Decoding emotions in others

Decoding emotions in others
During her first year, she will begin to perceive the emotions around her even if she still doesn’t understand what they mean.

In parallel with the development of her emotions, your child also learns to decode those in others. During her first year, she will begin to perceive the emotions around her even if she still doesn’t understand what they mean. “From birth, babies are sensitive to their parents’ emotions,” notes psychologist Nadia Gagnier. “Towards 4 months old, they can decipher certain emotions such as joy and sadness. At about one, they can adapt their behaviour to the emotion they observe in their parents. If you are unhappy or worried about leaving your child at daycare, she may start to cry, not because she doesn’t like to go, but because she feels what you’re feeling,” adds the psychologist.

At 3 years old, most toddlers can read joy, sadness, fear and anger in faces, but they still make mistakes. They can, for example, confuse emotions like sadness, anger and fear. “Until about the age of 10, a child gets increasingly faster and more accurate at recognizing facial expressions,” says Catherine Herba, UQAM Psychology Department professor and researcher at the CHU Sainte- Justine Research Centre. With your support, your child will hone this ability up until adolescence.

Controlling her emotions

As they grow, children get better at recognizing their own emotions, as well as those in others.

We often hear about managing emotions, but little about the importance of developing emotional competence. The fact is, managing your emotions is only one of the 3 steps necessary to acquire emotional competence, which also include expressing and recognizing emotions. It’s the development of this ability as a whole that slowly allows your child to better manage her emotions. “When a child understands emotions and knows how to express them, she can control them and adjust their intensity to better face various situations,” explains Sylvain Coutu.

A child with emotional competence has a head start in life. Scientific studies show that this ability actually:

  • promotes academic achievement, in addition to fostering positive relationships with others. “Emotional competence helps you better react to negative and disturbing emotions as well as to difficulties,” says Catherine Herba;
  • helps children recognize emotions in others and modify their behaviour accordingly to maintain harmonious relationships. If your child’s friend is angry, your child will know how to adapt her behaviour to avoid her friend getting even angrier;
  • helps children become better at resolving conflicts and more inclined to show empathy.

Nevertheless, some children have a harder time developing emotional competence. We see this in children who were mistreated or neglected, as well as children who are anxious or who react negatively to change and novelty.