Young children are like sponges, absorbing everything that’s going on around them from a very early age. Parents may not realise it, but even though a toddler isn’t yet able to speak, they are very emotionally aware and are beginning to gauge how other people are feeling.

New research from the University of Washington has revealed that toddlers aged just 15 months are able to comprehend that someone is angry from watching how other people interact. Not only that, but toddlers will then change their own behaviour as a result.

What happens when toddlers realise someone is angry?

The study of 15 toddlers, all aged at 15 months, involved an experiment using toys. The toddlers watched an experimenter demonstrate how to play with exciting toys which made sounds and had moveable parts. Many of the toddlers were delighted by the idea of playing with the toys and leaned forward and pointed enthusiastically.

A second adult entered the room. As the experimenter repeated the play demonstration, the second person used an angry voice and complained about what the experimenter was doing. After the toddlers had seen the adults argue, they were then given the opportunity to play with the same toys.

In some experiments, the argumentative second adult turned away so that they weren’t looking at the toddler. Then toddler would then excitedly play with the toy in the same way the experimenter had.

In other experiments, the second adult either watched the child or read a magazine. In this situation, the toddlers waited for longer before deciding to touch the toy, and when they did finally pick it up, they were less likely to copy the actions of the experimenter.

What the experts said

One of the researchers explains that the toddlers change their behaviour in this way because they are still learning about social interactions and understanding how people will react. The toddlers are still learning about self control at this stage.

Researchers speculated that conflict at home could cause children to become desensitised to anger if they were exposed to arguing parents or violent TV shows often, or become much more sensitive to it if their home environment wasn’t very emotionally charged.

Helping toddlers to understand emotions

Expressing different emotions, including anger, happiness, sadness, excitement and so on, is a natural part of everyday life. While children will learn to understand these emotions from experience, parents can’t help them along too.

Reading stories is a great way for children to gain emotional understanding. Use different voices and facial expressions to convey emotions. Even though your child might not be speaking yet, you can explain why characters are happy or sad or angry.

Children often learn about emotions is through role play, either by acting out scenes with toys or taking on the role themselves. Play houses, dens, dressing up costumes, dolls, action figures and hand puppets can be good outlets for children who are trying to understand different feelings and reactions.

More by Sam Flatman:

Independent vs Structured Learning
Babies who are surprised learn better
The Benefits of Playtime for Babies

Author Bio: Sam Flatman is an outdoor learning specialist and an Educational Consultant for Pentagon Play. Sam has been designing playgrounds for the past 10 years and has a passion for outdoor education. Sam believes that outdoor learning is an essential part of child development, which can be integrated into the school curriculum.

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