It’s easy to feel smug around kids. You might not have it all together—you might, in fact, be rapidly disintegrating professionally and psychologically—but at least you can spill some apple juice without wailing inconsolably for six hours. Comparatively terrible things happen to you all the time, and you don’t freak out about it, or if you do, you do so quietly, not right there in the gym/office/strip-mall Popeye’s/etc. But are you really feeling any less, or have you just become more adept at deceiving others, and/or yourself?
For this week’s Giz Asks, we asked a number of psychologists whether kids really do feel stronger emotions than adults. As it turns out, this is a question that many researchers are still actively investigating. Science has as yet provided no way of reliably gauging emotions, and so while we can say with some certainty that kids seem to feel more intense emotions, we can’t know for sure—and there’s persuasive evidence out there that all of us, kids and adults, might feel some things the same way.
PhD student in Clinical Psychology and part of the Affective Neuroscience and Development Lab, Harvard University, who studies the roles of emotion concepts and social norms in psychopathology and its treatment
Researchers who ping people throughout the day and ask them to rate how they’re feeling have found that the overall intensity of one’s emotions decreases from ages 10 to 14. However, in a study we ran, we found that the overall intensity of people’s emotions was constant from age 4 to 25, and other researchers have found a similar pattern
These might look like conflicting findings, but together they suggest that children, adolescents, and adults might have similarly intense reactions when the emotional situation is highly controlled. It’s possible that the intensity of kids’ and teens’ daily emotions differs because kids and teens choose to enter into situations that are more emotionally intense than adults.
Another piece of the puzzle has to do with how well children, teenagers, and adults can regulate (i.e., change or modify) their emotions. Being able to regulate your emotions can help you reduce the intensity of your emotions. There is indeed evidence that people get better at regulating their emotions as they get older, and researchers have even used brain imaging techniques to look at what parts of the brain might underlie this development (Silvers et al., 2009). Researchers have also found that kids develop an understanding that emotions can be regulated across ages 5 to 11 (Pons, Harris, & de Rosnay, 2005). If adults are better at regulating their emotions than kids and adolescents, this might also help them reduce the intensity of their feelings.
We’ve also found that teenagers struggle to separate their emotions into specific types (an ability called emotion differentiation) compared to children and adults. Interestingly, kids tend to have higher emotion differentiation than teens because they tend to report experiencing only one emotion at a time. This means that adolescence is a time when emotions are more likely to occur simultaneously, and teens appear to struggle to separate these co-experienced emotions into specific types. We’ve also found that the way that people think about (or represent) emotions varies across age. Kids tend to think of emotions primarily in terms of one dimension (which scientists call valence—how good or bad emotions are), but as people get older they’re better able to think of emotions in terms of several dimensions beyond just this good-bad dichotomy.
Associate Professor, Psychology and Neuroscience, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, with a focus on emotion and emotion regulation
Anyone who’s ever seen a toddler (or a teenager) have a meltdown over something trivial knows that kids experience some emotions much more strongly than adults. Questions about how emotions differ between kids and adults are both deeply interesting and difficult to address, scientifically. At least in pre-verbal babies, we can’t ask them directly what they’re feeling, and there are no bona fide measures that can say definitively that someone is experiencing one specific emotion versus another. More broadly, it is difficult to know empirically whether your feeling of fear is identical to my feeling of fear, so it’s hard to say to what extent an adult experience of fear is similar or different to a child’s.
Nonetheless, there’s scientific reason to believe that kids’ emotions are generally more intense than adults’. For one, kids have less experience with the world, and novelty can intensify emotional experiences. Recall the pleasure you felt the first time you tried a delicious new food v. the 100th time you ate it. Kids’ brains prioritize novelty, since it helps them learn about the world, so they are even more likely than adults to seek out new things they haven’t encountered before. This means more opportunities for high emotional highs and low emotional lows.
Kids also experience emotions more intensely than adults because they are less able to regulate their emotions. Adults have the power of a hard-earned emotion vocabulary that helps them know what they’re feeling across different contexts and what to do about those feelings. For instance, when you feel agitated at your boss, you can identify those feelings as anger, bite your tongue, and go blow off some steam. Very young children don’t yet have this self-reflective ability, and only learn over time that certain feelings mean they are feeling certain emotions. Research shows that the better a child is at understanding and labeling their feelings, the better they are at regulating their emotions and behavior.
