General Development

General Development

In this section you will find posts that explore aspects of development that span across many ages, with topics such as intelligence, personality, conditions that support development and many others.

Emotions: What They Are and What They Do For Us

Emotions are complex phenomena

Emotions involve a subjective reaction to something in the environment and we experience them as either pleasant or unpleasant. It’s pleasant to feel happy or interested, but not so nice to feel frightened or angry. There is more than a century and a half of research in a number of fields seeking to understand what goes into an emotion and how they serve us.

Most scientists agree that emotions have these four components.
*  Positive or negative feelings
*  Physiological responses, such as changes in heart rate or respiration, sweating (more formally known as a galvanic skin response), secretion of neurochemicals that are associated with things like calmness or flight, and changes in brain waves.
*  Cognitive responses (mental thinking) that cause the emotion in the first place or that accompany it
*  Goals, such as communicating our needs, influencing the behavior of others, avoiding unpleasant experiences or obtaining pleasant ones.

This tells us that emotions are a lot more than “feeling” one way or another. They have an important social function and help us have the kinds of experiences in the world we want to have.

Consider a very basic emotion a tiny infant may have: distress. Imagine a baby finding himself lyingcrying infant on some sharp-edged toy or feeling pain. The baby has a physiological response — accelerated heart beat and respiration. His crying is biologically triggered, but it serves the function of drawing attention, communicating his distress to others and thus getting an unpleasant experience fixed. Similar reactions occur in older children and adults, but with maturity, emotions get much more complex and we learn to regulate them. We also learn to interpret the emotions of others from their facial expressions and other clues, but it takes a surprisingly long time to get really accurate at interpreting these signals. (Teens are not very good at it yet!)

Why Emotions are important

* Emotions have a variety of functions. Clearly they let others know how we feel, and they can help us respond effectively to situations.

* Emotions are linked to social success. The ability to interpret the emotions of others and respond appropriately is central to good social relationships. So is the ability to express our own feelings in ways that are socially appropriate. This is often called having “emotional intelligence,” and it’s very clear that having a high “EQ” is just about as important than having a high “IQ.”

* Emotions are linked to overall mental and physical health. Depression, sadness and despondency are tied to emotions. Overall, individuals with a lot of negative feelings are much less heathy than those with more positive feelings. It’s measurable in things like stress levels, cortisol, blood pressure, vagal tone and many other markers, as well as in psychological measures. Children reared in environments with negative emotions are likely to experience stress, have trouble concentrating and may withdraw from social situations. They also have lower self esteem and less self confidence. Adults have similar reactions.

* Memories of past emotional responses help shape how people react in the future. For example, those who are successful when they make a social overture, recall the positive feeling and feel good about approaching others, They become more confident and connected. Those who are unsuccessful or rejected when they make a social overture, remember the unpleasant feelings and may become wary or withdrawn. They feel less confident and less connected.

Primary and Secondary Emotions

Primary emotions emerge during infancy, some within the first few weeks after birth and some closer to 6 or 7 months. You can read about them HERE.

Secondary Emotions require some thinking and self reflection and emerge during early childhood. guiltyYoung children also begin to control or “regulate” the way the express emotions, learning what is appropriate and what is not in their society. You can find out more HERE.

In the section of teens, we discuss some late emerging skills, including interpreting emotions.

We’ll soon post another article explaining new ideas about how adults can consciously enhance their sense of emotional well-being.

Attachment: A basic part of who we are


The idea of attachment emerged in the 1930s and 1940s when British psychotherapist John Bowlby began to study the behavior of young children who were separated from their parents.

He observed children in two situations: little children who were hospitalized for extended periods and little children who were sent away temporarily by their families from Spain to England, for protection during the Spanish Civil War. At the time, hospital stays were much longer than they are today and parents were generally excluded, so children who were ill or undergoing surgeries might not see their families for several weeks.

What Bowlby observed over and over during these stressful separations was a characteristic progression in the behavior of the little children:

1. A Protest phase, in which children try to regain Mother by crying, calling out and asking for her
2. A Despair Phase, in which children loose hope, often becoming apathetic
3. A Detachment phase, in which children seem to recover and engage with toys and people, but are cool or indifferent to their mother when the two are re-united.
Bowlby suggested that children become attached to their mothers and regard them as a secure base, from which they can venture into the world, safe in knowing that they can return for comfort and protection when needed. When this security disappears, children become traumatized, but eventually find courage to interact with people and things on their own. The trauma resolves into a sense of loss and mistrust. Bowlby suggested that this leads to rejection or indifference for the person whom they can no longer trust.

Ideas about why children become attached

Numerous therapists and developmentalists offered explanations for how children become attached in the first place.

Freud proposed it was oral gratification, in which an infant becomes attached to the breast and then extends this to the mother. One obvious challenge for this view is that children can become attached to someone who is not the person feeding them.

