Emotions & emotional development

Various organisms use senses such as heat or smell to make decisions regarding approach or avoidance of stimuli. Humans, on the other hand, have a more sophisticated system, which uses reflective bodily activation and emotions to discern whether something is positive or negative (Damasio et al., 2000). For this reason, emotions are important in terms of overall child development.

But what is an emotion? How do emotions affect human relationships? The following is one of the many scholarly definitions of what an emotion:

“A person customarily causes an emotion consciously or unconsciously. It materialises whilst that person is evaluating an event as relevant to a concern or a goal that is important for him/her. Positive emotions lead the individual to act by staying on course and exploring the environment. Negative emotions on the other hand tend to lead the individual to adjust to his/her situation” (Oatley & Jenkin, 1996, p. 96)

Whilst many definitions of an emotion exist, many agree that emotions are involved in many aspects of what we define as the “human experience”, and are involved in giving meaning to an individual’s interpersonal and intrapersonal worlds.

So how are emotions and understanding of emotions linked to emotional development?

Before humans develop speech, emotion is the first language used to communicate needs and wants. Emotions are used by infants to create relationships with their carers (Loh & Wragg, 2004). This is a phenomenon that is quite obvious to those who are present during infants’ early exchanges with the world around them. The crying, the smiling, the frowning, the gesturing; all emotional interchanges aimed to communicate.


A question that many carers ask to professionals is: are these first ‘emotional interchanges’ shaped by the infant’s ‘inbuilt’ genes? i.e. Are infants born with such innate characteristics?

Judith Rich Harris (2009) argues that genetic influences are crucial in an infant’s development and that parents have very little influence on children’s development. In her book, ‘The Nurture Assumption’, she argues that the idea that child rearing makes children turn out the way they do is an assumption embedded in our culture. Her argument is supported by the fact that as a child is born, one can notice that child having a tendency towards certain moods and styles of reacting to people and events in their lives (Loh & Wragg, 2004) – this tendency is sometimes labelled as “temperament”. Research indicates that children are born with different temperaments (Music: 2011). If 100 infants are subjected to similar influences, then each one of them will react in a different manner.

How is this important for emotional development? Children reach out to affect their environment. They reach out in ways that are congruent with their individual difference in temperaments and behavioural styles and produce emotions. In this way, they are effecting their environments (Thomas and Chess, 1977).

This “biological” explanation however has not been left unchallenged. Sir Michael Rutter, Professor of Child Psychiatry put forward arguments that challenges Harris’s arguments as it indicates that children living in settings with severely deprived social stimulation could display difficulties with emotional regulation (Rutter, 2004). This highlights the significance of relationships and establishes a common pattern that places even more emphasis on social interaction and it’s influences on the process of child development.

Emotions and attachment behaviours

The psychological effects of early relationships of infants on the core of the individual’s personality was researched by Physiologist and Psychologist John Bowlby in the 1970s. Bowlby argued that the human infant is not equipped to survive without adult caregivers who provide food, warmth, and protection from illness and injury. He also argued that individual differences in the core of the adult personality are shaped by early life experiences that the individual has with a small number of caregivers (Goldberg, 2000). Bowlby’s interest in early relationships was instigated by his experiences of working at a school for maladjusted children. Here he was puzzled by the impoverished family lives of some of his young charges and by their difficulties in molding intimate and lasting relationships with others.

Bowlby suggested that as humans were evolving, genetic selection favored attachment behaviors (i.e. the tendency of human infants to become emotionally close to certain individuals and to be calm and soothed while in their presence) as these increased a child’s likelihood for survival (Cassidy, 1999). Bowlby argued that as a consequence of evolution, the human child has an instinctual need to stay close to the parent on whom he/she has imprinted (Crain, 2010). According to Bowlby, this “imprinting” phenomenon is built into the very fiber of the child’s being. So, when the toddler loses contact with the parent, the toddler tries to find the parent and generates emotional signals in the form of distress calls. Rather than being puerile, the child is engaging in natural biological behaviors that have kept children protected from predators and environmental hazards for millions of years.

For humans, imprinting is a process by which attachment to a parent/caregiver develops. In the first months of life, babies cannot actively crawl after a departing parent, but they have other signals and gestures for keeping the parent close. One way is to cry. The cry is a distress call; when the infant is in pain or is frightened, he/she cries and the parent is impelled to rush over to see what is wrong. This ‘attachment behavioural system’ is central to the concept of attachment (Cassidy, 1999).

