Motivation and emotion/Book/2013/Emotions in early childhood
Overview[edit | edit source]
We’ve all heard them described as uncontrollable little monsters, terrible twos and the so called experts speak of “toddler taming”. Search parenting websites and they are alternately described as impulsive, unpredictable, difficult, challenging, explosive and the list goes on. So are they really as bad as they seem? Or just misunderstood? How does the average toddler have the ability to go from smiling to thrashing on the floor in what seems like a nanosecond? And with the seemingly endless amount of parenting advice out there, how do you survive the terrible twos?
How does your toddler compare?[edit | edit source]
Emotions[edit | edit source]
What are emotions?[edit | edit source]
Since William James first asked the question in 1884, there have been many attempts to define emotion, yet no one definition has been widely accepted over any other (Campos J., Campos R., & Barrett, 1989; Plutchik, 2001). Most definitions describe emotions as not just feelings but psychological-physiological reactions to events which are relevant to the person, establish, maintain and disrupt relations between the person and their environment and are a communication of the persons internal state (Campos et al, 1989; Levenson, 1999; Plutchik, 2001). Emotion is an umbrella concept that includes affective, cognitive, behavioural, expressive and physiological changes (Panksepp, 2005).
What causes them?[edit | edit source]
While researchers mostly agree that emotions come from both biological and cognitive sources they are divided on which is the foremost source (Ekman 1992). Izard (1993) proposes a hierarchy starting with neural systems in the brain, sensorimotor systems such as facial and vocal expressions, motivational systems (action tendencies) and cognitive systems as the highest order while Levenson (1999) proposes that the two are linked with a core system of biology and a control system of cognition which creates the impetus to set the core system into action and the core system them augments or amplifies the control system. Plutchik (2001) suggests that emotions are a circuitous chain of events forming a complex feedback loop. There is merit in this intergrated view when examining the development of emotions in a child, certain common emotions with a biological basis emerge initially and then as they mature cognitively their range of emotion expands exponentially.
Biological perspective[edit | edit source]
Emotions have been found to come from genetically inherited neural circuits that regulate brain activity and it has been argued that they provide the biological basis for emotional experience and represent emotional action systems which trigger emotions with circuits for fear, anger and sadness having been identified (Panksepp, 2005). Neurochemical and electrical changes in the limbic regions in the brain generate these action tendancies which are then felt as emotions (Panksepp, 2005). Ekman (1992) argues for a biological basis of emotions as they have rapid onset, are of brief duration, are automatic or involuntary and they have evolved due to their adaptive value in dealing with life events. While Ekman (1992) acknowledges that cognition plays a role he argues that biology is at the core. The other major biological theory of emotion contends that infants, who only have very basic cognitive, language or memory abilities, still display emotional responses such as anger in response to pain or social smiling to caregivers and as such there must be a biological basis for emotion (Izard,1993).
Cognitive perspective[edit | edit source]
The cognitive perspective is that cognition is necessary to emotion such that without cognitive processing there is no emotion and that if people do not perceive that their well being is implicated one way or another then they will not respond emotionally (Lazarus, 1984). The component process model of emotion involves a series of checks: the suddenness or novelty of the event, its intrinsic pleasantness, whether it supports goals, whether the person can cope with it or whether it is compatible with their standards (Scherer, 1997). Attribution theory suggests that the structure of thinking affects feeling and action as perceived causality is considered and attributed which generates emotion (Weiner, 1985).
Types of emotions[edit | edit source]
Researchers agree that there are any number of emotions but there is disagreement about whether some emotions are more fundamental than others (Ekman, 1992). Ekman (1992) argues that these primary or fundamental emotions are likely to be found in all species and cultures while other or secondary emotions are likely to be different between people due to cultural influences or be specific to certain species. While the case can be argued each way it does appear some emotions are more common and are either basic emotions or descriptors for related families of similar emotions.
Basic/primary emotions[edit | edit source]
Humans are evolutionarily equipped with a basic repertoire of primary emotions (Thompson, 1991). It is generally agreed that fear, anger, disgust, sadness, joy and interest are the emotions that form part of most basic emotion lists and that they have a biological origin (Ekman, 1992; Levenson, 1999; Plutchik, 2001).
Secondary emotions[edit | edit source]
Researchers agree that there are an infinite number of emotions which depend on complex interactions of biological reactions, cognitive appraisals and attributions of different events, while some researchers suggest that there are in fact no basic emotions (Ekman, 1992).