Erikson suggested that, while feeding may be involved, the mother’s general responsiveness to her infants needs is more important and creates a basis for resolving what he called the first conflict of development, coming to trust or mistrust others.

Harlow famously demonstrated that comfort is more important than nourishment, when he placed infant monkeys in a setting where they where fed by a larger wire monkey with a nipple and bottle and also had access to a soft cloth covered wire monkey. When the infant monkeys were startled or frightened, they ran to the cloth “mother” and clung to her. Comfort was deemed the crucial factor in attachment.

This is a clip of original footage from the famous Harlow experiment.

The Quality of Children’s Attachments to their Mothers (or other primary caregiver)

At 12 months children are usually attached

By the time they are a year old, almost all children are attached to their primary caregiver. This means they have a particular connection to one special person and uses him or her as a base, someone they can return to when needed and someone who makes them feel more confident about exploring the world. Once they are attached to one person, children often become attached to one or more other people who are important in daily life.

What varies among children is the quality of their attachment.

Most children (about 60 – 65% of children in the USA) seem to be securely attached and comfortable in their relationships, while others seem much less secure. These insecurities take various forms. Some show ambivalence, wanting to be near the person they are attached to, but also showing anger or resistance. Others are avoidant, showing little concern if mother leaves and ignoring their mother after the two have been separated. A few children (perhaps 5% or less), show very disorganized patterns of attachment, often the result of abuse. You can read a full description of these patterns in the article on the development of attachment during infancy, part 2.

Adult Attachments

Work on Attachment began with studies of children and for many years focussed almost exclusively on the relationship between young children and their mothers or other important caregivers. More recently, we have extended ideas about attachment into the whole lifespan.

One realization that lead to this is that older children, those in high school, college and even adulthood, often maintain a feeling of attachment to their parents. If you have a child at University, you may be happily touched by how your emerging adult may call for advice or comfort, longs for you if they become ill, wistfully thinks of coming home for a minor holiday, or wants to share joys and successes. As an adult yourself, perhaps you’ve been glad to call a parent for advice or just to connect and share. Those are examples of attachment.

Increasingly we realize attachment isn’t just between parent and child.

Partners are also very close attachment objects. Most people experience secure relationships as empowering. In a very real sense, a partner can act as a secure base from which we can confidently engage in the greater world, feeling a sense that connection and support are always there for us. At its best, we may feel that we like the reflection of ourself we see in the eyes of our partner, while at the same time feeling confident in our own sense of self. It is appreciating the love beamed at us, and also feeling a strong sense of self esteem and self confidence. One of the gifts of a great relationship is that partners provide a base and support for one another. Yet, as with children, not all adult partnership are secure. Sometimes there is ambivalence or caution or clinging. These are all indications of insecure attachment patterns that are remarkably parallel to the kinds of patterns seen in children.
  A good way to think about styles of attachment is to see them as the way people adapt to important relationships. Attachment comes from a deep need to be connected to special people and to draw strength from that connection. The quality of attachment turns largely on the experiences a person has in close relationships.

Whether you are the parent of a young child or a teenager, you may also want to read the article on infant attachment, since it gives a more complete description of the main patterns of attachment and how they are assessed. (The link is above)

An upcoming article in adult development will describe adult attachment styles in fuller detail.

The Development of Self Identity

Forming an identity is a process that extends throughout childhood and adolescence. In fact, it continues throughout life as we add new roles, drop former roles, and grow in skill and experience. The process begins in early childhood, after toddlers come to recognize themselves in mirrors and photos, grasping a sense of, “That’s me.”

Identity is a construction. Children build or construct a sense of self. It is not something that is given by biology, defined by temperament or taught by others. It is created by each individual and it is both a cognitive and social construction.

Cognitively, a sense of self involves mental representations. Each individual comes to distinguish between a real and ideal view of him or herself. We evaluate the self across different situations and different kinds of experiences and eventually comes to create and integrate multiple aspects of the self.

Socially, each individual observes the behavior and reactions of others, learning culturally and socially valued roles and ways of being. A sense of self comes in part through interactions with family, friends, teachers, peers and others. Conversations and narratives — the stories we humans tell that help interpret our daily life — provide a framework for self creation. In addition, the opinions and reactions of others influence a child’s self concept. Gradually these views and opinions become internalized, both negative interpretations (judgements, being punished or reprimanded or criticized) and positive ones (being respected or admired, experiencing warm, accepting and nurturing views).

A full sense of self involves multiple components.

Self recognition: being able to recognize or identify oneself
Individual self: those aspects of self that make a person unique
Relational self: aspects of self that involve connections to others and interpersonal relationships
Collective self: an individual’s concept of him- or herself within a group, including such things as gender, race, ethnicity and religion.

The sense of self and what it includes evolves in a fairly consistent way during childhood and adolescence, beginning with concrete qualities (I’m a girl, I’m strong, I have a brother), then including a sense of more internal subjective qualities (I’m thoughtful, I’m determined). It gradually moves to an awareness of how some aspects of self shift depending on context and comes to include one’s values and sense of self esteem. Teens and emerging adults often actively explore different possible identities, sometimes trying out different ways of being and considering various goals, careers, political views and roles before they settle on a mature identity.

