Research on the development of emotional experience and understanding in childhood suggests considerable similarity between children's and adults' appraisals of events, although some key differences are also noteworthy. Regarding appraisal similarity, research shows continuity across development in the basic types of appraisals that elicit discrete emotions. For instance, in the first year of life, infants display facial expressions of happiness in response to success at instrumental attempts to attain a goal, anger when goals are obstructed, fear when danger is threatened (e.g., fear of heights), and sadness at losses (Alessandri, Sullivan, & Lewis, 1990; Campos, Bertenthal, & Kermoian, 1992; Lewis, Sullivan, Ramsay, & Alessandri, 1992; Sroufe & Waters, 1977; Stenberg, Campos, & Emde, 1983; for reviews see Lewis, 2000; Witherington, Campos, & Hertenstein, 2001).
Moreover, by the age of 3, children explain emotions in terms of whether goals have been attained or obstructed (Stein & Levine, 1989), and by the age of 5, children distinguish anger from sadness based in part on whether they believe that goal reinstatement is possible or not (Levine,
1995). Investigations of children's perceptions of provocation have shown that by 6 years of age, elementary school children have learned that other people may act with deliberately hostile intentions (Gifford-Smith & Rabiner, 2004). This understanding leads to an increase in aggressive responding when children perceive that another has harmed them intentionally, showing an increased focus on the agents and goals of anger-eliciting situations (Rule & Ferguson, 1986; Dodge et al., 2003). To some extent, the apparent similarity between children's and adults' understanding of emotional situations and appraisals is promoted by parents. For example, Fivush (1991) found that mothers tend to focus on agents (retaliation) and goals (repairing relationship damage) when talking to their children about anger.
Levine and colleagues directly compared children's and adults' appraisals of, and memories for, several emotional events (Levine, Stein, & Liwag, 1999). Parents of 2- to 6-year-olds recalled recent events that had made their child feel happy, sad, fearful, and angry. The children were then asked to describe those events and how the events had made them feel. Children remembered virtually all of the events their parents had described. Moreover, children's reported emotions often matched the emotions their parents had observed, with matches occurring most often for events that parents described as having elicited happiness or sadness, less often for fear, and least often for anger. Parents and children reported different emotional reactions most often when they focused on different goals or different temporal parts of the emotional episode. For example, a parent recalled her child's initial feelings of anger at being thwarted in his desire to bring a favorite toy to school. The child, focusing on the eventual outcome of being without his favorite toy, recalled having felt sad. Notably, however, when asked to recall familiar events of personal importance, even the youngest children were capable of generating a coherent account that included their goals or desires and how events impacted those goals (see also Izard, Levinson, Ackerman, Kogos, & Blumberg, 1998).
Despite these marked similarities, children's and adults' appraisals differ in complexity. Young children's appraisals of emotional situations tend to be less complex than the appraisals of older children and adults (see Stein & Levine, 1999, for a review; Bartsch & Wellman, 1995; Case, 1992; Harris, 1989). In particular, preschool children show limited understanding that people can feel emotional ambivalence and that individuals can experience two emotions concurrently (e.g., feeling sad about a pet's death and at the same time happiness that the pet's suffering has ended; Harris, 1989; Harter & Buddin, 1987). This limitation is most pronounced for emotions that vary in valence. Harter and Whitesell (1989) investigated children's understanding of the co-occurrence of multiple emotions within a single situation and found that children were not able to adequately coordinate dimensions of the emotional experience with opposing valence (e.g., one positive and one negative emotion) until they were about 10 years old. Younger children were not able to attend effectively to multiple facets of a situation. Instead, their attention was largely directed toward a single, emotionally relevant aspect of the event, and this aspect thus was central in guiding their appraisal. Of note, Stein et al. (2000) have argued that young children's appraisals are simpler than those of older children, but even young children—for instance, in the later preschool and early school-age years—have some appreciation of the experience of opposing emotions (e.g., feeling both good and bad about a single person or situation). However, the authors point out that this understanding is limited to feelings that occur consecutively, not extending to those that happen at the same time. For example, children can claim that they like someone while focusing on one salient goal (e.g., "I like her when she plays with me") and claim that they dislike that same person when they focus on a different goal (e.g., "I don't like her because she took my candy"). Nonetheless, evidence is consistent in highlighting a more limited appraisal process on the part of children relative to adults that focuses on single dimensions of an experience.
Another difference between children and adults that may affect children's memory concerns their more limited attentional and emotion regulation capabilities. Considerable developmental change occurs in children's capacity to engage in effective emotion regulation (for reviews see Aldwin, 1994; Campos, Frankel, & Camras, 2004; Compas, Connor-Smith, Saltzman, & Thomsen, 2001; Saarni, Campos, Camras, & Witherington, 2006; Skinner & Wellborn, 1994). For example, although during infancy children self-soothe (e.g., non-nutritive sucking) when faced with mild physiological distress (Kopp, 1989), children lack the skills required to deliberately regulate their own emotional responses to psychological distress through at least the early preschool years. They often rely on others, typically parents, to help them regulate their arousal (Miller, Klieweer, Hepworth, & Sandler, 1994; Valiente, Fabes, Eisenberg, & Spinrad, 2004). Indeed, parents, teachers, and older siblings typically intervene to assist distressed children by acting to change the distressing situation or, when this is not possible, by helping them redirect their attention to reduce arousal, providing further explanations to increase their understanding, physically comforting them, or modeling other coping behaviors that may reduce distress (e.g., Lopez & Little, 1996). Several studies have shown that supportive parenting is associated with improved coping abilities in young children (Eisenberg et al., 2001; Hardy, Power, & Jaedicke, 1993; Valiente et al., 2004), and parents often talk to children about distressing events, such as Hurricane Andrew, in ways that help children make sense of the events and their feelings (Fivush & Sales, 2004).
As children's understanding of events becomes more complex, so do their appraisals, as well as the range and frequency of strategies they use to regulate their emotional responses (Altshuler & Ruble, 1989). Compas, Connor-Smith, and Jaser (2004) reported that children who were temperamentally better able to control their attentional processes (e.g., had greater capacity for effortful control of their attention) were more likely to utilize advanced cognitive coping strategies, such as shifting attention and reappraising situations. The perception of an event's controllability is one important aspect of this developing sophistication. With age, children are better able to distinguish between stressors that are uncontrollable and those that are controllable, and children begin to use different types of emotion regulation strategies in these two cases (Aldwin, 1994). Uncontrollable situations, which tend to evoke sadness or fear, are more likely to motivate strategies such as cognitive reframing or distraction than are controllable situations (Aldwin, 1994; Brenner & Salovey, 1997; Marriage & Cummins, 2004). For instance, Hodgins and Lander (1997) found that among 5- to 13-year-olds undergoing a venipuncture, older children reported using a greater number of strategies to cope with the venipuncture, and these strategies increasingly reflected cognitive efforts, such as shifting attention. Thus, with age, children are able to attend to more facets of an emotional event (Harter & Whitesell, 1989; Stein et al., 2000), use a broader range of emotion regulation strategies (e.g., using cognitive strategies when a situation is perceived to be uncontrollable; Marriage & Cummins, 2004), and tailor their strategy choice to the situation at hand (Aldwin, 1994).
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