The process of attachment unfolds gradually. Understanding this process could also provide insight on the concepts of imprinting and attachment behavioural system:

During the initial phase, (birth – 3 months) a neonate is equipped with a repertoire of behaviours – emotions or social gestures – designed to attract the attention of caregivers: crying, orienting, cuddling, grasping and clinging. At this stage, features of adults that mark their interaction with infants are particularly attractive to new-borns. During this time, babies start smiling, babbling and cooing. These emotional responses promote attachment because by maintaining proximity to the caretaker.

As vision and audition improve (3 – 6 months), and patterns of interaction with one or more caregivers become established, the infant’s social responses become much more selective. Infants discriminate between familiar and unfamiliar faces and start to develop expectation concerning the effects of their own behavior and the reactions of caregivers. Babies seem to develop the strongest attachment to the one person who has most alertly responded to their signals and who has engaged in the most pleasurable interactions with them (Crain, 2010).

The third phase (6 months to 3 years) is characterized by intense attachment and active proximity-seeking. Beginning at 6 months of age, the infant’s attachment to a particular person becomes increasingly intense and exclusive. They demonstrate separation anxiety by crying when the ‘main’ caregiver leaves the room.

By the end of the first year, a child begins to build, on the basis of day-to-day interactions, a general idea of the caretaker’s accessibility and responsiveness. This internal working model is a kind of cognitive map that helps the child to be able to predict other’s responses and develop a picture of how a relationship is likely to go. These maps are subject to change as new experiences accrue. However, the manner in which new information is added to, or integrated in the model, is shaped by its existing nature. Thus, the effects of early experiences are carried forward in these models even as they undergo change (Goldberg, 2000).

Strange Situation: infant attachment styles

Inspired by Bowlby’s ideas, Mary Ainsworth (Ainsworth, 1964) researched infant-mother relationship and the affects of separation. The structured sequence of separations and reunions she termed “The strange situation” experiment enabled Ainsworth to detect three different patterns of infant attachment styles: ‘secure’, ‘avoidant’, and ‘resistant/ambivalent’.

The infants that Ainsworth termed ‘secure’ used the mother as a secure base for exploration. Secure infants gave evidence of their confidence in the mother’s ability to provide comfort: when the mother was present, they explored their surroundings, and only needed an occasional visual or verbal prompt by their mother (Goldberg, 2000). Ainsworth (Ainsworth, 1964) described mothers of securely attached infants as sensitively responsive to the infant’s signals.

Avoidant infants seemed oddly unconcerned with the mother’s presence or absence and occasionally appeared to be more friendly to a stranger than to the mother. These infants explored their environment with little reference to the mother. They generally showed very little distress on the mother’s departure, and visibly ignored her when she returned. The avoidant infant generally does not express attachment needs in order to avoid risking rejection (Cassidy, 1999). Mothers of avoidant children were generally slow to respond to distress, and uncomfortable with close body contact. They seemed to be minimally expressive, relatively rigid in dealing with their infants, and often interfered unnecessarily with their infant’s activities (Goldberg, 2000).

Ainsworth (Ainsworth et., al 1978) also described mothers of resistant infants as generally inconsistent in their responses. They seemed to be more likely to be inept in physical contact with their infants and they displayed little spontaneous affection. Resistant infants, in turn, seemed to be so worried with obtaining maternal attention that they excluded other activities. They were reluctant to explore even in her presence and appeared extremely distressed by her departure. At reunions, they made strong efforts to make contact with her, but they also resisted her comforting efforts. These behaviors had an either angry or passive emotional quality (Cassidy, 1999). Each of the three patterns mentioned by Ainsworth reflects a strategy for enlisting the caregiver with the objective of alleviating stress.

Difficulties to classify unclassifiable anomalous results during the ‘strange situation’ resulted in Main & Solomon (1986, 1990) to introduce a distinct fourth classification. Evidence indicated that this pattern occurred with a high frequency among maltreated infants (Goldberg, 2000). Current thinking is that disorganized attachment reflects that infant’s inability to resolve the dilemma created by a caregiver who rather engages in behavior that is frightening to the infant. Overt maltreatment is one form of frightening caregiver behavior, but subtle and brief behaviors can also be frightening. These subtler behaviors have been found to occur more often in mothers with experiences of unresolved attachment losses or traumas.

Human relationships and their implications on Emotional Development.

After birth, humans are besieged and suffused by relationships. The strength of such social experiences, especially early ones, can be seen in longitudinal studies that have used relationship variables to predict later social behavior. A child who is respected, encouraged, and comforted is able to learn about the world and themselves in a context of emotional safety (Robinson, 2003). On the other hand, conditions such as poverty, unemployment, psychiatric disorder in parents, physical and emotional neglect and criminality have been shown repeatedly to exert adverse influence on child development (Rutter, 1987). For humans, the presence and absence of positive experiences in early relationships are very influential in promoting resilience to stress through the consequent development of identity and self-esteem (Masten et al, 1988).

