Emotional Development in Children

Emotional development

Children begin life with very simple emotions, which become more complex over time. Developmental theorists differ in their opinions of exactly when children develop each stage, but the general order of development is:

Distress vs. contentment: From birth, newborn babies have two broad emotional states. They have moments of distress – hunger, pain, overstimulation – the sense that things are not right. When their needs are tended to, then they experience satisfaction, content that once again, all is right with their world. Our role as parents is to meet their needs in a calm, consistent manner. When they are in distress for no apparent reason, and are not able to calm down, our role is to be present, supporting them until they can settle.

Interest and joy: Around 6 weeks to 4 months, babies begin to show strong interest in things around them. The social smile appears at 6 weeks, and laughter in the coming months. As parents, we can notice what they are interested in, and help them to explore it.

Basic Emotions: These emerge somewhere between 3 and 7 months. It is also during this time that children begin to notice other people’s emotional expressions.

  • Anger – there is a shift from the newborn’s generalized distress to anger that needs aren’t being met instantaneously
  • Sadness – babies may be more likely to show anger than sadness
  • Surprise – as babies start to create mental rules about how things ‘usually’ work, then they also show surprise when things happen differently than expected (note, after the initial surprise reaction, they may be delighted, angry, or terrified of what has happened.)
  • Disgust – any parent who has started a child on solid foods has at some point seen this expression!
  • Fear – around 6 – 7 months, some children develop fear of strangers, or of new toys, noises, sudden movements, etc. Separation anxiety tends to hang on till around 14 months or so, then decline

The parent’s role is to be present and supportive, begin to label the emotions the child is feeling, and model a calm response to a situation, so when the child looks to you for cues, they see them.

Social referencing – Around 8 – 12 months, when encountering a new or confusing situation, a child looks to their caregiver for guidance. They use the parents’ facial or vocal cues to decide how to respond.

Individual identity: Around 18 months to 3 years, a child becomes aware of himself as an individual, separate from the parent of caregiver.

Self-aware emotions: These emotions arise after they see themselves as individuals, around 18 – 36 months. These emotions either build or diminish their sense of self.

  • Pride
  • Envy
  • Shame – the sense that they are a bad person, or incompetent, inadequate.
  • Guilt – the sense that they have done something wrong or behaved badly. (Note that this is more about the behavior than about their self-worth.)
  • Empathy – this takes quite a while to develop, as it requires them to not only see themselves as separate from others, but also understand that other people could have a different view of a situation or a different feeling about it than they have.

A child learns about when they should feel these emotions from the adults around her. If caregivers cheer and applaud an accomplishment, the child learns that it is a thing to be proud of. If the caregiver scolds behavior, the child learns to feel guilty when they do that behavior. (Note: this may not be enough to stop him from doing it! Young children lack impulse control.) If a caregiver tells a child she is bad and should be ashamed of herself, she will be. Try to talk instead about what behavior you hope to see from your child in the future, and express confidence that they will be able to do that some day.

Understanding the causes of emotions. Around 2 – 3 years old, they start to understand what kind of situations typically make people happy. Around 4 years old, they start to understand what situations make people scared or angry (i.e. when I do this, mom usually gets mad), start to predict what people will do based on emotions, and recognize cues about how another person is feeling. (They can label a smile as happy earlier on, and can label an angry or sad face by late preschool.) Talking about emotions and reading books which include emotional expressions can help to build emotional literacy.

Learn rules of emotional display, learn coping skills and self-regulation: From age 4 through adolescence, children sort through the rules of how and when it is appropriate to express emotions. They learn to identify an emotion as it is coming on, and use self-calming skills to manage it. They learn the ability to talk about emotions rather than having to express them physically.

For parents of toddlers, it can seem like those coping skills and ability to self-regulate are a long ways away. We know they’re coming, but in the meantime need to survive days filled with emotional melt-downs and tantrums. In other posts this week, I’ll address ways to manage the melt-downs, and also look at emotion coaching and emotional intelligence.

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