Emotion has been studied from a variety of theoretical frameworks (e.g., Fox, 1994). Psychoanalytic theorists have viewed emotions as instinctual physiological drives, such as fear, pleasure, or anger. Developmental psychologists have described emotion based on human infants’ ability to discriminate among facial expressions of emotion, such as frowning or smiling. Cognitive psychologists have described emotion as the interpretation of affective experiences, such as feeling upset and deciding whether you are experiencing anger or sadness. Evolutionary psychologists have theorized that emotional behavior is an adaptive mechanism that serves to motivate all action, as in “fight-or-flight” decisions. Neuropsychological researchers have identified the areas of the brain that control emotions, such as the amygdala, and have proposed that emotions are neural events. Recently, social psychologists have proposed that individuals differ in how skilled they are at perceiving, understanding, and utilizing emotion information, called “emotional intelligence.”
Emotional intelligence is “the ability to perceive and express emotions, to understand and use them, and to manage emotions so as to foster personal growth” (Salovey, Bedell, Detweiler, & Mayer, 2000, p. 504). Researchers have operationally defined emotional intelligence by the specific competencies it encompasses, including:
- Ability to perceive, appraise, and express emotions accurately
- Ability to access and generate feelings when they facilitate understanding
- Ability to understand affect-laden information and make use of emotional knowledge
- Ability to regulate emotions to promote intellectual growth and well-being
How many of these competencies are present by middle childhood? To answer this question requires a description of the development of emotional understanding in the school-age years.
By middle childhood, children are able to reflect on their own emotional experiences and those of others. They readily understand that their cognitive appraisal of emotional states is important in determining how they feel about people or events. For example, although children under age 7 can describe how their parents might be proud or ashamed of their actions, not until about age 8 can children understand that they can be proud or ashamed of themselves, even in the absence of adult observation or feedback (Harter & Whitesell, 1989). They also believe that emotions are strongest immediately after an emotion-eliciting situation, and that they become weaker with time (Saarni, Mumme, & Campos, 1998).
In addition, several studies have shown that school-age children understand that they can conceal their genuine feelings and instead display false emotional reactions, for example, pretending you like a gift so as not to hurt your grandfather’s feelings (Saarni, Mumme, & Campos, 1998). Researchers have consistently found that school-agers between ages 9 and 12, compared to younger children, can understand multiple, sometimes conflicting, emotions. For example, school-age children can be happy and sad at the same time when thinking about a divorce situation (“I’m glad I get to live with my dad, but I’m sad about not being able to live with my mom too”). However, not until age 12 can children think simultaneously about opposing emotions towards the same target (“I love my dad, even though I’m mad at him right now”) (Whitesell & Harter, 1989). Children’s book authors routinely focus on such middle childhood emotional conflict.
If the conflicting emotions are not equally intense or if the emotions are very dissimilar, children may experience conflict (Whitesell & Harter, 1989). For example, depression has been described by early adolescents as a mixture of sadness and anger. Researchers have found that emotions produce the greatest conflict (a) when a negative emotion is either equal to or more intense than a positive emotion and (b) when the two emotions are quite different, or even opposites (Harter & Whitesell, 1989).
For example, imagine that our case study child Justin is proud of himself for winning his game and simultaneously angry with his best friend for not congratulating him.
By the end of middle childhood, children are also better able to appreciate the psychological complexity of emotional experiences. For example, by age 11 they are more likely to attribute emotional arousal to internal causes rather than to external events. This emergent emotional understanding allows school-age children to predict the emotions of others without needing to observe facial or verbal cues, such as inferring how others may feel in competitive or conflictual situations even if they were not present (Thompson, 1998; see also Lightfoot & Bullock, 1990).
Consider that even if he had not seen Justin reach a difficult level of the video game, his friend could have inferred that Justin is pleased with himself.
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