Imagine you and a 2-year-old child are watching TV. In the show, a man discovers that his soup contains sheep’s eyeballs. You think to yourself, “Wow, that guy is really disgusted!” The child says, “Wow, that guy is really mad!” You are confident that, in fact, the guy is disgusted. Does that mean that the child is wrong? Most people assume that children and adults understand emotions in very similar ways. But as this example shows, that may not be the case.
Although children begin using emotion words in conversation before the age of 2 and have a wide emotion vocabulary before the age of 5 years, studies of children’s use of emotion words find that they initially have two broad emotion categories: one for positive emotions and one for negative ones. For example, 2-year-olds have been asked to say how people with different facial expressions feel. The 2-year-olds used angry for facial expressions of anger, disgust, and sadness but not for facial expressions of happiness, surprise, or fear. So, for young children, angry is a much broader category than it is for adults. Older preschoolers are less likely to use angry for sadness facial expressions but it is not until children are at least 9 years old that they stop using angry for the disgust facial expression.
How do children go from two broad emotion categories (positive vs. negative) to more specific, adult-like categories? In answering this question, it is helpful to think of emotions as “scripts” which include causes, consequences, and so on: for disgust, a person smells something foul (cause), wrinkles his or her nose (facial expression), covers his or her nose (behavior), and tries to get away from the source (consequence). Which of these parts of the script might help children first understand that their broad negative emotion category is composed of distinct emotions? From among all the causes, consequences, behaviors, etc., children need to notice that some things tend to co-occur. For disgust, causes may provide that initial clue (eating or smelling something awful). By 3 years, children know both the causes and words for disgust but it is not until they are much older that they connect the facial expression to the other parts of the disgust script. In contrast, for sadness, by 4 years of age, children have connected the causes, consequences, facial expressions, and labels of the script.
As children move from preschool-aged to middle childhood, they learn about a wider variety of emotions, such as embarrassment, pride, and shame. Just as younger children initially understand emotions like sadness, anger, and disgust in terms of positive vs. negative emotions, older children initially understand embarrassment, pride, and shame as a part of emotion categories that they already have. Children (4-10 years) were asked to say how people felt when shown facial expression or told brief stories describing situations that cause these emotions. Younger children labeled anger, contempt, disgust, and shame as angry and they labeled embarrassment as sad. Gradually, children distinguished among the emotions and the oldest children used the expected label for all emotions (except contempt, which they labeled as angry).
So, when the 2-year-old in the sheep’s-eyeball-soup example we began with said that the man was angry, she was not wrong. Within her understanding of emotions, the man was experiencing a negative emotion and her word for negative emotions is angry. This response represents her current level of emotion understanding but it is also an opportunity for you to teach her something new – what disgust is. A variety of school-based interventions work to explicitly teach children about emotions and to increase their emotion vocabulary and social skills. Children are ready to learn about emotions and children who participate in these interventions develop stronger social and emotional skills and have improved grades than children who do not.
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