Sunday, September 23, 2012

There’s More to Emotions Than Meets the Eye

When students in my undergraduate classes would hear me announce that at least two sessions would be devoted to the topic of the “Development of Emotional Understanding,” they usually assumed I would simply be listing the ages at which children come to understand different facial expressions – like smiling means “happy” and crying means “sad,” etc. They quickly learned, however, that there’s a lot more to it than that—a lesson that it’s helpful for parents to understand as well so they don’t expect too much from their young child. Here are just a few of the important facts about emotions that adults take for granted but which children must learn—and with supportive parenting (especially parents who aren’t afraid to talk with them about emotions), tend to learn much more quickly. I've taken these from the chapter on Emotional Understanding in the book I co-authored with Dr. Susan Goodwyn entitled Baby Hearts: A Guide to Giving Your Child an Emotional Head Start


1.Human emotions are vast in number and subtle in their differences. Consider the following different feeling states: Cranky, Cowardly, Curious, Confident, Coy, Cagey, Confused. And these are just ones that start with “C.”

2.Emotions, even strong ones, tend to fade over time.

3.People often experience two or more emotions at once, sometimes even conflicting ones (for example, a “bittersweet” experience).

4.A person can pretend to feel one way when he is really feeling another.

5.One may not actually be aware of one’s own feelings.

6.Certain emotions are not appropriate in certain situations (for example, being gleeful at a funeral or sad at a wedding).

7.Emotions can be powerfully influenced by being in a crowd.

8.Talking about emotions requires knowing your culture’s peculiar metaphors for feelings, such as the following English terms for “happy:” Tickled pink, pleased as punch, thrilled to death, happy as a clam, contented as a cat, on cloud nine.

With all this to learn, it’s enough to make a child “as nervous as a cat on a hot tin roof.” Let’s just take one of the above, #3, as an example. A study published in the May 2007 issue of the journal Psychological Science has demonstrated that it’s probably not until children are 10 or 11 years old that they even experience mixed emotions, and, not surprisingly, it’s not until they are capable of experiencing such emotional states themselves that they begin understanding that this possibility exists for other people as well.

It’s no wonder, then, that “emotional understanding” develops gradually even into the teenage years. Actually, I’m betting that we all know adults who still have some growing up to do in this very important domain! .

Happy Signing (and don’t forget to visit us on Facebook)!


Linda Acredolo, Ph.D.
Professor Emeritus, UC Davis
Co-Founder, The Baby Signs® Program
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