The power to regulate your emotions is afforded by the prefrontal cortex, a part of the brain that helps guide attention, draw on knowledge, and regulate behavior. The prefrontal cortex isn’t fully matured until about age 25, meaning that very young kids simply lack the basic tools to even try to regulate their emotions. Instead, children rely on adults to help them regulate their emotions by labeling their feelings for them (“I know you’re feeling sad that you lost your toy”), ameliorating negative situations (skipping over that scary picture in the book) and teaching them how to self-soothe (“Take a deep breath, it will be OK”). Kids with caregivers who are adept at taking these steps are more likely to eventually learn how to regulate emotions on their own. Thus, recognizing kids’ abilities and modeling good emotion regulation strategies can ultimately help children experience less intense emotions.
Associate Professor of Psychology and Human Development and Associate Dean, Peabody College
Often kids will experience stronger emotions than adults, but the differences between kid and adult emotions are more subtle and interesting than that. I work on a theory of emotion, called appraisal theory, that holds that how a person responds emotionally to their circumstances depends on how the person interprets, or appraises, what the circumstances imply for their personal well being.
According to this theory, how strong a person’s emotions will be in a particular situation depends on two evaluations: how personally important the situation is to the person (with emotions getting stronger as perceived importance increases), and how good or bad the person views the situation as being. The more that what is happening is in line with what the person wants, the better it will be seen, and the more strongly the person will experience positive emotions like happiness, pride, relief, and gratitude. The more that what is happening goes against what the person wants, the worse it will be seen, and the more strongly the person will experience negative emotions like anger, fear, sadness, and guilt.
Due to their more limited life experience, kids often interpret their circumstances in extreme, black and white terms. Important things are really important, good things are great, and bad things are horrible. Because of this tendency, kid emotions will often be stronger and more purely positive or negative than the emotions adults will experience in the same or similar circumstances. This is because, with a greater range of life experience to draw on, adults will often moderate their appraisals of importance and goodness. They may realize that although something is important, it is not the end of the world; that although something may be very good, it is not the best thing ever; and that although something may be very bad, it could be worse. These tendencies will often lead adults to have less extreme emotional reactions.
But it’s also important to note that although often less extreme, the emotional reactions of adults will often be more complex and nuanced than those of kids. Where a kid may focus on the most obvious aspect of a situation, an adult may realize that the situation has several different facets or aspects, each of which may pull for different emotions, leading to more variegated emotional blends. As an example, if someone were to say something highly offensive, a kid hearing the statement might focus entirely on the offense and become very angry at the speaker. An adult might become angry, too, but they might also realize that the offensive statement did not come from a place of malice, but rather from a place of ignorance. Thus the anger might be tinged with pity, and depending on the adult’s relationship with the speaker, perhaps a desire to educate the speaker and set them straight.
But it’s important to realize that this is not absolute, and kids will not always react to situations with stronger and simpler emotions than adults. There will be huge individual differences. Some kids are wise beyond their years, and I would expect such kids to react to things with more moderate and nuanced emotions. Some adults, especially around things about which they are highly opinionated, may interpret things more simplistically and react to at least certain situations with stronger and perhaps more simple emotions than many kids would have.
Laura H. Carnell Professor, Psychology, Temple University, and author of Age of Opportunity: Lessons From the New Science of Adolescence
The common stereotype of teenagers is that they are much moodier than adults, and that their emotional lability is caused by their raging hormones. There’s some truth to this, but a lot depends on what we mean when we use the word “moody.” Some studies have found that adolescents’ moods fluctuate more over the course of the day than adults’ moods, but the research on this isn’t consistent. What does seem to be true is that adolescents’ emotions—positive and negative—are more intense and more easily triggered by their experiences. In brain imaging studies, for example, teenagers show more activity in response to both positive and negative stimuli (like piles of coins or angry faces). Brain regions responsible for strong emotions are especially sensitive during adolescence. One consequence of this is that emotion-tinged memories, such as a first kiss or a painful rejection, tend to be encoded more deeply when we are teenagers. In studies that ask people to recall events from the past in response to innocuous prompts (like the word “tree”), they are more likely to recall things from adolescence than from any other period—something psychologists call the “reminiscence bump.”
