How Do Toddlers Respond to Adult Emotional Cues?

Curious toddlers with toysThe world of children can seem like a foreign culture, featuring values and rules that may appear quite different from those that govern the adult world. Even from a young age, though, children observe adult behavior and incorporate what adults do into their own repertoires. Thus, children’s worlds are often simple reflections of what they’ve seen from the adults in their lives. According to a new study, the sponge-like ability of children to pick up on adult emotional cues, particularly those for anger, begins very early.

How Children Respond to Adult Emotions

Toddlers grow up quickly, morphing from babies who know little about their worlds to preschoolers with large vocabularies, strong manipulation skills, and a keen understanding of social norms. To evaluate what young toddlers know about adult emotions, researchers from the University of Washington studied 150 15-month-old toddlers. The children sat on their parents’ laps while watching an experimenter show them how to play with various toys. Each toy featured movable parts that made sounds when manipulated in specific ways, such as a box that buzzed when experimenters touched it with a wooden stick.

The children were enthusiastic observers, eagerly watching the experimenter show them how to use the toys. As the children’s interest increased, a second experimenter, known as the “emoter,” entered the room. The emoter loudly and angrily complained, calling the toys annoying, while the first experimenter continued to demonstrate the use of the toys. Thereafter, the children could play with the toys. In one group, the emoter either left the room or turned around. The other group of children had to play with the toys in the presence of the angry emoter.

The children who were allowed to play with the toys without being viewed by the emoter were enthusiastic participants, eagerly grabbing the toys and playing with them. Children who had to play with the toys in the presence of the emoter, though, were more hesitant, even though the emoter maintained a neutral expression and did not further comment on the toys. When these children did finally reach for the toys, they were less likely to repeat the steps the experimenter had demonstrated to them.

Emotion and Development

The study’s authors note that a number of factors could influence the children’s reactions. For example, children from high-conflict households might be less affected by anger, and therefore more likely to play even in the presence of an angry “emoter.” Children’s individual temperaments can also affect the way they react in the face of adult anger. Researchers, though, argue that their study shows that very young toddlers have sophisticated emotion-detection skills, and that these skills enable them to adjust their behaviors based on the reactions of adult observers. 

Researchers also found a link between impulsive behavior and reactions to anger. Children who rated high on measures of impulsivity on the Early Childhood Behavior Questionnaire were more likely to ignore angry adults, suggesting that impulsive behavior begins early and might inhibit the ability to read emotional cues.

For adults and parents who find themselves frustrated by the challenging behavior of toddlers, this study serves as a powerful message. Adult anger can inhibit children’s behavior, and even very young children want to avoid the disapproval of adults, including adult strangers.


Toddlers regulate behavior to avoid making adults angry. (2014, October 7). Retrieved from

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  • Stacie

    October 21st, 2014 at 2:52 PM

    I find it interesting that the children from homes where there could be more explosive anger would be the ones who can ignore that anger in others, but I guess like anyone else even though they are probably absorbing all of that negativity they try to hide from it too by continuing with what they are doing and trying to avoid it.

  • jack thomas

    October 22nd, 2014 at 3:59 AM

    they are like little sponges
    they see and hear everything
    and then replicate what they see
    so they see kindness then this is what they will respond with
    they see anger, then guess what? this is how they will learn to respond too

  • SimonW.

    October 22nd, 2014 at 2:38 PM

    The children were probably hesitant to play in the presence of someone who acted so strongly emotional because I find that children respond much better to even keeled personalities than they do to those who are loud and more exuberat. I think that that kind of emotion, good or bad, can be frightening for most children, and to provide the best environmant for them one should stop being quite so tempermental and be a little more calm and reserved so as not to scare them.

  • Beck

    October 26th, 2014 at 10:32 AM

    Children shouldn’t have to feel that fear in life, but there are those certain people who could send out those cues that will cause them to shut down.

  • kimberley

    October 27th, 2014 at 3:55 AM

    No one likes that eprson who brings the emotion of the room down because it is like hanging a big dark cloud over the entire room.

    I know that as an adult I have a little bit of an easier time ignoring things like that but not all of the time, and I know that for children it would have to be especially difficult.

    They take everything big and small to ehart so ignoring is not generally an optiion for them. They learn through observation and doing, and if there is someone who makes that uncomfortable then that is going to be an unpleasant situation for them.

  • Colin

    October 29th, 2014 at 2:10 PM

    It is crazy sometimes just how much we are influenced by other people and this is evidenced as starting even younger than what one would have thought. I thought that this was something that was probably learned over time but it seems that even toddlers have this innate feeling about what others are and what to expect from them and they react to this in a very strong and convincing way.

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