News Item: Child Development

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Facial Expression Recognition Develops Over Time

The ability to decipher the emotional content of facial expressions requires time to develop, according to a recent study, and disgust takes the longest.  Not until age five can most children tell the difference between disgust and anger.  In fact, until age three, children see the world of faces divided into two types: happy and angry.

Perhaps only with the development of the left (verbal and logical) side of the brain do children become equipped to decode what faces communicate.  That process doesn’t start till age two and doesn’t advance enough till age seven to dominate the right (emotional) side of the brain.

In research described in Science News, scientists came up with a developmental timetable based on observations of very young children.  They found that most three-year-olds correctly linked faces to happy, angry and sad.  Four-year-olds stopped misattributing angry faces for other expressions, and by age five children could recognize disgust as such.  The report omitted mention of surprise and fear, the other two of the six major emotions previously believed to be innate across cultures.

Yet well before children possess the visual acumen to read faces, they can use the language of emotions appropriately, with words like “gross” and “yucky,” for example,  to describe the experience of disgust.

Anyone who interacts with children regularly would be well advised to keep in mind these new discoveries.  Trying to teach a toddler to refrain from ingesting nonfood objects by turning up one’s nose at them just won’t do the trick.  And looking at a child with anything other than a happy face will be read as anger.  It might make more sense to describe rather than display those other feelings.