Eva Benmeleh is a licensed clinical psychologist with a specialization in the 0-5 age range.
Babies have a lot of strong feelings — they just don’t know what they are. Parents of 6 month olds that express frustration early on may be wondering how to deal with these expressions. Eva Benmeleh gives tips on how to teach your baby what he or she is feeling.
Bundoo: When babies are born, it seems they have a limited range of emotions. Is this true, or is it that babies have limited ways of communicating their emotions?
Eva Benmeleh: Yes, this is true. Newborns can express feelings of (dis)comfort and the beginnings of attachment. Many of the smiles that parents notice during the first few weeks are actually neurological activity (or soon passing gas). Emotions begin to develop as babies become more aware of their environments, which happens within six to 10 weeks when the social smile, cooing, and mouthing emerge as a way to express happiness and comfort. The social smile is in response to adult smiles and pleasant interactions. An infant is a social being who learns to engage others by being cute and smiling, eliciting a positive response from his or her caregiver. This leads to a back and forth of smiling, cooing, and ultimately conversing between baby and caregiver.
When do babies start learning to recognize emotions in their caregivers and parents? Which ones are typically the first emotions they recognize?
Babies begin to learn to recognize emotions in their caregivers a little bit after the first month of life. Babies are keen observers, and they are able to recognize happiness and anger pretty quickly. Remember that babies are learning from their caregivers and are social beings, so they are picking up on emotions and how their actions cause reactions in their caretakers.
How do you recommend parents deal with negative emotions, like frustration and anger, in very young babies?
Parents set the foundation for the baby’s sense of self and his or her ability to get things done. It is difficult to deal with a frustrated or angry baby. Your gut reaction is to fix the problem and make the baby feel better. However, oftentimes when babies feel frustrated or angry about trying to solve a problem with a toy or learning a new developmental milestone, it is important to let them try to work through the frustration by giving them ample opportunity to do it independently, while you watch from afar. In this way, you are teaching your baby that you are there to help through the difficulties but that he or she has the power to overcome life’s obstacles. It may sound silly when we talk about this stage as “life’s obstacles” but in your baby’s mind, whatever is frustrating is a big deal. The sooner you can implement the message, “I am here for you while you problem solve,” the more likely it is that will you raise a self-sufficient and resourceful child.
Does it cause babies any harm to be exposed to negative emotions in the home or through entertainment? Do they mimic what they see?
Babies learn the ways of the world, and more specifically, how to react to situations by observing others. Watching someone yell, hit, throw things, or act in other aggressive manners may first scare a baby and make them wonder if they have done something terrible to make that person react that way. Constantly witnessing aggressive acts will mold the baby’s view that the world is a scary, angry, and untrustworthy place. The baby may begin to act aggressively towards others because that is what he or she knows. He or she may feel the need to protect him- or herself by being aggressive out of fear that they may be displaced. The baby may have the opposite reaction and withdraw out of fear of demonstrating any type of emotion that may elicit an aggressive reaction from his or her caregiver. The baby may seem listless, avoid eye contact, and interact limitedly with others.