What do emotions do?[edit | edit source]
|Table 1. What do emotions do?
Emotions are solutions to the challenges, stresses and problems of life by directing behaviour to deal with those challenges, stresses and problems (Ekman, 1992). The human emotional system is both a masterpiece of design and complete lemon in the way that it can react in a stereotypically automated fashion that is either completely inappropriate or can be regulated in adaptive ways to solve complex problems (Levenson, 1999) and this is never more evident than in toddlers.
Emotional development[edit | edit source]
Brain development[edit | edit source]
A baby’s brain is about 25% of its adult size at birth and grows rapidly to increase to around 80% by the time they turn two (Casey, Giedd & Thomas, 2000). Yet while the brain might have most of its adult volume, one of the last areas of the brain to develop is the prefrontal cortex and it’s the prefrontal cortex that regulates the voluntary higher level executive functioning including memory, response inhibition and attention (Casey et al, 2000; Thompson, 1991; Thompson, Lewis & Calkins, 2008). While the structural development of the brain is important, it also depends on environment and experience for the child to develop emotionally. But conversely no matter what the environmental influence these cognitive changes cannot occur if the structures of the brain have not yet matured (Keenan & Evans, 2009) so in essence the structures to stop young children doing what they want and helping them to behave rationally haven't developed yet.
Emotions in early childhood[edit | edit source]
Researchers argue whether infants are born with a set of basic emotions but most agree that by six months of age that most of the basic emotions have emerged (Keenan & Evans, 2009). Startle, disgust and distress are first, with anger, interest, surprise and sadness appearing at around three months of age (Keenan & Evans, 2009) and emotions in infants tend to have an all or none character (Thompson, 1991). Fear emerges at around seven months and the fear of strangers can be one of the strongest emotions and is known as stranger distress (Keenan & Evans, 2009) with infants averting their gaze and seeking caregivers to regulate their distress (Kopp, 1989) and while this normally lasts for several months it can continue until children are well into their second year (Keenan & Evans, 2009). Cognitive advances are shown when laughter emerges after only three or four months and reactions become more immediate due to repeated exposure to events (Keenan & Evans, 2009). Young infants are able to recognize the facial expressions of others and look more at joy than anger and their interactions with their caregivers can change both their and the caregivers emotional experience and behaviour (Tronick, 1989) such as when a baby smiles, prompting positive affect in their caregiver who likely smiles back.
As the infant becomes a toddler more secondary emotions emerge, including shame, guilt, pride and envy (Keenan & Evans, 2009) demonstrating that children can reflect on their behaviour (Kopp, 1989) and can begin to process emotion (Berger, Miller, Seifer, Cares & Lebourgeois, 2012). Toddlers are becoming more self aware and start to perceive themselves as both an object and an agent where they can feel something and then act to handle those feelings and feel better or worse depending upon what they do (Kopp, 1989). By the age of two children can interpret social approval and disapproval and are starting to understand the difference between when a situation is threatening or actual harm has happened (Kopp, 1989).
Their increasing autonomy, independence and ability to successfully complete goals means that they are increasingly able to experience positive emotions including joy, excitement and pride but in the same vein failure can heighten frustration and increase sadness, anger, worry, anxiety or shame (Berger et al, 2012). The expression of emotion is not reliably managed and even positive emotions can become overwhelming (Berger et al, 2012). Resistance to adults and anger accompany this developing independence and both developmental restraints and restraints from caregivers lead to frustration and out of control emotions resulting in the behaviour that is legion amongst toddlers – tantrums (Kopp, 1989).
Tantrums[edit | edit source]
Parents can be unsure if tantrums demostrate a serious behavioural problem and despite the prevalence of information about tantrums in the popular press there is little empirical data on them (Belden, Thomson & Luby, 2008). Common behaviour includes crying, hitting and vocalization and they can happen on average once a day for anywhere up to five minutes (Belden et al, 2008). Tantrums can occur more suddenly due to hunger, sleep problems or illness (Belden et al, 2008) with parents learning quickly to moderate these factors to keep their child on track. Emotional arousal, both postive and negative is central to adaptive coping with the environment (Kopp, 1989) and whether the coping is constructive or destructive depends on whether emotional arousal is monitored, evaluated and controlled and depends upon the individual’s ability to cope with this arousal (Thompson, 1991). Thus tantrums could be seen as a demonstration of decrease in functioning where the child’s emotional arousal has overwhelmed their ability to cope and could as easily stem from either positive or negative emotions.
