Toddler Emotions: Facial Expressions

The video of Sam reveals the understanding that 3-year old children have about their own emotions and internal states and the facial expressions that go along with them. Sam clearly has control of his facial muscles in order to change the “shape” of his face to express feelings and states such as angry, scared, silly, hungry, tired, and happy. It is obvious from his seamless control of his muscles that, stored deep in his brain, are memories of events and people who elicited such feelings in him. To be sure, his facial expressions are a window into his mind, telling us how he has felt from time to time in his three short years on earth and how well he understands those feelings he has.

Understanding, of course, does not mean “control” in the mind of a toddler. Although Sam understands how to express his own feelings as well as how to read others’ expression of feelings, he will not necessarily be able to control his emotions in the moment in an appropriate way. He is still in the process of learning to use his words, and not his body, to communicate feelings such as anger, frustration, hunger, or fatigue.

As I write, Sam is currently hanging on me saying “Get me some cereal. I’m hungry!” He is purposely knocking his body into my reading glasses as he stands on the chair next to me in order to make his presence known, since I am asking him to wait a minute until I finish my writing. His voice is a whining stream of words that are describing his hunger in detail and accusing me of never feeding him breakfast (even though I have provided three distinct “breakfasts” since 6:30 this morning when he woke). Although I know he can show me his I-didn’t-get-enough- breakfast face if I asked him for it, it will not change the fact that he is so hungry he might explode if he doesn’t get what he needs right this moment. It certainly will not curb his behavior. And, on that note, I will cease writing my blog and hit “publish.”

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