Study Shows Babies Know When You're Angry and Want to Appease You

Research has found that babies don't easily forget seeing anger-prone behavior in adults, even if that behavior is directed at someone else.

scared confused baby
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The results of two separate 2016 studies may make you think twice the next time you are tempted to lose your temper in front of your baby. In fact, the studies confirmed that babies can tell if an adult is anger-prone, and they may even try to change their behavior to appease that person.

"Our research suggests that babies will do whatever they can to avoid being the target of anger. At this young of an age, they have already worked out a way to stay safe. It's a smart, adaptive response," explains lead author Betty Repacholi from the University of Washington's Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences (I-LABS).

What the Researchers Found

Here's what researchers observed after looking at hundreds of 15-month-olds in two separate experiments.

For the first study, the results of which were published in the journal Developmental Psychology, the aim was to expose babies to the anger of an unfamiliar adult someone they didn't already know—interacting with another adult, and see how the little ones reacted.

The setup was simple: The baby was held on their parent's lap, and across the table, an "Experimenter" played with a series of toys. Then an "Emoter" would react, either in a neutral way or would appear angry or aggravated.

When researchers allowed the baby to have a turn with a toy, they noticed something interesting. Babies were less likely to want to play with a toy the Emoter reacted negatively to; they were also less likely to imitate how they saw the toy being played with. But when the reaction was neutral, babies played with the toy like they were shown.

Even more fascinating: The Emoter engaged in a second round of playing with the same toy that previously angered them, but this time, acted in a neutral way. Still, the babies were turned off to those toys.

"It's as if the baby doesn't trust that the Emoter is now calm. Once babies have detected that someone's prone to anger, it's hard to dismiss. They're taking a better-safe-than-sorry approach, where they're not going to take a risk even though the situation has apparently changed," explained Repacholi.

The second study, which was published in the journal Infancy, built upon the first. This time the Experimenter produced very enticing toys for the babies, and they were allowed to play with them first. After a bit, the Emoter neutrally asked for a turn to play. Now here's where it got really interesting: 69% of babies who witnessed the angry Emoter turned over the toy. Meanwhile, just 46% of the babies who had only ever acted in a neutral manner in front of them shared with the Emoter.

What This Means for Parents

The study showed that babies are a bit more receptive than parents and caregivers may realize. And not only are they able to perceive strong emotions like anger, but they actually will change their own behaviors in an effort to make their caregiver happy after they witness that anger.

"I was so surprised to see the infants give the toys away—it was like they were appeasing or compromising with the adult," Repacholi said. "They didn't want to risk making the previously angry adult mad again. They didn't act this way with the other adult who had not shown anger."

The takeaway from these studies is that it's important for parents to be aware of how they act in front of their babies. As Repacholi puts it, "Our studies show that babies are very tuned into other people's anger. For parents, it's important to be mindful of how powerful that emotion is for babies."

So does that mean we need to be perfectly happy, content, and in control of our emotions at all times? Of course not! Parents are still humans, after all—and over-stressed, over-tired, over-strapped humans at that. Outbursts of anger and other emotions are perfectly normal and natural parts of life, and our children will undoubtedly see us display emotions in addition to experiencing them themselves.

So don't panic if you accidentally yell in front of your baby. If you lose your temper, do your best to get your emotions back under control. Let your baby see you using productive coping skills like taking deep breaths to calm down, and don't forget to apologize.

You could try something like, "I'm sorry for yelling. I felt very angry and I lost my temper, and I shouldn't have yelled." Naming your feelings and acknowledging your less-than-ideal behavior is a powerful parenting tool. Bonus points if you share with your child what you will do to avoid yelling next time ("Next time I feel angry, I will take three deep breaths to help calm my body.")

Offering lots of love and affection after a tough moment is also never a bad idea. Be sure to let your baby know that they are still safe and loved.

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