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Emotional Development

Through emotional expression infants not only communicate their feelings, needs, and wishes to others but also succeed in regulating other people's behavior.


How Babies Express Their Emotions

Babies begin expressing their emotions quite early in life. Startle, disgust, and distress are among the first true emotions to appear. Next to emerge is the social smile, in which true pleasure is expressed, and this is followed soon thereafter by delight, anger, joy, and surprise. Fear arrives a bit later, and still later come complex emotions like pride and guilt. In general, emotions become more differentiated from one another as they mature, and they are more tied to specific situations.

In infancy, boys are more emotionally expressive than girls, but in a developmental shift caused perhaps by socialization efforts of parents and other caregivers, girls soon begin to express more emotions and boys to restrict emotional expression.

Learning How to Regulate Emotions

A major challenge for infants is to learn how to regulate their own emotions, to modify or control them when desirable or needed. By the preschool years, children have generally learned to restrain their emotional expression somewhat. They also begin to follow emotional display rules, which dictate what emotions to show under what circumstances.

Recognizing Emotions in Others

Another challenge that infants confront within the first half-year of life is that of learning to recognize emotional expressions in others. In general, children are more proficient at producing than at recognizing emotions, but the two abilities are positively related: Children who are skilled at one are typically skilled at the other.


Smiling and Laughter: The First Expressions of Pleasure

Smiling in infants follows a general developmental pattern, beginning with the newborn's reflex smile, which depends on the child's internal state. Next, at 3 to 8 weeks of age, come smiles elicited by external events, including social stimuli such as faces and voices. By 12 weeks, infants begin to smile selectively at familiar faces and voices, and their smiles differ depending on the situation. By 4 months, infants begin to laugh, and the number and kinds of events that elicit laughter change with their development. Both laughter and smiling may play a critical role in maintaining the proximity of the caregiver to the baby.

Fear: One of the First Negative Emotions

Although not all infants develop stranger distress in their second half-year; when they do, the fear emerges gradually. Many factors determine how an infant will react to a particular stranger. Babies tend to be less fearful in a familiar setting, and when they feel as if they have some control over the situation. Social referencing helps them interpret emotional cues in other people so as to know how to behave in a new situation. They also are less fearful of unfamiliar children than of unfamiliar adults, and they are less likely to be afraid of friendly, outgoing strangers.

How Do Smiling, Laughter, and Fear Develop?

Various explanations for the development of smiling, laughter, and fear of strangers have been offered, including genetic-maturational, learning, and cognitive perspectives. Each of these perspectives may be useful some of the time, depending on the developmental level of the child and the type of emotional reaction being considered. In some cases the appearance of a phenomenon across a range of cultures lends some support to a particular view; for example, the common experience of separation protest may suggest the contribution of inherited factors.


Matching Emotions to Situations: Emotional Scripts

As children mature they develop an understanding of the meanings of emotion terms and of the situations that trigger particular feelings; each emotional script within this collection helps the child identify the feeling that typically accompanies a given situation. They also learn that they can experience more than one emotion at a time and that two or more such emotions may conflict, and they begin to consider the desires of others in judging emotions that others will experience in particular contexts.

Complex Emotions: Pride, Guilt, and Shame

Learning to differentiate and integrate multiple factors in a situation helps children to understand more complex emotions like pride, guilt, and shame, as do both the ability to understand causal sequences and specific experience in discussing feelings with caretakers and others.


Theories of Attachment

During the second half of the first year, infants begin to discriminate between familiar and unfamiliar caregivers, and to form attachments to the important people in their lives. According to the psychoanalytic view, the basis for the mother-infant attachment is oral gratification. The learning view stresses the role the mother plays as a secondary reinforcer. The ethological view stresses the role of instinctual infant responses that elicit the parent's care and protection. According to the cognitive developmental view, the infant must be able to differentiate his mother from a stranger and must be aware that his mother continues to exist even when he cannot see her.

How Attachment Evolves

Attachment emerges over the first 6 to 8 months in a consistent series of steps. The first step, which seems to be innate in newborns, is a preference for other humans over inanimate objects. The second step, which begins soon after birth, is learning to discriminate familiar people from unfamiliar ones. Finally, in the third step, babies develop attachments to specific people. These attachments are revealed in the infants' loud protests when attachment figures depart and their joyous greetings of caregivers when reunited with them.

Attachment to Fathers and Others

Infants develop attachment relationships not only with their mothers but also with their fathers, siblings, peers, and others. In many cultures fathers have the special role of playmate in the development of their babies; fathers' play with infants tends to be physical, whereas mothers' play is quieter and more verbal.


Methods of Assessing Attachment Relationships

The quality of an infant's attachment can be assessed in a scenario called the Strange Situation, in which the child's interactions with the mother are observed under mildly stressful conditions. This scenario evolved out of the notion that infants use the adult to whom they've become attached as a secure base. Typically, some 60 to 65 percent of infants are classified by this method as securely attached to their mothers, whereas the rest fall into three categories of insecure attachment: avoidant, resistant, or disorganized. Attachment classifications generally remain stable over time unless major changes occur in the lives of family members.

The Attachment Q Sort (AQS), a newer method of assessing attachment, makes it possible to rate a broad range of attachment-related behaviors in a naturalistic setting.

The Parents' Role in the Quality of Attachment

The quality of an infant's attachment to parents is determined by early parent-child interactions. Parents who display sensitive care, responding to their infant's needs and giving the baby a sense of control over the environment, seem to have more securely attached infants. Interactive synchrony requires that the mother constantly adjust her behavior to her baby's, engaging him when he is ready and backing off when he is not.

Parents' internal working models of their own experience with their parents are likely to influence their attachment relationships with their babies. Both mothers and fathers who have been classified as autonomous, dismissing, and preoccupied have been shown to be more likely to have secure, avoidant, or resistant infants.

The Effect of Infant Temperament

A baby's temperament may play a role in the quality of the infant-parent attachment, but this occurs probably only in combination with other factors, such as the caregiver's behavior.

Early attachments shape a child's later attitudes and behaviors. Children who were securely attached as infants are more likely than others to see themselves positively, to have high self-esteem, to be intellectually curious and eager to explore, and to have good relationships with peers and others.

Stability in the Quality of Attachment

The quality of attachment is relatively stable across time, but changes in the environment may act to improve or lessen that quality, and professional intervention can help improve a troubled attachment relationship.

The Consequences of Attachment Quality

Early secure attachment appears to be related to cognitive advancement and to the development of social skills. In addition, the more secure a child's attachment relationship, the more likely she is to develop a positive self-concept.

Multiple Caregivers and Attachment: The Effects of Day Care

Although there is no evidence that having multiple caregivers or spending time in a child-care center prevents the formation of a secure child-parent attachment relationship, some studies have indicated that the amount of time spent in such care is negatively correlated with the sensitivity mothers express toward their children and the affection children show to their mothers.

Other studies have indicated that infants of working mothers are slightly more likely to be classified as insecurely attached than those of nonworking mothers, but the percentage difference is not large. It has been suggested that, rather than the mother's absence, it is the stress of working and also raising a child that interferes with the development of a strong attachment relationship.

Quality and stability of child-care center staff are important ingredients in the security experienced by children in the care of these part-time caretakers. Where quality of care is good, children may benefit both cognitively and socially. Early attachments shape a child's later attitudes and behaviors. Children who were securely attached as infants are more likely than others to see themselves positively, to have high self-esteem, to be intellectually curious and eager to explore, and to have good relationships with peers and others.

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