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Emotional Development: 101

Posted by: Dr. Tina Morse PsyD, MFT

Topic: Emotions, Passion & Purpose

Emotional

Our emotions play a critical role in our development. They are innate modes of communication that help us thrive and survive. At birth, infants are only capable of experiencing basic emotional states that reflect contentment, interest, or distress to a parent or caretaker. Well-bonded and connected parents respond quicker, reflect positive energy, and spend more quality time interacting with their infant.  A well-attuned parent is generally able to discern what their infant needs. Primary caretakers help children learn to regulate their emotions through empathizing, soothing, emotional validation; and modeling emotional expression that mirrors their child’s internal emotional state.

There are 8 primary emotions that are reflected through a variety of experiences: trust, joy, anticipation, surprise, sadness, fear, disgust, and anger.  At 2 – 4 months, a baby develops a social smile and evidence of happiness is evident.  4 – 6 month old babies develop the six basic emotions that are universally understood and expressed: surprise, excitement, joy, sadness, fear, and disgust.  These basic emotions continue to be developed and expressed by the child and they expand in bigger and broader ways from age 6 months.

  • Fear triggers hormones in the body that signal and warn us of potential threats, or danger. A rise in adrenaline heightens our awareness and facilitates the fight or flight response as a means of self-defense, or to help us escape from physical harm.
  • Sadness helps us seek help and comfort; as it signals a loss of something valuable.
  • Anger is developed between ages 9 – 12 months and helps us to remain on purpose. It attempts to block goal destruction by parental objects; and later to become more assertive or aggressive in order to impact a perceived threat.

Secondary emotions are developed early and learned over time through life experience and expressiveness in the family. These include four pairs of opposites and emotional blends of primary emotions that overlap. For example: sad + surprise = disappointment. Toddlers between 18 – 24 months become more self conscious and learn to feel shame or embarrassment, as well as experience a sense of pride.

Children mimic the way we as parents handle our emotions and relate to others.  We must teach our children to cope with their more negative emotions.  For example, how to be angry and deal with conflict and loss in a healthy way, and to know that it is a part of life.  Psycho-social education should include teaching parents how a volatile environment (with high emotional intensity) causes a heightened positive or negatively charged emotional state that escalates in children.  You can see this clearly depicted in the inner circle of Plutchik’s Wheel of Emotions (above).  The wheel also reflects how opposing emotional states (for example) maladaptive grief and sadness can be heavily influenced and transformed to a greater sense of joy, by accessing experiences of serenity.


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