Early childhood is a vital period in the development of every human being. Many researchers in psychology devote their studies to the exploration of the characteristic features of a child’s psychological state and emotional well-being during this period. According to Zen’kovskii (2013), “the general sense and the general features of this period, so important in a child’s mental maturation; we know that the child in this time lives predominantly by its emotions; it lives in a world half created by its imagination” (p. 51).
The external factors may have both positive and negative effects on children’s emotional development. And it is important to understand what exactly may create barriers to a child’s healthy emotional development at this stage, because the early childhood emotional development problems may interfere with the effective social performance of individuals in the later life periods, and may as well contribute to the psychological distress and disorders occurrence.
The purpose of this paper is the evaluation of interrelations between the emotional developmental problems in early childhood and their impacts on psychological well-being in adolescence and adulthood. The analysis of this topic is of significant value for the psychological practice as the comprehension of multiple dimensions of childhood emotional problems and its impact of later developmental periods allows early intervention and improvement of an individual’s performance in many aspects of life.
The paper will be primarily focused on the negative external factors such as emotional abuse, maltreatment, stress, or traumas. According to studies in the field of psychology, childhood emotional distress increases the probability of psychological disorders development (i.e. anxiety and depression), behavioral and emotional disruptions occurrence, and it interferes with the establishment of the emotional closeness throughout life (Fonzo et al., 2016; Marusak, Martin, Etkin, & Thomason, 2015; Savla et al., 2013). The in-depth understanding of external influences on the childhood emotional state may help the psychology practitioners to identify and address the problems at the early stage of their development and, in this way, help the patients to improve their social functioning.
The psychological disorders and the problems with emotional expression are common public health issues burdening human life (Fonzo et al., 2016, p. 1037). These problems usually proceed gradually but have significant harmful effects on individuals. Many studies are focusing on the identification of factors influencing the development of multiple psychological disorders; however, the majority of the researchers attempted to investigate the issue from the perspective of the brain dysfunctions.
Nowadays, the investigation of the etiology of disorders emergence is of great interest in science, and the analysis of external influences allows the scholars to detect the neurological mechanisms that lead to developmental delays and problems (Fonzo et al., 2016, p. 1037). In this way, the analysis of the risk factors and their interactions with the brain at the developmental stage of early childhood, the effects of these interactions on the formation of behavior, and the consequent manifestation of psychological pathology is important.
One of the most influencing of the potential risk factors identified in the recent research studies is the childhood emotional abuse and maltreatment (Fonzo et al., 2016; Shapero et al., 2014). The researchers regard the emotional maltreatment as “a prevalent and damaging form of early life stress broadly defined as the intentional or unintentional commission of acts (e.g. verbal abuse, taunting, belittling) or withholding of emotional resources (e.g. emotional neglect, unavailability, or dismissiveness) by caregivers that adversely influence the emotional health, growth, or adaptation of the child” (Fonzo et al., 2016, p. 1038).
The emotional maltreatment of a child may not be regarded as the only possible reason for disorders, and especially the severe ones, but it is observed that the patients with the anxieties or emotional problems and the maltreated individuals are associated with the similar alterations in the neurologic mechanisms of processing the emotional stimuli, especially those which are perceived as the negative and threatening, such as anger and fear (Zen’kovskii, 2013, p. 58).
In early childhood, an individual learns to identify the facial and physical expressions of emotions. The adoption of this skill is essential to a child’s capability of reading and understanding the non-verbal signs, predict the emotional state of others, and respond to it effectively in distinct forms of social interactions. In a positive environment, a child adopts the advantage of timely identification and avoidance of the psychologically threatening interactions with the adults.
However, when the external environment is associated with the constant anticipation of threats to emotional and psychological well-being (i.e. the excess level of criticism, verbal abuse, etc.), the child’s sensitivity towards the facial and other non-verbal emotional signals increases, and the continuous experience of the threatening situations may lead to the development of the “maladaptive” sensitivity (Fonzo et al., 2016, p. 1038).
According to the findings of a meta-analysis conducted by Sabatinelli and colleagues (2011), the individual’s perception of the emotional facial expressions is associated with the response of such brain areas as “extrastriate occipital and inferotemporal cortex, superior parietal visual areas, the amygdala, insula, anterior cingulate, superior frontal gyrus, and medial prefrontal cortex” (p. 2526). The emotional maltreatment is related to the lower level of the structural neurologic integrity and the involvement of the medial prefrontal cortex in emotional recognition and encoding (Fonzo et al., 2016). Since the patients with psychological diseases, such as depression and anxiety, demonstrate the similar alterations in the response to the negative emotional stimuli, it is considered that childhood emotional maltreatment contributes to the development of the propensity to the further development of these disorders (Fonzo et al., 2016, p. 1038).
