in a television scenario. Child Development, 74, 221-237/ Retrieved from:

Mumme, L. D., Fernald A., & Herrera, C. (1996). Infant’s responses to facial ands vocal emotional signals in a social referencing paradigm. Child Development, 67(6), 3219-3237. Retrieved from:

Oatley, K., Keltner, D., & Jenkins, M. J. (2006). Understanding emotions. Retrieved from:,+emotion&ots=n4gLfkydNA&sig=LSDyetbGuWzdd9BNUf92D9kt-Nc#v=onepage&q=Oatley%20%26%20Jenkins%201996%2C%20emotion&f=false Plutchik, R. (2003). Emotion. Retrieved from:,+emotions&hl=en&ei=UazQTPKyC8q3cJXCxIkK&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=1&ved=0CCoQ6AEwAA#v=onepage&q=evolutionary%20perspective%2C%20emotions&f=false

Reeve, J. (2009). Understanding motivation and emotion. Wiley & Sons Inc, Hoboken, NJ

Salter-Ainsworth, M, D., Waters, E., & Wall, S.(1978) Patterns of attachment: a psychological study of the strange situation. Retrieved from:

Shaffer, R. D. (2005). Social and personality development. Wadsworth Publications, Belmont, CA. Siegal, M. (2007). Marvelous minds: the discovery of what children know. Oxford University Press, New York, NY Slentz, K., & Krogh, S. (2001). Early childhood development and its variations. Retrieved from:

Sludds, K. (2008). Emotions: their cognitive base and ontological importance. Retrieved from:,+cognitive,+emotions&hl=en&ei=uWTVTO6nCsyHcbai9K4L&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=1&ved=0CC0Q6AEwAA#v=onepage&q&f=false

Sorce, J. F., Emde, R. N., Campos, J., & Klinnert, M. D. (1985). Maternal emotional signalling: its effects on the visual cliff behavior of 1-year olds. Developmental Psychology, 21, 195-200. doi: 10.1037/0012-1649.21.1.195 Strongman, K. T. (2003). The Psychology of emotion: from everyday life to theory (5th ed.). John Wiley and Sons Publications, West Sussex, England

Sutherland, P. (1992). Cognitive development today: Piaget and his critics. Retrieved from:

Taylor, L. (2005). Introducing cognitive development. Psychology Press, Hove, East Sussex

Thornton, S. (2002). Growing minds: an introduction to cognitive development. Plagrave Macmillan Publications, New York, NY

University of California - Los Angeles (2007, May 7). A Frown Or A Smile? Children With Autism Can't Discern. Science Daily. Retrieved from:¬ /releases/2007/05/070505164645.htm

Vaish, A. & Striano, T. (2004). Is visual reference necessary? Contributions of facial versus vocal cues in 12-month –olds’ social referencing behavior. Developmental Science, 7(3), 261-269. Retreived from:

Walden, T. A. (1991). Infant social referencing. In J. Garber & K. A. Dodge , The development of emotion regulation and dysregulation (pp. 69-89). Cambridge University Press, New York, NY

Walden, T., & Knieps, L. (1996). Reading and responding to social signals. In M. Lewis M. W. Sullivan, Emotional development in atypical children (pp. 109-130). Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Publishers, Mahwah, New Jersey

Walker-Andrews, A. S. (1998). Emotions and Social Development: Infants' Recognition of Emotions in Others. Paediatrics, 102, 1268-1271. doi: 10.1542/peds.102.5.SE1.1268

White, F., Hayes, B., & Livesey, D. (2005). Developmental Psychology: From infancy to adulthood. Pearson Education Australia, Frenchs Forest NSW.

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