From that mature base, we continue to grow, responding to experiences, taking on new roles (such as becoming a parent), relinquishing roles (as when one is no longer a student, or when one looses a spouse through divorce or death), building emotional intelligence, and sometimes even consciously cultivating qualities such as openness or patience or resilience.

Nature or nurture ????

For centuries, millennia even, people have debated whether human intelligence and behavior are the product of our biology or our experiences. The grand philosophical roots of this question are captured in the distinction between Descartes’ famous “erased slate” (tabula rasa), which argued that children are born with no knowledge, that they are empty slates, such that everything they are and do is learned; and Rousseau who described children as noble savages, born with basic knowledge and goodness that becomes misdirected by society. A very common view was that children are preformed miniature adults.

The argument was alive and well in the 20th-century. In mid-century, the famous behaviorist, B. F. Skinner, boasted that he could train any newborn to become anything wished — a surgeon, an artist, or whatever. Experience reigned supreme. A couple of decades later, data from twin studies began to come in and revealed some surprising similarities among identical twins who had been reared separately. The pendulum swung from nurture to nature. By the end of the century there was a greater sense that both were important and the heritability coefficient was introduced. It is a statistical technique for calculating the amount of a feature, such as height or intelligence or sociability, that can be attributed to heredity and the amount due to experiences. With the exception of a few physical characteristics such as height, heredity is generally thought to account for 50% or less of a feature. The range for different personality traits is 25 – 46 % (Pervin, 2003)

So when the new millennium opened, the nature ~ nurture question had resolved to something of a balance between the two. But now, even that seems simplistic. One reason has to do with the human genome.

Before the human genome was mapped in 2000, scientists believed there were about 100,000 human genes, each responsible for a single feature or trait. The stunning discovery is that we have less than 25,000 genes. Each gene produces a number of different proteins in response to signals from hormones, other genes, and various cells. Genes produce changes in their environment and the environment triggers changes in a way genes function and the kinds of proteins they produce. This revelation means the the relationship between nature and nurture is a very complex and dynamic one.

In a dynamic relationship the various components mutually influence one another in a continually changing way. That is what dynamic means; the system is in a constant state a flux. This is true at the cellular and all other levels. Very simply, it means that experience actually influences cells and genes, and also that cells and genes influence how each individual responds to experience.

A very important quality of a dynamic system, such as human development, is that the output is not fully predictable. In a simple system the results of an action are known can be predicted. If you add two atoms of oxygen to an atom of hydrogen you get water. That’s a simple system. In a complex system the results of an input depend on a complex interaction among the variables. If you add carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, its effect varies depending on temperature, wind factors, presence of other substances in the atmosphere and how these interact with carbon dioxide and so on.

Human development is an extremely complex dynamic system. What this means for us as parents is that what we do influences our children, but not always in fully predictable ways.

Here’s an example of how individual differences in children affect ways they respond to parents

A simple example illustrates this. The form of a particular gene, DRD4 7-repeat, is associated with attention problems, aggressiveness, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Studies show that providing sensitivity training to parents can increase a pre-schooler’s ability to regulate stress, as measured by changes in cortisol among children who carry this DRD4 7-repeat gene form (Bakermans-Kranenburg, et. al. 2008). Yet the measures of cortisol do not change in children without this genetic marker.

What this demonstrates, is that genetics can influence the way children respond to their parent’s actions.   Genes are not the only individual variant though.  Many other factors can influence how each individual child responds to input.

Research examining the intricate relationships among bio-genetic factors and external influences is still very new. What is clear however, is that it is no longer a question of nature or nurture. Both are extremely powerful and deeply interconnected. Genes provide a set of potentials, which experiences can enhance or diminish or alter.  They can also influence how an individual will respond to experiences.

How you can use this information

*  What parents do influences their child’s development. Yet, it is not fully predictable how a child will respond.
*  Each child brings his or her own qualities, traits, response patterns, gifts and challenges. Each of these alter as the child interacts with the world.
*  There is individual variation in how children respond, something parents with more than one child quickly come to recognize.
*  Part of a parent’s own development involves changing in response to his or her child.
*  Observing, being flexible, and noticing how your child responds to your actions can help you figure out the best ways to support and interact with your child.
*  You are important, but you are not responsible for everything.


Bakermans-Kranenburg, M. J., Van IJzendoorn, M. H., Pijlman, F. T., Mesman, J., Jufffer, F. (2008). Experimental evidence for differential susceptibility: dopamine D4 receptor polymorphism (DRD4 VNTR) moderates intervention effects on toddlers’ externalizing behavior in a randomized controlled trial. Developmental Psychology, 44, 293-300.

Pervin, L. (2003). The Science of Personality, 2nd Edition. New York: Oxford University Press