Sleep[edit | edit source]
Sleep is recognized as being central to emotion processing, with sleep deprivation impairing mood, increasing emotional reactivity and and causing hyper-vigilence with amplified sensitivity to negative stimuli and reduced sensitivity to positive stimuli (Berger et al, 2012). Sleep patterns change substantially during childhood with decreases from 13 hours at 2 years old to 11 1/2 hours by the age of 5 with afternoon naps dropped by 50% of children between 3 and 4 years old (Iglowstein, Jenni, Molinari & Largo, 2003). Berger et al, (2012) found that eliminating a nap in healthy 2 1/2 to 3 year olds dampened positive emotions, amplified negative emotions and increased confusion displays with poor sleep shown to correlate with increased anger and more limited inhibitory control (Scher, Hall & Zaidman-Zait, 2010) and higher reactivity to stressful situations and challenges (Igowstein et al, 2012).
The association between sleep and cortisol in infants and young children has received little attention and is an ongoing topic of research but cortisol has been shown to decrease during a daytime rest period and links between cortisol levels and behavioural and emotional problems have also been shown (Scher et al, 2010)). It then stands to reason that sleepy children may view and respond to the world differently than children who are well rested and they may not be able to take full advantage of positive experiences or be able to manage challenges (Berger et al, 2012) and that continuing a nap for as long as possible actually assists emotional development even though the child might feel they are too old to nap.
Transitioning[edit | edit source]
Transitions can be key once off vertical transitions between developmental stages or horizontal transitions which occur during the day as children move between home, school and community (Kagan & Neuman, 1998). Transitions to a toddler can be as simple as moving from one activity to another with most parents understanding the challenge of interrupting an engaged child. The work of Piaget has informed research and understanding about childhood development and focuses on a series of stages which children must reach in order to progress but it is increasingly being acknowledged that not only the vertical transitions are important but that horizontal transitions also have important influences on emotional and cognitive development (Vogler, Crivello & Woodhead, 2008). Research on transitions suggests that children have identifable shifts when they move between domains and stages and they achieve this best with support and communication and understanding of the impact the change has on their ability to cope (Campbell Clark, 2000 as cited in Vogler et al, 2008). There is little empirical data on transitions (Kagan & Neuman, 1998) despite the importance of continuity of experience to childrens development and broader community knowledge is required (Vogler et al, 2008).
[edit | edit source]
Socialization can have more impact on emotional expression in toddlers than cognitive development (Keenan & Evans, 2009). In social referencing, children look to caregivers for information about how to evaluate events that are unfamiliar or uncertain (Campos et al, 1989; Thompson, 1991) and this can contribute to altering the childs emotional and behavioral reactions by providing clues to appropriate behaviour (Kopp, 1989). The emotional climate of the home can significantly affect a childs emotional experience with toddlers responding with distress, anger and anxiety in the presence of adult expressions of anger (Thompson, 1991) and continued exposure to particular emotions can create a disposition to react with that particular emotion (Campos et al, 1989).
Children learn to express emotions in ways that are deemed appropriate by the social norms of their culture, which are called emotional display rules (Southam-Gerow & Kendall, 2002) but toddlers are still unable to distinguish what they feel from what they express and can simply be adopting an expression depending upon what is expected of them (Keenan & Evans, 2009). Emotional knowledge includes recognition of emotional expression and understanding of the types of emotions, causes, cues, multiple emotions (that there can be more than one emotion at a time), display rules and methods of coping and is related to general cognitive development (Southam-Gerow & Kendall, 2002).
Emotional contagion[edit | edit source]
The expression of emotion in one person can have the effect of causing the same emotion in an observer without them having reference to the original emotional stimulus (Campos, Frankel & Camras, 2004). Emotional contagion is so fundamental that it has been observed in crying newborns as well as in contagious laughter, fear and disgust (Campos et al, 2004). Termine & Izard (1988, as cited in Thompson, 1991) demonstrated that 9mth olds showed more joy, played more and looked more at their mothers when they displayed positive emotion and showed more sadness and anger when their mothers displayed sadness and that caregivers can influence (deliberately or unintentionally) their child’s emotional experience. So the advice to stay calm in the face of emotional outbursts to avoid flaming the situation has great merit as hard as it might seem at the time.
