Families & the Community

Even the Youngest Children Learn From Adult Arguments, Study Finds

By Sarah D. Sparks — October 08, 2014 1 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

By Christina Samuels. Cross-posted from Early Years.

When I saw the subject line on an email from the University of Washington’s Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences—"Toddlers regulate their behavior to avoid making adults angry"—I laughed. If my 2-year-old is trying to avoid making me angry, I can only imagine what his behavior would be like if he didn’t care.

But according to the researchers, young children are tuned in to adults closely enough that they can recognize negative behavior and take actions to avoid drawing that negative attention to themselves.

The study, published in the October/November issue of Cognitive Development, evaluated 150 15-month-olds, evenly mixed between boys and girls, by staging an argument between two adult researchers.

First, the children watched one of the researchers playing with a noise-making toy. Then, a second person entered the room and reacted angrily to the toy’s noise. When the toddler was given a chance to play with the toy, most of the toddlers hesitated if the “angry” researcher was still in the room and looking at them. If the researcher who simulated anger left the room, the children reached for the toy more eagerly. The study also found that children with higher impulsivity scores, as measured by a questionnaire filled out by their parents, were more likely to reach for the toy even if the angry adult was still present.

A video from the university shows how a child hesitated after the staged argument:

The press release said that the study didn’t factor in how much previous conflict children had seen at home or elsewhere, such as arguing parents or violent television shows. But Betty M. Repacholi, the lead author and an associate professor of psychology at the University of Washington, said that an “emotionally charged home environment could make some children desensitized to anger, or others could become hypersensitive to it and overreact.”

The researchers are following up with the children, who are now school-aged, to see if their performance during this experiment is predictive of their current ability their own behavior.

“Ultimately, we want kids who are well-regulated, who can use multiple cues from others to help decide what they should and shouldn’t do,” Repacholi said in the release.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.