Toddlers regulate their behavior to avoid making adults angry

Children as young as 15 months can detect anger when watching other people’s social interactions and then use that emotional information to guide their own behavior. The video shows a short experiment with a child which shines a light on how infants begin to understand and cope with the drama of human emotions, but also alludes how a child can be negatively affected from a developmental point of view through exposure to less than optimal adult relationships.

Toddlers pick up on our moods and social cues to regulate their behaviour. This experiment was published in the October/November 2014 issue of the journal Cognitive Development with the title, “Infant, control thyself: Infants’ integration of multiple social cues to regulate their imitative behavior.” Credit: Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences, University of Washington.” The experiment shows the vigilance of toddlers to the emotional dynamics that surround them. Rather than the adults attuning to the needs of the toddler, the reverse is demonstrated, the toddler attunes to the adult environment.

At the core of good parenting is attunement. Attunement is being aware of, and responsive to, another. What this means is that toddlers learn behavioural responses not organic to their state and become sensitive to the dynamics of caregivers, thus modifying their behaviours in a less than optimal way, continued exposure to environments where they must regulate their behaviour to please adults can impact the childs attachment styles.

In this experiment the parent was still a safe anchor so the child even though another adult was displaying and communicating difficult emotions. The child certainly reacted to the ‘angry’ adult but due to the fact the parent remain calm, available and attuned, the child did not move into a state of high anxiety. Now imagine a situation perhaps where both adults were displaying negative emotions, visceral vocal and physical clues that the child is innately adept and receiving. As parents, safe anchoring is one of the most important experiences we can offer our children, and safe anchoring is providing an authentic, attuned and loving environment.

Attunement and attachment are related.  Attachment is an emotional bond to another person.  According to psychologist John Bowlby, the earliest bonds formed by children with their parents (caregivers) have an important impact that continues throughout their life.  Research tells us that early attachments have a serious impact on later relationships in the lives of children.  Children who are securely attached in childhood tend to have good self-esteem, strong romantic relationships, and the ability to feel comfortable to share of themselves with others.  Research also tells us that when children do not form secure attachments early in their lives, this can have a negative impact on their behavior in later childhood and throughout their lives.

Children who grow up in an environment where there is regular or consistent discord, especially around their primary care givers, must find a way to manage themselves through the turbulence and anxiety that these environments illicit. Toddlers do not understand the spectrum of adult emotions in the way we do. They cannot process and contain in the way we do. For the child, anger is a threat to the psyche of the child and they will do what they can to reduce the threat, even if this means changing their own natural behaviours.

We cannot completely protect children from the realities of human/adult relationships and dynamics, and it can be argued that children should not be brought up in entirely sanitized or inauthentic environments. Some exposure to the realities of interpersonal relationships are key to forming realistic perceptions. It is important that they learn the necessary skills to navigate life and relationships. But we must teach them in an age appropriate way and be aware of the power of our interactions and emotions on the development of children.