Facial expressions are signals of emotions and therefore give both adults and children easy access to the feelings and reactions of others.
Children's understanding of facial expressions is poor and changes qualitatively and slowly during development. Initially, children divide facial expressions into two simple categories: 'the person in front of me feels good' or 'the person in front of me feels bad'. These broad categories are gradually differentiated, eventually leading to a mature system containing a wide range of emotions. Children's understanding of emotions is related to their cognitive development and the emotionally charged experiences they have undergone.
Researchers have found that all over the world, people tend to display the same expressions in response to different emotions. The ability to recognise how someone is feeling is a very important skill in life, as it allows us to respond appropriately in different social situations: with family, friends, teachers and even strangers.
Although there have been many studies analysing the ability to identify emotions from people's facial expressions, too few examine children's recognition skills.
Can children recognise emotions through facial expressions?
Kate Lawrence, Ruth Campbell and David Henry Skuse, researchers at Frontiers for Young Minds, developed a study in 2016 of a total of 478 primary school children (aged 6-11) and secondary school children (aged 11-16) in the UK. For this research they used techniques that ask children, in a first step, to associate faces (in pictures) with the names of emotions. Then the children are asked to identify the emotions in the images where two facial expressions are juxtaposed. In this way, the children's ability to identify, analyse and frame facial expressions was tested.
The research results demonstrate:
- Children (6 years) are good at recognising expressions of happiness, sadness and anger (from the primary emotion spectrum);
- As we grow up, we get better at recognising other emotions.
- The ability to recognise facial expressions and their corresponding emotions improves during childhood and adolescence;
- Girls seem to be better than boys at recognising facial expressions of emotions;
- Children improve their ability to recognise expressions of anger and disgust as they go through puberty.
More informations about this research here
Practical tips to help children recognise emotions
Understanding our own emotions, but also understanding the feelings of others helps us to find balance in our daily lives, to calibrate our reactions, to train a growth mindset and to empathise more. Developing these skills takes time and practice, but they are essential for the harmonious development of children. Here are some ideas for activities to help children in this process:
Research proves that it is much easier for children to identify facial expressions and emotions on the faces of familiar people. To start, collect photos of people your child knows, trying to build up a range of facial expressions.
- Print and make cards.
- Support children in the process and talk to them about what they see. Ask why they think it is the right emotion.
- Help the children to identify the feeling that matches the expression on the card.
- Ask the children to find in magazines, books or, depending on their age, even on the internet, people whose expressions match those on the cards.
You can also use some videos, here
an exemple. Analyse facial features
Demonstrate to children how eyebrows, mouth, eyes, nose and forehead change according to emotion. Practise expressions such as: 'Wide smile' (we smile with our eyes, not just our mouth); 'Angry eyes' (we are frowning, tense forehead, sad mouth) etc. You can also use cartoons
as a resource. Look carefully at your favourite characters and observe with your little ones the facial expressions according to the moments of action. Looking in the mirror can help children see how accurate their expressions are.
It is useful for children to consider the overall situation and context and to use this information to make sense of facial expressions.
For example, if they see someone drop their ice cream cone, they can imagine how they would feel if this happened to them, thus also practising empathy
skills. Emotion recognition skills develop gradually, from childhood to adolescence. Dr. Gwen Dewar
of the University of Michigan
says in her research on child development that by the age of 10, children can mistake facial expressions of sadness for fear, especially when these feelings are accompanied by subtle facial expressions. In addition, some emotions are difficult to recognise, even at high intensities. The researchers found that participants struggled to identify disgust or fear during adolescence. By age 16, children were able to identify these emotions with about 80% accuracy.
Understanding social cues (e.g. tone of voice, body language, distance between people) can be difficult for many children. Talk to children not only about facial expressions but also about other forms of body language.
You might also be interested in: Social-emotional learning: WHAT, HOW and WHY in a changing world
The ability to recognise emotions is essential in everyday life
Children are sensitive to another person's facial expressions, but they also notice tone of voice, body posture and gestures. Whether reading a story together or observing someone in real life, help children make connections between different types of non-verbal cues. For children, facial expressions provide the basis for acquiring knowledge about causes, consequences, labels for each category of emotion.
Children with better facial expression reading skills may gain more popularity in school. They also tend to perform better academically. In addition, research suggests that people who are better at identifying expressions of fear are kinder and more generous to others.
On the other hand, children who have more trouble identifying emotions in people's faces are more likely to have problems with peers and learning difficulties. Preschoolers with poor facial expression reading skills are at greater risk of externalizing behavior problems and are more likely to engage in overt aggression.
The path to children's understanding of facial expressions and emotions in terms of specific categories is a long one. Children have a systematic way of understanding and interpreting facial expressions and other cues of emotion. Gradually, their categories of emotion become more specific and mature, but for this to happen, they need early support in this from parents and other adults in their lives.