As for the “raging hormones” theory, that’s mainly a myth. Studies have clearly shown that the impact of the environment on teenagers’ emotional states is far stronger than the impact of estrogen, testosterone, or any other hormone whose levels change as a result of puberty. What sex hormones actually do is to make emotional regions of the brain more sensitive to the environment. The same degree of stress or heartbreak will trigger a more intense emotional response in adolescence than during childhood or adulthood. On the bright side, though, the same rewarding experience will generate more intense pleasure during the teen years than at any other time. Of course, the bad news for those of us who are no longer kids is that nothing will ever feel as good for the rest of our lives as things did when we were teenagers.
Professor, Psychology, Hunter College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York
Children and adults may both feel equally strong emotions, but adults have had a lifetime to learn to regulate the experience and expression of those emotions, and have had more time to learn which strategies work for them, and in what contexts.
Children may show stronger emotions and experience them more intensely when they are in a period of developmental change. For example, during adolescence, the teen brain is developing stronger and more efficient connections between areas of the brain underlying drives, arousal, and motivations and those areas underlying inhibition, control, and logical decision making. But this is a work in progress. Finding the balance may be difficult because teens are facing numerous changes—changing bodies, social lives, academic lives, etc. The balance between “emotional” and “control” parts of the brain is more important than the strength of each one in isolation, and develops in relation to how intense our challenges are, and how we are able to cope with them. Where we end up in our emotional lives is about this balance. Indeed, many adults still struggle with intense anger, grief, and fears because we are trying to find the right balance between emotion and control given the challenges we all face, both good and bad, and how well we can cope with them.
So, in a nutshell, children may on average experience stronger emotions, but it all depends on the balance between their drives and feelings, their ability to exert purposeful control, and the match between the intensity of the challenges they face and the personal resources with which they meet those challenges.
Interim Dean and Professor of Psychology, UC Davis School of Education
It is not necessarily the case that children feel emotions more strongly than adults, but rather that the nature of emotional experience and expression changes over development. Across all ages, it is normal and healthy to feel a broad range of emotions. Infants and very young children have not yet developed all the “filters” on emotional expression that older children, youths and adults have, so when they feel emotion, they are more likely to show it. When a baby shows that she is content or happy, she’s letting her parents or caregivers know that they’ve done something right, which hopefully they’ll remember and repeat. When she becomes distressed or upset, the baby is letting her parents know that she has needs that have not been met, which hopefully they can remedy. Yet, although they often need their parents’ help to manage their emotions, even infants have basic ways to calm themselves.
Control over emotional experience and expression increases with age, and some pretty sophisticated skills develop surprisingly early. Certainly by the time they are in preschool or kindergarten, many children are capable of masking their negative emotions when they are in social situations that call for it, like smiling rather than looking disappointed when they receive a gift that they do not really like. Even if they’re not showing it, though, measures of their physiological arousal show that their bodies are activated in ways consistent with feeling emotion—which is also true for adults, for whom it is often automatic to mask their emotional expression to conform to social expectations or to present a desired image. Some work even suggests that physiological arousal is stronger if someone deliberately masks an emotion that is felt compared to a person expressing that emotion.
Professor of Psychology and Director of the Social-Emotional and Character Development Lab at Rutgers University
While some researchers have designed metrics to measure the strength of emotions, from Mood Meters to Feelings Thermometers, everyone would agree that these scales are far less reliable than speedometers or even oral thermometers. When it comes to children, we mostly judge the strength of their feelings by the strength of their reactions. But what we are not seeing in operation are the filters we have to help us modulate how we experience and express our emotions. Kids may seem to experience emotions more strongly because they have fewer filters on how directly they express them. When a child’s cherished toy breaks, you may her a lout anguished wail for quite a while. It usually will subside when you are able to distract the child, divert his or her attention from the event and thus deprive the flame of its oxygen. When a CEO’s cherished company fails, you are less likely to hear anguished wails. But the depth of pain that person may experience—which will depend on many factors, including the genuine attachment to the company and concern for all the people in it—is likely greater than you might infer from an outward reaction.
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