Toddlers Detect Emotion, Change Behavior Accordingly

New research discovers the capabilities of a toddler greatly exceed what many adults believe is possible.

The study by researchers at the University of Washington (UW) finds that children as young as 15 months are able to detect adult emotions and use the clues to guide their own behavior.

Researchers say this is the first evidence that younger toddlers are capable of using multiple cues from emotions and vision to understand the motivations of the people around them.

“At 15 months of age, children are trying to understand their social world and how people will react,” said lead author Betty Repacholi, Ph.D.

“In this study we found that toddlers who aren’t yet speaking can use visual and social cues to understand other people — that’s sophisticated cognitive skills for 15-month-olds.”

Another important finding suggests toddlers’ impulsive tendencies may go hand an hand with their tendency to ignore other people’s anger.

This observation could lead to the development of an early warning sign for children who may become less willing to abide by rules.

“Self-control ranks as one of the single most important skills that children acquire in the first three years of life,” said co-author Andrew Meltzoff, Ph.D., co-director of UW’s Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences.

“We measured the origins of self-control and found that most of the toddlers were able to regulate their behavior. But we also discovered huge individual variability, which we think will predict differences in children as they grow up and may even predict important aspects of school readiness.”

Researchers studied 150 toddlers at 15 months of age, an even mix of boys and girl. The toddler sat on their parents’ laps and watched as an experimenter sat at a table across from them and demonstrated how to use a few different toys.

Each toy had movable parts that made sounds, such as a strand of plastic beads that made a rattle when dropped into a plastic cup and a small box that “buzzed” when pressed with a wooden stick.

The children watched eagerly — leaning forward and sometimes pointing enthusiastically.

Then a second person, referred to as the “emoter,” entered the room and sat down on a chair near the table. The experimenter repeated the demonstration and the emoter complained in an angry voice, calling the experimenter’s actions with the toys “aggravating” and “annoying.”

After witnessing the simulated argument, the children had a chance to play with the toys, but under slightly different circumstances.

For some children, the emoter left the room or turned her back so she couldn’t see what the child was doing.

This adult behavior resulted in toddlers eagerly grabbing the toy and copying actions they had seen in the demonstration.

However, in other groups, the angered emoter maintained a neutral facial expression while either watching the child or looking at a magazine.

In this scenario, most toddlers hesitated before touching the toy, waiting about four seconds on average. Then, when they finally did reach out, the children were less likely to imitate the action the experimenter had demonstrated.

The study is found in the journal Cognitive Development.

Source: University of Washington