A child holds an umbrella, and has red boots.

Psychological Bulletin: Gender differences in emotion expression in children: A meta-analytic review.

This meta analysis is a remarkable survey of research regarding gender differences in emotional expression in children. The research it surveys, and the framework, appear to be entrenched in the gender binary: the article mentions boys or girls nearly 400 times. There is not a single mention of gender non-binary, nonconforming, gender play, or gender exploration. However, important sections of the paper employ the idea that children work to conform to gender roles and experience pressure to do so. Gender, like emotion, is culturally shaped and there are display rules.

There are also fascinating questions about how the original research, spanning 30 years, coded faces, behaviour, and vocalizations for emotional expression. The paradox here, for me, is that observations will be filtered through our embedded gender expectations and lenses, so “calibrating” is a kind of chicken and egg problem. It’s akin to trying to compare the temperature of lakes in different countries, but with entirely different sets of instruments, that have entirely different physical mechanisms and metrics, and never quite getting a chance to calibrate the instruments against a shared standard. Nonetheless, the amount of research papers and data (166 papers and over 20,000 participants) is impressive and the results, like all early science, are helpfully considered.

The results are complicated, and there’s considerable nuance.

Not surprisingly, the context of emotional expression matters a good deal. Whether the emotions are positive or negative is a big factor. The authors also suggest that in order to deeply understand emotional expression by gender, we probably need more emotion-specific modelling, and more research, and especially more longitudinal research; some researchers are referenced, like Brown 1999, as suggesting that children, and gender roles, are changing. So that’s all reassuring.

Interestingly, the difference in expression is generally dampened by the presence of parents, and amplified around unfamiliar adults. And, perhaps most importantly, the overall difference in emotional expression is small; significant, but small. I’ve include the abstract and an excerpt below.

Chaplin, T. M., & Aldao, A. (2013). Gender differences in emotion expression in children: A meta-analytic review. Psychological Bulletin, 139(4), 735-765. DOI

“Girls showed greater positive emotion expressions than boys and this gender difference became increasingly evident as the age of the research participants increased into adolescence and in situations with an unfamiliar adult and in which there was social pressure to mask negative emotions by appearing cheery. Girls also expressed more internalizing emotions (such as sadness, fear, sympathy, and shame) than boys, particularly in negative situations and when with an unfamiliar adult. Girls’ patterns of emotion expression may contribute to their greater prosociality than boys. However, this pattern could also confer risk that increases girls’ likelihood of developing symptoms of depression and anxiety. Boys, in contrast, showed greater externalizing emotion expressions, particularly anger expressions, in the toddler/preschool and middle childhood periods, in negative situations, and when with peers or alone, which could contribute to boys’ greater risk for conduct problems. Unexpectedly, by adolescence, girls expressed more externalizing emotions than boys, an interesting shift in emotion expression patterns. Overall, our findings underscore the importance of examining contextual factors influencing gender differences in emotion expressions across child and adolescent development. We hope that future work incorporates this framework into the delineation of gender-related patterns of emotion expressions and their implications for gender differences in healthy development and the development of psychopathology.

Summary excerpt

Abstract

Emotion expression is an important feature of healthy child development that has been found to show gender differences. However, there has been no empirical review of the literature on gender and facial, vocal, and behavioral expressions of different types of emotions in children. The present study constitutes a comprehensive meta-analytic review of gender differences and moderators of differences in emotion expression from infancy through adolescence. We analyzed 555 effect sizes from 166 studies with a total of 21,709 participants. Significant but very small gender differences were found overall, with girls showing more positive emotions (g = –.08) and internalizing emotions (e.g., sadness, anxiety, sympathy; g = –.10) than boys, and boys showing more externalizing emotions (e.g., anger; g = .09) than girls. Notably, gender differences were moderated by age, interpersonal context, and task valence, underscoring the importance of contextual factors in gender differences. Gender differences in positive emotions were more pronounced with increasing age, with girls showing more positive emotions than boys in middle childhood (g = –.20) and adolescence (g = –.28). Boys showed more externalizing emotions than girls at toddler/preschool age (g = .17) and middle childhood (g = .13) and fewer externalizing emotions than girls in adolescence (g = –.27). Gender differences were less pronounced with parents and were more pronounced with unfamiliar adults (for positive emotions) and with peers/when alone (for externalizing emotions). Our findings of gender differences in emotion expression in specific contexts have important implications for gender differences in children’s healthy and maladaptive development. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2016 APA, all rights reserved)


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