Motivation and emotion/Book/2011/Emotional development

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Emotional Development:

How do emotions develop and change through childhood and adulthood?


Emotional Development begins very early in life and continues throughout a person's lifetime

Emotion is an important and prominent feature of life; it is seen in practically every facet of human behaviour from watching a sporting match to meeting up with friends for a coffee. Emotion plays a central role in development, particularly in social development. The ability to express, recognise and understand emotion in ourselves and others allows us to behave and interact in a socially accepted way. There are many aspects to emotion, including recognition, regulation and expression. Humans can express emotion by smiling when happy, regulate emotion by calming down when angry and recognise emotions by concluding a friend is happy when they are smiling (White, Hayes & Livesey, 2005). Emotion is apparent very early in life; even within the first few seconds of life infants communicate distress by crying. Just a few months’ later infants are smiling and laughing to express joy and happiness (Kalat & Shiota, 2007). From now, development of emotions is very rapid and important. This chapter will look at how these different aspects of emotion develop, change and remain stable throughout the life span. And several theoretical approaches to emotional development will be evaluated, from the notion that emotions are determined by biological and evolutionary forces (Ekman, 1970) to theories that claim emotions are a product of environmental influences, can be learnt and are often controllable (Watson & Rayner, 1920).

Definition of Emotional Development[edit]

Emotional development is the way emotions develop and then change or remain stable over the lifetime. When comparing the emotions of infants, children, adolescents and adults it is often found that there are many differences. Essentially most of these differences are in the way emotions are expressed and experienced. Emotional development is made up of periods of rapid change which alternates with periods of consolidation and stability (White, Hayes & Livesey, 2005).

Theoretical Approaches to Emotional Development[edit]

Psychoanalytic Approach[edit]

In his early work Freud viewed emotion as a mental energy that drove a person’s behaviour, but in his later work he viewed emotion as a sign of anxiety (Freud, 1933). Freud could not consider emotion without anxiety and its relation to repression. While Freud is considered influential in most areas of psychology, he is not as significant in the field of emotional development and it is often argued that this is a one-affect theory, a theory of anxiety not emotion (White, Hayes & Livesey, 2005).

Spitz (1959), a post Freudian, addressed Freud’s limitations in his genetic field theory. Spitz emphasised the significance of the bond and relationship between mother and infant and reported that there were important milestones in a child’s emotional development. An absent or lacking mother-infant bond had consequences on the two of the three milestones and would lead to abnormal emotional development (Spitz, 1959). (See table 1 for descriptions of three milestones and abnormalities when mother-infant bond is absent). Although Spitz’s work influenced many other theorists, in particular Bowlby’s attachment theory , his theory work is often critised for providing a very narrow view of emotional development as its focus is on infancy and childhood (White, Hayes & Livesey, 2005).

Table 1

Milestone Age Develops Abnormal Development
1. Social Smile Three months of age Emergence is delayed
2. Fear of strangers Eight months of age Fear will appear prematurely or child will have an apathetic reponse to all social partners
3. Negativism (negative head-shaking) 18 months of age Spitz did not describe abnormal consequence for this milestone

(Spitz, 1959).

Biological/Evolutionary Approach[edit]

The biological/evolutionary approach is currently one of the leading approaches in the field of emotional development. The differential emotions theory (DET) as proposed by Izard (1991) looks at the biological structure of emotions in human beings and can be traced back to Charles Darwin and his suggestion that basic human emotions are a result of evolution and serve a specific function (Shaffer, 2005). For example, babies cry and are clearly distressed when hungry, tired or have a dirty nappy this is to alert their caregivers and to promote their health and well-being (Shaffer, 2005).

The core principle of the DET is that emotions are adaptive and motivational functions for a lifetime, but different emotions may become more prominent in different stages of life and serve phase-related developmental functions (Abe & Izard, 1993). The innate structure for each of the discrete emotions has been pre-determined over the course of evolution to provide a structure for dealing with life tasks and issues – including caring for others, escaping danger, dealing with grief and forming social and personal relationships. While pre-determined they can be influenced by environment and experience. The DET emphasises how emotions play a central role in social-cognitive development to help individual’s achieve developmental milestones in four broad stages of life: infancy, preschool years, middle to late childhood and adolescence. For example, Izard et al (1995) found that 95% of infants’ facial expressions are of interest, joy, sadness and anger. All these emotions serve important functions throughout life, but they have a considerable role in early development. In a time of helplessness and dependency these four emotions allow infants to foster social bonds and attachment, facilitate cognitive development and protest against discomfort. The prominent emotion/s in each stage of life and their functionality are summarised below.

