Developmental and gender differences in the language for emotions across the adolescent years

Richard O'Kearney*, Mark Dadds

*Corresponding author for this work

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

    48 Citations (Scopus)


    Most information about the development of emotion language comes from studies of the early acquisition of terms for emotions. This study examined emotion language in 303 adolescents aged between 12 and 18 years. It used a theoretically derived classification model to describe and examine age-dependent changes and gender differences in the semantic, referential, and causal structure of their language for emotions in response to vignette material containing the prototypical condition for anger and fear. The semantic profiles of emotion terms produced emphasise the nonuniqueness of "theoretical" emotional conditions with blends and combination of emotion terms typical in the linguistic representation of emotions of these adolescents. The results demonstrate continuity in the development of adolescent emotion language with more differentiated, broader, and less semantically specific emotion referents being produced with older age. However, the results also show a shift with age in the representation of emotions toward a more externalised focus at the expense of a subjectivist/experiential focus. Boys showed a relative preference for expressive/behavioural referents while girls produced more inner directed and less semantically specified referents. However, girls' expected relative preference for referents with a cognitive focus Was not confirmed. Overall, the results indicate that the structure of emotion language in adolescents is age-dependent and sensitive to gender-related "display rules" for talking about emotions and their causes. The implications of the results for advancing the study of the language of emotions are discussed within the limitations and constraints imposed by studying experimentally elicited language.

    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)913-938
    Number of pages26
    JournalCognition and Emotion
    Issue number7
    Publication statusPublished - Nov 2004


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