HGSE professor Paul Harris is interested in the early development of cognition, emotion and imagination. His recent book, The Work of the Imagination, gathers together several years of research carried out at Oxford University.
Q: What are some of the principal differences between children and adults in terms of their capacities to verbally express emotion? When do the majority of these differences begin to disappear?
A: Children's ability to understand and talk about their emotionsand those of other people develops throughout childhood and into adolescence. There is no major watershed, although there are some landmarks along the way. For example, two- and three-year-olds can understand and articulate the fact that people differ in what they want so that the same situation may make one person happy and frighten someone else. By around 5 years of age, children realize that what you express openly may not correspond to what you feel inside. Adolescents realize that the gap between overt expression and inner feelings may not always be clear-cut: your feelings may 'leak' out despite your best efforts to hide them.
Q: When do children begin to communicate about emotions they have experienced in the past? In the future?
A: At a remarkably early age. Two- and three-year-olds talk about their own current emotions, as one might expect, but at that same age, they also talk about emotions that they experienced in the past, emotions that they might experience in the future. They also discuss the emotions of other people, including fictional characters and toy dolls. In my view, this ability to incorporate the expression of emotion into verbal dialogue marks a sharp divide between human beings and non-human primatesalthough it is fair to say that we have not yet studied and understood all the implications of that incorporation.
Q: Can children with autism, and with the early signs of autism, benefit from treatment or therapy designed to increase their understanding of emotions and empathy?
A: Currently, efforts are underway to answer this question, to help children with autism make sense of mental states in general rather than emotions in particular. There have been some successful experimental and therapeutic interventions, but a major question remains about what the intervention achieves. On the one hand, it might help autistic children to regain some of our natural human facility at conceptualizing and articulating mental states. Alternatively, it might simply offer such children a simplified rule book, one that they can only apply in a rather mechanical and inflexible fashion.
Q: How might children benefit from the understanding that they may, in certain situations, experience positive and negative feelings simultaneously? Would it be worthwhile to assist them in developing this understanding?
A: We often express emotion that we have not completely thought through and understood; feelings of jealousy or prejudice are common examples. Yet, we are also capable of reflecting on such emotions. What benefits does such insight bring? Current evidence suggests that those children who display greater insight into emotion are more popular with their peers. We also know that children with autism or Asperger's syndrome have exceptional difficulty in making friendships. Insight into emotion appears to be linked to better social relationships. Still, we should keep in mind the possibility that some emotional insights may, at least in the short term, be painful or disturbing for those who achieve them.
Q: Assuming that a child has a secure attachment to one parent, is it likely that his or her emotional development would still be hindered by an insecure attachment with the other parent?
A: Current evidence suggests that a stable, continuous attachment to a primary caretaker in the early years is important for later emotional development. To my knowledge, there is no systematic evidence that those benefits can be undone by an insecure attachment to another parent or caretaker. But there are different types and degrees of insecurity. We should certainly keep in mind the possibility that the emotional consequences of sustained abuse by one parent cannot be buffered by secure attachment to the other.
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HGSE News, Harvard Graduate School of Education