According to a recent study led by Tara M. Chaplin of the Department of Psychiatry at Yale University School of Medicine, boys and girls have very different emotional tendencies, but these fluctuate depending on age and context. In her study, Chaplin reviewed data from over 21,000 participants from over 160 separate studies focusing on emotional expression from birth to adolescence. Chaplin looked at internalizing and externalizing emotions as well as positive and negative expressions. The study revealed some interesting and novel results. Chaplin said, “Our findings suggest that there are small but significant gender differences in emotion expressions, with larger gender differences emerging at certain ages and in certain contexts.” She found that in infancy, the boys and girls exhibited similar emotional displays. However, as the children aged, significant differences emerged.
Specifically, Chaplin found that the girls internalized their emotions more than the boys, but they also displayed more positive emotions. For instance, the girls had higher rates of anxiety and sadness than the boys, but outwardly expressed more cheerfulness and joy. The boys, on the other hand, were more likely to exhibit anger and aggression than the girls. But these variances were only evident when the children were in the presence of strangers. When they were with their parents, the children expressed a wide range of emotions, making the gender differences virtually non-existent. Chaplin believes that children may feel more comfortable with parents and may feel free to express all of their emotions. In social settings, children may feel the need to conform and therefore may not freely express their true emotions, leading to internalizing behaviors.
Although these emotional differences were very noticeable during the toddler and elementary school ages, they were less apparent as the children matured. For instance, externalizing behaviors diminished in the boys and increased in the girls, almost to the point of being equal. Two other findings revealed concerning patterns. The adolescent girls had higher levels of shame than the boys. Because shame and guilt have been shown to be a factor in several psychological problems, including depression, self-harm, and disordered eating, this should be a key point of focus for educators and clinicians working with teen girls. Also, boys felt more joy than girls when they were provided the opportunity to taunt or tease another individual. This is disturbing too because this could increase the risk for these boys to engage in bullying and aggressive behavior. Because the trajectory of emotional expression changes as children mature, and because it is heavily influenced by family environment, social factors, and other external conditions, children will display a wide range of emotions as they develop. However, Chaplin believes it is also important to be able to identify which expressions are normal and which are signs of concern.
Chaplin, T. M., and Aldao, A. (2012). Gender differences in emotion expression in children: A meta-analytic review. Psychological Bulletin. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0030737
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