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Emotional and Social Development

Angela Oswalt Morelli , MSW, edited by Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.

Teen Program: Scary Dessertsimage by Franklin Park Library (lic)Emotional Understanding, Expression and Control

During middle childhood, children make great strides in terms of their ability to recognize emotions in themselves and others, control their own emotions, and communicate about emotions, both expressively and with language.

By this age, most children have developed their capacity for regulating their own emotions. In contrast to younger children who require external support from caregivers in order to control their emotions, middle childhood aged kids have increasingly internalized these skills. As well, their social knowledge and appreciation of their culture's rules for display of emotions (when and where it is appropriate to display particular emotions, how much is allowed, what expressions of emotion are acceptable, and whether the rules are different for boys or girls) is improved, enabling them to recognize whether or not it is appropriate to express specific emotions in specific situations and then take steps to display an appropriate amount of emotion. By this time children will have typically learned that it is not okay to hit someone when they are angry (although not all children will follow this rule). In addition, most children will have develop enhanced self-soothing skills, and have become capable of calming themselves down when they are angry or upset. They are no longer at the mercy of their emotions; impulsively acting them out simply because they are strongly felt.

Also by this time, most children will have started to be capable of making sense of complex emotional content present in interpersonal situations. As they start to notice other people's conflicting emotion-driven behaviors (e.g., seeing someone cry and laugh at the same time), they begin to appreciate the reality of mixed and complex emotions. They also start to realize that people's reported emotion may not always reflect the emotions they are actually experiencing (such as occurs when someone smiles tensely and says that "everything is fine" when the context makes clear that things are not actually all that good). It is about at this time that children become capable of appreciating sarcasm and similarly subtle and contradictory emotional displays.

As children practice interpreting people's complex emotional displays, their perspective taking abilities and their empathy skills increase. Children's perspective taking abilities involve their capacity for imagining what other people must actually be thinking and feeling, and appreciating what it must be like to see and feel the world from the perspective of other people. Empathy skills have to do with children's ability to sympathize with another person's emotions so deeply that they start feeling those same emotions.