How Well Does Your Toddler Really Understand Emotions?

New findings explain when children start to comprehend more complex emotions, like pride. 

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If your toddler isn't showing much emotion—win or lose—when trying her hand at Candyland, a new study hints at a reason why: Many children don't seem to recognize more complex emotions, like pride, until the age of four. 

Preschoolers involved in the Brigham Young University study, published in the Journal of Experimental Child Psychologywere given one shot to beat "the world's fastest builder of block towers," though study authors had predetermined the winners and the losers. The winners—even two-year-olds—exhibited prideful body language, like puffed chests, hands on hips in a victorious pose, and heads held high. The moods of children who lost were unchanged. 

Following the building blocks exercise, the kids were asked to 
choose from a set of four pictures and select the one that best represented their feelings. Despite having shown prideful body language, children younger than four only recognized pride in other people. The five-year-olds, however, were able to pick out the picture that accurately represented their own feelings of pride, showing that they fully understand the emotion.

The key takeaway for parents is that children are ready to learn more about feelings beyond happy, sad, and afraid—pride, optimism, disappoint, and frustration, for example—at about four years old. 

"One thing I learned from this research is how important it is for us to develop clear standards and goals with children that are doable yet challenging," study co-author Darren Garcia, who is now pursuing a Ph.D. at the University of Tennessee, said in a statement. "When parents talk to their kids about emotions, those children demonstrate better emotional regulation as they get older," added BYU psychology professor and study mentor Ross Flom.​