Childhood Emotional Development

By — Pearson Allyn Bacon Prentice Hall
Updated on Apr 30, 2014

In early childhood, children learn that emotions represent their own reactions to situations and events and that children can differ from each other in their emotional responses. Middle childhood is a period during which children learn to control and regulate their own emotional reactions, and they improve their accuracy in reading the emotions of other people. Children need to learn that their emotional reactions affect other people. To get along effectively, we all need to learn to manage our own emotions and we need skill in predicting and interpreting other people's emotions.

Children who learn positive emotional skills from their parents seem to have more success making friends. Children of emotionally expressive mothers tend to receive high regard from their peers (Cassidy, Parke, Butkovsky, & Braungart, 1992). An interesting longitudinal study linked adults' level of empathy (ability to feel other people's emotions) with childhood experiences. The study found that when empathic adults were children, their fathers were more involved in their care and their mothers were more tolerant of dependent behavior, were more likely to restrict the children's aggression, and were more satisfied in their role as mothers (Koestner, Franz, & Weinberger, 1990). You can imagine that parents who fit this description would tend to model positive control of emotions for their children.

Of course, the reverse is also true. Children of mothers who are chronically depressed, for example, are prone to feelings of guilt and helplessness. Although they try hard to make their mothers feel happy, they cannot succeed, and they often believe it is their fault (Zahn-Waxler & Robinson, 1995). Even subtle differences in emotional treatment can affect children-research with twins shows that the twin who is treated more negatively and less warmly by the mother tends to have more behavioral problems than the twin who is treated more warmly (Caspi et al., 2004).

Accuracy in reading emotions is an important social skill. Children who are adept at reading emotions tend to be liked more by their peers (Denham, McKinley, Couchoud, & Holt, 1990). They know when they are making their friends happy, when to back off if their friends become frustrated, and when to console friends who are sad or dejected. Children tend to have a bias toward positive emotions. They like other children who are happy and know how to control their emotions. As one group of researchers put it, "feeling good...makes it easier for a child to enter the peer world" and "greases the cogs of ongoing social interaction" (Denham et al., 2003, p. 251). Conversely, children who have difficulty controlling their emotions are more likely to suffer problems such as anger and depression (Eisenberg et al., 2005) and would presumably have more difficulty making and keeping friends.

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