Temperament[edit | edit source]
A young infant's behavioural profile interacts with its social environment to produce a particular combination of moods and behavioural tendencies that is neither fixed by biology nor shaped by social interaction and is known as temperament (Kagan & Snidman,1991). Temperament is related to long term outcomes including the quality of relationships with peers, psychological adjustment and is strongly related to emotion as it involves reactivity and self-regulation (Keenan & Evans, 2009). Kagan (2003, as cited in Keenan & Evans) suggests that the amygdala has an influence on temperament through how easily aroused it is by emotional stimuli. While temperament is one piece of the puzzle, it has been found that ability to cope with emotion is more important than temperament alone and facing problems was beneficial even for children with negative temperaments (Blair, Denham, Kochanoff & Whipple, 2004).
Emotional regulation[edit | edit source]
Emotions are widely regarded as having a strong effect on behaviour, social and cognitive functioning (Campos et al, 1989, Thompson, 1991) and while emotional arousal in early childhood can impact negatively on behaviour, emotions also help to guide social communication, goal achievement, cognitive processing, attachment and assist in regulating behaviour (Thompson, 1991). "Emotion regulation" is a group of associated processes, both external to and within a child that assist with emotional self-management by monitoring, evaluating and modifying emotional reactions (Thompson, 1991; Thompson et al, 2008). Emotional regulation involves regulating action tendancies, and enhancing, diverting or preventing them as necessary (Campos et al, 1989) and ideally keeps emotional arousal within limits that enhance performance (Thompson, 1991). Emotional regulation is emerging as a primary theory in the study of emotion and rightly so as it draws together many of the theories into a continuous sequence.
Emotional regulation does not have a tightly defined set of rules, with the lead role changing over time and is dependent upon the situation, the characteristics of the child and the inclinations of the caregiver (Kopp, 1989). The relationship between the child and caregiver is particularly important in the development of emotional regulation (Diener & Mangelsdorf, 1999; Southam-Gerow & Kendall, 2002). Regulation of emotional arousal in early childhood is mostly done extrinsically by caregivers who monitor and regulate distress and promote positive affect but is increasingly regulated by the child as cognitive and linguistic skills increase and emergence of self understanding occurs (Thompson, 1991). Cultural and ethnic norms can also influence emotional regulation with not all cultures sharing the same emotional display rules (Keenan & Evans, 2009; Soutam-Gerow & Kendall, 2002). Sometimes children manifest an apparent lack of emotional regulation in order to manipulate a situation such as a child crying in order to get something they want (Kopp, 1989; Thompson et al, 2008).
Extrinsic[edit | edit source]
Infants have limited self soothing behaviours (sucking, visual avoidance, withdrawal and rocking) and mostly rely on caregivers to regulate their emotional arousal (Keenan & Evans, 2009; Southam-Gerow & Kendall, 2002; Thompson, 1991) with these methods only being used infrequently by the time they are toddlers (Diener & Mangelsdorf, 1999). It has been shown that caregivers intuitively regulate infant arousal during face to face interactions (Kopp, 1989) and by responding quickly to soothe distress, parents can actually foster self regulatory efforts by keeping the childs arousal within manageable limits (Keenan & Evans, 2009; Thompson, 1991) with caregiver assistance moderating cortisol responses during challenging situations (Thompson et al, 2008). With selective reinforcement and modeling caregivers can seek to maintain interest and joy without the child becoming overaroused and distressed so that the child can develop “affective tolerance” (Thomson, 1991). Control of opportunity is where parents regulate circumstances which might provoke emotional responses (Thompson, 1991).
Intrinsic[edit | edit source]
Language shapes a child's understanding of emotion and starts to give them emotional knowledge which helps in future regulation (Thompson, 1991). Language is a powerful tool for labelling emotions and using them as a guide for their own behaviour and children’s developing ability to talk about emotions parallels the growth in their linguistic ability (Berger et al, 2012; Keenan & Evans, 2009; Kopp, 1989). Cognitive development allows reflection on emotions, their origin and the consequences of them and the associations between specific situations and their emotional responses (Southam-Gerow & Kendall, 2002; Thompson, 1991). Most children can accurately identify simple emotional reactions such as happiness, sadness, anger and fear by 3 ½ and they can then employ self regulation strategies such as avoidance, regulating sensory intake (covering eyes or ears) or seeking out adults (Thompson, 1991). Improved memory gives the child the ability to recall past emotional experiences and either what triggered them or what may have resolved the situation (Kopp, 1989).
