Emotional Development in Infancy and Toddlerhood

Talking To Toddlers

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There is a fair amount of consensus that distress, pleasure, anger, fear, and interest are among the earliest emotions experienced by infants, although exactly when these emotions appear is still debated. As infants develop, emotions become more differentiated. For example, the earliest smiles are reflexive and often occur during sleep. By six months, smiling is more sophisticated and social. It increasingly results from the interactions between infants and their care-givers. Crying is another powerful emotional behavior that is present in early development and is an effective tool for communicating with the social world. Children cry more during infancy than at any other period and their cries differ in their patterns depending on whether they are in pain, hungry, or angry.

Infants also have strategies for regulating their emotions. Research by Sarah Mangelsdorf and her colleagues indicates that from six to eighteen months, infants' emotional regulation strategies change. Although gaze aversion and sucking characterize younger infants' responses to a distressing situation, older infants are better able to engage in self-soothing or distract themselves.

Emotions and Early Relationships

It is clear that parents play an important role in children's emotional development. Through relationships with caregivers, children develop a sense of themselves and of others, and get clues about the way that the world works. For example, an infant who has fallen down and is unsure of whether he is hurt may look to his parent for information. Social referencing provides an infant with an opportunity to get feedback from a caregiver about how to feel in an uncertain situation.

Joseph Campos and his colleagues studied young children's fear of heights using a clever apparatus known as the ''visual cliff' (which has a pane of glass over a visible drop-off). Fear or wariness of heights does not emerge until after some experience with crawling—it is not inborn. New crawlers will crawl over what appears to be a cliff, whereas infants with a month or two of crawling experience will not. Importantly, parents' facial expressions can also encourage infants to cross the cliff or stay in place. An infant who sees her mother display a fear expression will not cross, whereas a happy expression will encourage movement across the cliff. Thus, children can learn how to feel in emotional situations by observing their parents' reactions, and many of the common fears (such as fear of spiders) are thought to be learned in this way.

Stanley Greenspan detailed a series of emotional stages during infancy and toddlerhood that span the course of development from self-regulation to emotional understanding. He believes that the key to healthy emotional development is based on the ''fit'' between the parent's style of interaction and the interactive style and needs of the child. Take the case of a highly irritable infant and a highly negative and demanding parent. This may be a more challenging relationship than one between the same highly irritable infant and a more positive and flexible parent. The fit between parent and child may also contribute to the security of the attachment between infants and their parents. By working with parents to help them overcome difficulties in their parenting styles, parents can discover how to better meet the emotional needs of their young children.

Self-Conscious Emotions

Around eighteen months of age, toddlers develop a more sophisticated sense of self that is marked by self-recognition and the emergence of self-conscious emotions, such as shame, pride, and embarrassment. Michael Lewis developed a poignant method to study this development. A toddler is placed in front of a mirror and then the parent wipes some rouge on the child's nose before moving the child back to the mirror. Although children under eighteen months are unlikely to show signs of embarrassment at the rouge on their nose, children between eighteen and twenty-four months do. Self-recognition makes possible a more sophisticated understanding of the self and brings about new levels of emotional development.

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