Emotional Development Through the Lifespan

Instructor: Dana Dance-Schissel

Dana teaches social sciences at the college level and English and psychology at the high school level. She has master's degrees in applied, clinical and community psychology.

The expression and experience of emotion develops and changes throughout the lifespan. This lesson will examine this process, and end with a short quiz to test what you have learned.

What are Emotions?

Describe what it feels like to be happy. How about sad, or bored, or excited? It's tough to explain emotions, isn't it? We could ask ten different people to describe the experience of feeling happy and we would probably get ten different answers.

Emotions are internal feelings that are demonstrated outwardly by behaviors. Feeling happy is something that happens inside. The smile that results from the feeling of happiness is a behavior that is shown on the outside. As we grow and develop, we experience and demonstrate emotions differently.

What causes emotions? They may be triggered by internal or external events. For example, if you have a big test coming up (an external event), you may feel anxious or nervous. Emotions can be confusing because sometimes we feel a certain way and aren't sure why. This is often the result of internal physiological changes taking place inside your body such as a fluctuation in blood sugar or hormone levels.

There are countless emotions that people experience, ranging from overwhelming joy to despair and everything in between. Let's take a closer look at how emotion develops and changes throughout the lifespan using the example of John.

Emotional Development Through the Lifespan

Infancy: Birth through 24 Months

Have you ever spent any time with an infant? If so, you know that initially they communicate mainly through crying. This tells caregivers that the baby is hungry or wet, or uncomfortable in some way that needs attention. For example, baby John is hungry. He does not yet have any way of understanding or expressing the uncomfortable feeling of hunger. His cry tells his mother or father that it is time to feed him.

Crying Is The Primary Emotional Expression For Babies
crying baby

As babies get a little older, they develop the ability to smile. These cries and smiles serve an additional purpose beyond just getting their needs met. They create opportunities for bonding with the people who care for them. Healthy bonds are essential for growth and development.

Early emotional expressions such as crying are automatic. In other words, the infant is not really in control of them. As the baby grows and his or her brain develops, and as bonds are formed with others, babies begin to have the ability to regulate, or control their own emotions.

Early Childhood: Two through Six Years of Age

As babies grow into children, they start to feel a strong sense of self awareness. This means that they are aware of themselves as a separate person. This is the result of continuing brain development and increased social relationships. The development of language also helps here, as young kids become better able to communicate.

This increased self awareness serves to strengthen emotional experiences. Young children are more in control of their emotions as they grow, and they also begin to feel new ones, such as embarrassment. These new emotions often result from social comparison, when children start to compare themselves to other kids.

To revisit our example of John, he may feel embarrassed at school if he is the only child crying when his mom drops him off. He looks around and sees that the other kids aren't crying, and so feels shame. He is comparing himself to those around them, and wants to fit in.

Middle and Late Childhood: Seven through 12 Years of Age

Social comparison continues into middle and late childhood. However, due to huge strides in cognitive development, older kids become even better at controlling their emotions. They also begin to develop empathy, or an understanding of the feelings and emotions of others.

The emergence of empathy increases emotional regulation. For example, at 10 years old, John probably knows how bad it feels to strike out at baseball. When he sees a teammate have the same frustrating experience, he is able to empathize because he knows exactly how the kid is feeling.

Social Comparison Affects Emotions in Older Children
kids playing

Adolescence: 13 through 18 years of Age

Adolescence marks the end of childhood and the transition into adulthood. It is usually a time of experimentation and marked physical and cognitive growth. These rapid changes can create great emotional highs and lows for teens. One minute they feel and behave childishly, and in the next they may exhibit impressive maturity.

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