Table 2

Stage of Life Significance of life stage Prominent Emotions Evolutionary/Adaptive function of Emotion/s
Infancy Infants are relatively helpless and are forced to rely on caregivers to provide basic needs. Infants are born with innate emotions which allows them to signal needs, wants and distress to caregivers. interest, joy, sadness and anger These emotions allows infants to foster and develop social attachments through joy. Interest facilitates cognitive development by exploring environment and sadness and anger help with communicating with caregivers about discomfort and distress.
Toddler & Preschool Years (2-5 years) During this stage of life there is a significant and rapid advance in motor and language abilities anger, empathy, shame and guilt Anger fosters child's first steps towards the development of an autonomous self. While shame and guilt help to regulat anger and the firsts step of development of conscience.
Middle & Late Childhood (6-12 years) During this stage there is an increase in time spent with peers without direct parental supervision. Must learn to engage in self-comparisons and get along with peers to form friendships. Also increase in critical feedback about academic performance against performance standards. Shame, guilt & pride The interactions between feelings of shame, guilt and pride allows for understanding of self, social comparisons and relationships
Adolescence During this stage there is dramatic biological, social and cognitive changes, where individuals undergo puberty. Anxiety (particularly socially), this period is a time of significant emotional turmoil and increased negative emotional states. Increase in fear, sadness and disgust During this period there is an increase in self-consciousness (as a result of biological, social and cognitive changes) and this can lead to negative self-evaluations which can activate emotions from fear (of inadequency) to digust and sadness (of one's looks, academic ability, althetic ability).

(Table 2 based on information provided by Abe & Izard, 1999).

Environmental Approach[edit]

Behaviourists, such as Watson & Morgan (1971), viewed emotion as habits that could be conditioned by environmental stimuli. That is, fear, rage or love could be conditioned by environmental circumstances and events, including social interactions (as cited in White, Hayes & Livesey, 2005). The Little Albert B. Study is a classic example of the environmental theoretical approach to emotional development (See box 1). While the Little Albert B. study provided an interesting result it is often criticised for suggesting that all emotions are learnt, for example if a person fears spiders they may not be able to accurately pin point the moment this fear was born. They may not be unable to describe the environmental experience which caused the fear in the first place. This is a significant limitation in the environmental approach to emotional development (White, Hayes & Livesey, 2005).

Box 1 Study of Little Albert B.

Described as a healthy and unemotional little boy and with no previous fear of animals, Little Albert was picked by Watson and Rayner to be the subject of their experiment. After a series of conditioning sessions Albert was afraid of white rats. Conditioning was conducted by presenting a white rat which was then followed by a loud banging noise whenever Albert went to touch the rat. After only seven sessions, Albert was seen to fear and avoid the white rat by crying and looking away even with the absence of the loud noise.

Watson & Rayner (1920)


Emotional Expression[edit]

Emotional expression is verbal and non-verbal behaviour which communicates emotion, it can occur consciously or unconsciously. To facilitate interaction and relationships that are valuable, individuals must learn when, where and how emotions should be displayed. Emotionally competent individuals understand the importance of context appropriate emotional expression and sending the message in a convincing manner (White, Hayes & Livesey, 2005).

Charles Darwin believed that emotional expression evolved and has an important communicative function, protecting the individual. Darwin had little doubt that expressive behaviour was part of an underlying emotional state that was vital to human welfare (Hess & Thibault, 2009).


In line with Darwin’s notion, babies are able to express emotions even before they can speak a single word. For example, when hungry or distressed infants will cry to let their caregivers know. Facial expressions are the most important source of communicating and recognising emotions in all stages of life, but are especially significant during the first few years of development when babies are unable to verbally express themselves (Szekely, et al 2011).