Neural development and maturation also plays a key role in the development of emotional regulation with the earlier all or nothing emotions tempered by both physical and cognitive growth (Keenan & Evans, 2009; Thompson et al, 2008). Children’s propensity to explore plays a role in intrinsic emotional regulation as children use objects to distract themselves and relive distress when caregivers aren’t available (Diener & Mangelsdorf, 1999; Kopp, 1989) with particular transitional objects such as a favourite soft toy or blanket often used by a child (Kopp, 1989) and this can be a useful way to redirect a child's interest from a stimuli with potential negative emotional consequences to something more familiar and comfortable.
Conclusion[edit | edit source]
Children by the age of three have a strong sense of self, need for autonomy and gain considerable pleasure from their achievements but require support to maintain emotional balance, which gives them a powerful motive to comply with caregivers expectations and standards of conduct to ensure assistance when they need it (Kopp, 1989). While toddlers are challenging, once you understand their emotional perspective they aren't quite the little monsters that they first seem, they want to explore the world and have a burgeoning interest in everything around them but they also lack the cognitive ability to deal with the emotions that can be evoked by their exploration. If caregivers are patient and calm and take into account the various factors that heighten their emotional arousal and make demands on their ability to cope, then chances are that there will be a whole lot less tantrums and happier caregiver and child.
Children have an innate desire to communicate and this can be channelled (Edwards, Gandini & Forman, 1998) using the "hundred languages of children" (an approach developed by Reggio Emilia in Italy) to grow a child's emotional knowledge and socialisation while supporting their emotional expression through language. It won't eliminate all the tantrums or challenging behaviours but the surest thing about the terrible two's is that before you know it they won't be toddlers anymore.
See also[edit | edit source]
References[edit | edit source]
Berger, R. H., Miller, A. L., Seifer, R., Cares, S. R., & Lebourgeois, M. K. (2012). Acute sleep restriction effects on emotion responses in 30‐to 36‐month‐old children. Journal of sleep research, 21(3), 235-246.
Blair, K. A., Denham, S. A., Kochanoff, A., & Whipple, B. (2004). Playing it cool: Temperament, emotion regulation, and social behavior in preschoolers. Journal of School Psychology, 42(6), 419-443.
Campos, J. J., Campos, R. G., & Barrett, K. C. (1989). Emergent themes in the study of emotional development and emotion regulation. Developmental Psychology, 25(3), 394.
Campos, J. J., Frankel, C. B., & Camras, L. (2004). On the nature of emotion regulation. Child development, 75(2), 377-394.
Casey, B. J., Giedd, J. N., & Thomas, K. M. (2000). Structural and functional brain development and its relation to cognitive development. Biological psychology, 54(1), 241-257.
Edwards, C. P., Gandini, L., & Forman, G. (Eds.). (1998). The hundred languages of children: The Reggio Emilia approach: Advanced reflections. Greenwood Publishing Group.
Ekman, P. (1992). Are there basic emotions?. Psychological Review, 99(3), 550-553.
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Izard, C. E. (1993). Four systems for emotion activation: cognitive and noncognitive processes. Psychological review, 100(1), 68.
Kagan, S. L., & Neuman, M. J. (1998). Lessons from three decades of transition research. The Elementary School Journal, 365-379.
Kagan, J., & Snidman, N. (1991). Temperamental factors in human development. American Psychologist, 46(8), 856.
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Plutchik, R. (2001). The Nature of Emotions Human emotions have deep evolutionary roots, a fact that may explain their complexity and provide tools for clinical practice. American Scientist, 89(4), 344-350.
Scher, A., Hall, W. A., Zaidman‐Zait, A., & Weinberg, J. (2010). Sleep quality, cortisol levels, and behavioral regulation in toddlers. Developmental Psychobiology, 52(1), 44-53.
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Thompson, R. A., Lewis, M. D., & Calkins, S. D. (2008). Reassessing emotion regulation. Child Development Perspectives, 2(3), 124-131.
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Vogler, P., Crivello, G., & Woodhead, M. (2008). Early childhood transitions research: A review of concepts, theory (No. 48, p. 6). and practice. Working Paper.
Weiner, B. (1985). An attributional theory of achievement motivation and emotion. Psychological review, 92(4), 548.