Through interaction with the caregiver and with the caregiver’s cultural child-rearing precept, relationships continue to leave their mark during the first months. In these initial exchanges, a baby demands uniformity and consistency of a caregiver’s actions (Santrock, 2001). When a child senses that a parent is consistent and dependable, the child develops a sense of basic trust in the parent (Crain, 2010). The child comes to sense that when he is cold, wet, or hungry, there is their caregiver that can see to their needs and provide comfort. In so doing, babies learn that the caregiver is steadfast and trustworthy. An unpredictable and unreliable parent could lead towards a sense of mistrust and a belief that the parent may not be there when needed (Erikson, 1963). This early “unrememberable and unforgettable” (Watt, 2002) experience of trust or mistrust could turn out to be the child’s measuring yardstick whilst appraising other experiences.

The first human relationships for each individual are thus characterized by the creation of ‘bonds’. As mentioned earlier, Attachment Theory (Bowlby, 1982) suggests that through these bonds, children develop ‘archetypal’ expectations about their relationship capacities and about how others respond to their social behavior. A secure initial bond, or attachment, influences considerably further relationships (Goldberg, 2000).

Thus, a child’s early relationship with his significant other is key to adequate emotional development. The importance of this relationship is influential to the point where it is a contributing element towards the origin of psychopathology. For example, Dozier et al., (1999) link avoidant attachment with externalizing problems –e.g. aggression, conduct disorder, criminal behaviour and other behaviours that could cause disruption to others. Children with avoidant attachment styles learn, through their caregiver’s lack of response, to ignore their own feelings of distress. They also learn that they cannot count or trust others. Furthermore, the frustration of unmet attachment needs may give rise to anger that is not expressed towards the parents but is displaced towards others.

The presence of continuous exposure to adversity in the home will also result in unwanted attachment modes and ‘internal working models’ with potential impinging effects on personality development. Bowlby’s writing regarding this suggests that insecure attachments enhance susceptibility to later disorder in adult life (Wolkind & Rutter, 1985). Secure attachment confers specific advantages in the development of social competence, whilst insecure attachment entails specific handicaps or threats to mental wellbeing. However, it is important to note that not all insecurely attached children are disordered. Insecure attachment is not to be considered the primary cause of a psychological disturbance. Rather, insecure attachment is a risk factor that operates in concert with other coexisting conditions to increase or decrease vulnerability.

In conclusion

The nature-nurture debate seems to have people divided and baffled on what is more important in child development and emotional development – if it is genetic factors or social interaction. Whilst acknowledging the genetic element, this post aimed to shed light on the effects of human relationships on such development. The post aimed to help the reader gain further understanding of the relational phenomena that impact children especially in the early years and how these experiences will influence future development. The literature and ideas brought forward are not in any way conclusive in determining which is the most important factor that effects emotional development, rather, it strives to understand emotional development from different theoretical perspectives that finally intertwine, interact and unfold gradually to help fashion the individual.

Implications…if any????

The promotion of social order and pupil good conduct is a goal that many schoolteachers and Heads of school, in any culture and context, share. Thus, the Educational Psychologist (EP) is many a time involved with schools and families, which are encountering difficulties with managing their pupils’ or their child’s emotional and behavioural difficulties.

Whilst this post was not in any way aimed towards providing professionals and parents with solutions or techniques to manage such difficulties, it nevertheless taps into some of the causes and possible roots of these difficulties.  By analysing the affects that human relationships have on emotional development, this post provides insight regarding phenomena that affect the child and possibly contribute towards his/her difficulties.

By being more aware of the influence that various human relationships could have on a child, an EP could be better able to comprehend the complex ‘rationale’ behind a child’s emotional and behavioural difficulties. Such awareness should instigate the EP to encourage schools to be even more sensitive to vulnerable children and invest further in primary prevention such as parental training and awareness, child-parent groups and adult emotional literacy classes.

This in turn could help focus more attention on the situational factors that are affecting a child’s life. Whilst behavioural management strategies are a must, when it comes to dealing with behavioural issues, the EP, together with the school and community services, should strive to work on influencing the relational systems that are impeding the child’s adequate emotional development. In so doing, the EP could be making a difference not only in that child’s life, but also in the next generation of children who could perhaps be traumatised by that child who has in-turn grown up.




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