Crying and smiling are the two main resources newborns use to express emotion. Babies have two types of smiles: the reflexive and the social smile. The reflexive smile is partially an unconscious reflex, it occurs when the baby is not fully alert and during irregular patterns of sleep. The reflexive smile develops within the first month of life. On the other hand, the social smile develops at around two to three months of age and is generally in reaction to external stimuli, i.e. a caregiver’s or sibling’s face(White, Hayes & Livesey, 2005).

Malatesta & Haviland (1982) suggest in response to a mother’s less favourable response to negative emotions, at around three months of age, babies soon learn to conceal negative emotions and display positive emotions more frequently. Esinbery & McNally (1993) support this view and through their research found that when upon hearing an infant cry most kindergarten students will display clear facial distress.


During middle childhood (8-12 years of age) is when children learn most about emotional expression, in particular expressing their most intense feelings do not always get them what they want. Children begin to learn to regulate anger for fear of consequence and do not express emotion as clearly and directly (White, Hayes & Livesey, 2005). Research has found that females are more likely to be encouraged to express negative emotions more so than their male counterparts, this indicates that there appears to be a sex differences in children’s emotional expression and this could affect emotional development which may last over the lifetime (Stoneman & Brody, 1993 as cited in White, Hayes & Livesey, 2005).


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By adulthood, emotional expression is completely manageable and can be inhibited, except for under extreme conditions. This suggests that emotional expression is somewhat influenced and controlled by biological factors. According to DET the facial display aspect of emotional expression changes over the lifetime, starting in infancy. Emotional expression is described as transitioning from fewer, pure to complex and mixed expressions. Adulthood is characterised by hiding, splintering and blending emotional expression (Izard, et al 1995).

Emotional Understanding and Recognition[edit]

The ability to recognise emotions in others and one’s self is vital for the growth of successful social interactions and relationships. Slow or abnormal development in recognising emotions can lead to long-lasting impairments in social functioning (Szekely, et al 2011). Walker-Andrews, Krogh-Jespersen, Mayhew, Coffield (2011) found in their study on the development of emotional recognition that infants as young as 3 months of age are able to differentiate emotional expressions as displayed by familiar persons. As babies are unable to understand language they must rely on facial expressions to understand and convey to others emotion. However, non-verbal cues, such as posture, movement, direction of gaze, are also important in recognising emotions. It is often suggested that adults are better at using non-verbal cues to recognise emotion compared to younger individuals, and this may be due to experience and knowledge (Castellano, Villalba, Camurri, 2007). By early childhood most children can name and recognise the most basic emotions and can also identify the most common emotion-producing circumstances. And during middle childhood, children become increasingly aware of events and circumstances that elicit certain emotions and that people can experience different emotions in the same circumstances. From here, emotional understand and recognition appears to continue developing through adolescence into adulthood, with some studies suggesting that recognitions decreases with age. A 1987 study found that recognition of anger, fear and sadness facial expressions decreased with age (Malatesta, Izard, Culver & Nicolich, 1987). A more recent study found slightly different results – it was found that age affects the recognition of fear, and to a lesser degree, anger. However, in disagreement with the 1987 study it was found that the recognition of disgust remained stable over time (Calder et al, 2003).

Can you tell which emotions these facial expressions represent?

The ability to understand and recognise emotions is important to establishing and maintaining successful relationships!

Emotional Self-Regulation[edit]

While there has been much debate and lack of a clear definition of emotional regulation it is often referred to as the intrinsic and extrinsic processes in charge of monitoring, evaluating and modifying emotional reactions to emotionally arousing events (Thompson, 1994). However, before an individual is able to regulate their emotions they must learn to experience emotions. Emotional experience is the ability to be aware of one’s own emotions. Emotional experience tends to be stable over the lifetime, whereas some research has suggested that emotional regulation changes over time with elderly people able to regulate emotions better than their younger counterparts (Mather & Carstensen, 2005 & Samanez-Larkin et al 2009). Regulation of emotion is important and essential to the success of emotional development. But why is it so important? Regulation of emotion is important as it allows people to demonstrate their emotional Reponses (and subsequent behaviour) in adaptive and socially acceptable ways, which in turn leads to productive and healthy social interactions and relationships. Experience and regulation of emotion first begins in infant, with the first occurrence of this being when infants cry or are distressed their parents will comfort them. This interaction helps infants learn and understand that their emotion can be regulated. With age, cognitive and social skills develop and so does a child’s ability to regulate their emotions. How do we regulate emotions and does it change over time?