In their study conduction, the researchers evaluated the sample consisted of the adult population of both genders with different stress and anxiety disorders; the main procedure that is used to assess emotions and emotion recognition mechanisms is the Emotion Face Assessment Task (Fonzo et al., 2016, p. 1040). In this task, the participants match the emotions of anger, fear, and happiness to the demonstrated images of faces. And the neurologic information about the brain response was received through scanning the participants with a scanner such as 3 T GE Signa EXCITE (Fonzo et al., 2016, p. 1040). Moreover, several studies included such data collection tools as surveys, and self-reports (Salva et al., 2013; Shapero et al., 2014).
Although the analyzed literature provides substantial evidence of the relationships between the neurologic mechanisms of emotional recognition development and its consequent enduring influence on the individual’s psychological state across the lifespan, the nature of these mechanisms remains underresearched. First of all, the longitudinal evaluation of individuals is needed. It is important to track the psychological changes from childhood to adulthood, but the realization of this approach to analysis is associated with excess time and financial costs. Nowadays, the investigation of the cross-sectional samples is the most appropriate variant for the research. For example, it is possible to evaluate the neurologic characteristics of the adult population with psycho-emotional conditions and compare them to the childhood emotional maltreatment cases.
According to Erickson’s Attachment Theory, the mode of early interactions between a child and the caregivers has a significant and enduring impact on the individual’s engagement in the close relationships in adulthood (Stack, 1972). During the first years of life, the children are very sensitive to the emotional attitudes of parents. It is observed that in a friendly and kind atmosphere of parental care, the child usually becomes capable of developing a cheerful and active personality (Zen’kovskii, 2013). In this case, the child’s emotional expressions are characterized by fullness, diversity, and depth. On the contrary, the frequent prohibitions, and the emotional poorness of parent-child communication lead to a child’s insularity and surliness.
Throughout the process of learning the emotional differentiation, the senses of trust and sympathy start forming in a child. Trust is one of the core elements in Erickson’s Attachment Theory, and it is related to the individual’s perception of the world as a source of his/her needs fulfillment while mistrust is associated with the anticipation of threat and discomfort (Stack, 1972, p. 4). Trust is the basis for the formation of close relationships; it appears as a response to the feelings expressed by others.
At the stage of early development, an infant begins to trust the parents who care for him/her and show love. In return, the child’s sympathy and trust are expressed through physical movements and facial expressions, the aspiration for communication and interactions, etc. The psychologists consider that child’s sense of empathy and trust are shaped through imitation (Zen’kovskii, 2013). Therefore, the role of the external environment including the psychological state of the caregivers and the fashion of parent-child communication in the child’s psycho-emotional development shouldn’t be underestimated.
According to Salva and colleagues (2013), “childhood maltreatment and adverse events occurring early in life can have a profound influence on the quality of relationships with family and others over the life course” (p. 388). In adulthood, individuals with a history of emotional abuse during childhood usually have social and psychological problems, and they experience difficulties in the establishment of interpersonal relationships and emotional regulation.
This assertion is following the claims of the attachment theorists who consider that the child’s avoidance and abuse from the parental side contribute to the development of the “insecure attachment style” that create the vulnerable and negative self-perceptions and mistrust to others (Salva et al., 2013, p. 388). The negative views may be regarded as barriers to the establishment of relationships that imply trust or intimacy. Nevertheless, the researchers believe that individuals are active participants in their development and actively adapt and respond to challenges by accumulating psychosocial resources” (Salva et al., 2013, p. 388). Therefore, an individual may achieve improvement in self-acceptance and self-realization that will facilitate sound psychological functioning.
The findings of multiple research studies demonstrate that there is a direct influence of childhood emotional maltreatment on the psychological and emotional state of individuals in adolescence and adulthood. The interrelations with parents are regarded as the main factor affecting the emotional development of a child.
The positive communication style helps to develop the trustful and emotionally sound parent-child relationships that may be considered a basis for the individual’s ability to be engaged in close interpersonal communication in the later stages of development. The adverse experiences in childhood invoke the formation of the negative self-perceptions and inability to recognize the emotional expressions in others. The further investigation of childhood emotional impairments and delays, as well as the factors provoking their occurrence, thus will help to design effective interventions for patients and improve their social performance.
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