Self-Regulation Strategy: Attention[edit]

The attention process often associated with emotional regulation involves managing the intake of emotionally arousing information and this begins from very early in life (Thompson, 1994). And generally, the complexity of this process increase as people age. Rothbart, Ziaie & O'Boyle(1992) found that infants from as young as three months of age where able to shift their attention between stimuli and events voluntarily. While children younger who are three months of age are unable to do this due to “obligatory attention” but it does allow parents to use visual distraction as an emotional regulation tactic. Cummings (1986) found that attention strategies are among the earliest found in young children, and have been observed in four and five year olds. Younger children tend to take a physical approach, for example covering their eyes or ears when seeing or hearing something distressing, while older children start to use internal cognitive redirection. For example, thinking about happy things during a distressing situation. Research suggests that compared to their younger counterparts older people are able to regulate their emotions better (see Charles & Carstensen, 2007 & Tsai, Levenson & Carstensen, 2000). Carstensen (2006) suggested through the Socioemotional selectivity theory that as people get older they tend prioritise well-being and are more motivated to maintain emotional balance. Studies(for example: Mather & Carstensen, 2005) support this theory and found that older adults will focus their attention on positive stimuli and are more likely to remember positive experiences. Samanez-Larkin et al (2009) also supported this theory, coining the term positivity effect, which suggests there is a shift from focusing on negative information in younger years to positive information in later years.


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Calder, A.J., Keane, J., Manly, T., Spengelmeyer, R., Scott, S., Nimmon-Smith, I., Young, A.W. (2003). Facial Expression recognition across the adult life span. Neuropsychologia, 41, 195-202.

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Esinbery, N., & McNally, S. (1993) Socialisation and the mothers' and adolescents' empathy related characteristics. Journal of Research on Adolescents, 3, 171-191

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Kalat, J.W., & Shiota, M.N. (2007). Emotion. Thomson Wadsorth Publications, Belmont, C.A.

Mather, M., & Carstensen, L.L. (2005) Aging and motivated cognition: the positivity effect in attention and memory. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 9 (10).

Malatesta, C.Z., & Haviland, J.M. (1982). Learning display rules: socialization of emotion expression in infancy. Child Development, 53(4), 991-1003

Malatesta, C.Z., Izard, C., Culver, C., Nicolich, M. (1987) Emotion Communication Skills in young, middle-aged and older women. Psychology and Aging, 2, 193-203.

Rothbart, M. K., Ziaie, H., & O'Boyle, C.G. (1992). Self-regulation and emotion in infancy. In N. Eisenberg & R. A. Fabes (Eds.), Emotion and its regulation in early development (pp. 7- 23). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Samanez-Larkin, G.R., Robertson, E.L., Mikels, A.J., Carstensen, L.L., & Gotlib, I.H (2009) Selective Attention to Emotion in the Aging Brain. Psychology and Aging, 24(3), 519-529

Shaffner, R.D. (2005). Social and personality development. Wadsworth Publications, Belmont, C.A

Spitz, R. (1959). A genetic theory of ego formation. New York: International Universities Press.

Szekely, E., Teimeier, H., Arends, L.R., Jaddoe, V.W.V., Hofman, A., Verhulst, F.C., & Herba, C.M. (2011) Recognition of Facial Expressions of Emotions by 3-year-olds. Emotion, 11(2), 425-435.

Thompson, R. A. (1990). Emotion and self-regulation. In R. A. Thompson (Ed.), Socioemotional development. Nebraska Symposium on Motivation,36, pp. 367-467. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

Walker-Andrews, A.S., Krogh-Jespersenm, S., Mayhew, E.M.Y., Coffield, C.N. (2011). Young Infants' Generalization of Emotional Expressions: Effects of Familiarity. Emotion, 11(4), 842-851.

Watson, J.B., & Rayner, R. (1920). Conditioned emotional reactions. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 3, 1-14.

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

See Also[edit]

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Emotion regulation and social engagement (Book Chapter, 2011)

Emotional control vs. emotional expressiveness (Book Chapter, 2011)

Facial Expression (Book Chapter, 2011)

Emotional self-regulation