Emotional development refers to a person’s improving ability to recognize, regulate, and express their feelings. This ability is largely affected by a child’s social interactions with parents, siblings, and others in their lives as they grow.
There are several frameworks for emotional development milestones. Two key frameworks are:
- Erikson’s Stages of Psychosocial Development
- Ainsworth and Bowlby’s Attachment Theory
According to both theories, children develop emotional skills in set stages. In each stage, the child works through a series of emotional challenges with the goal of becoming an emotionally stable and secure adult.
Below, we explore some common examples of emotional development for children in the first 5 years of their life, as extrapolated from these theories.
Emotional Development Examples
- Expression of needs (from birth): A baby expresses its need to eat by crying, thereby signaling the mother to offer nourishment.
- Social smiles (from birth): An infant displays the social smile whenever it sees its mother. Children also develop social referencing, the ability to use cues such as smiles to emotionally understand a situation.
- Sense of security when hugged (from birth): Emotional security when hugged, especially by main carers, is a feature of humans’ emotional needs from birth.
- Attachment to a single carer (7 to 10 months): Developing trust with main carers. According to Bowlby, from about 7 months of age, the child may express more emotional attachment to one carer than another.
- Pleasure through exploration (7 to 18 months): As babies grow, they develop pleasure from a sense of exploration and use of their senses.
- Self-soothing (7 to 18 months): It is common for older babies to regulate their emotions through thumb sucking or distracting themselves with objects.
- Base Touching (up to 18 months): Ainsworth identified base touching as a key emotional regulation skills, where babies feeling anxious will approach their caregiver to seek comfort.
- Temper tantrums (7 to 24 months): Toddlers develop more independence, but also enter a developmental stage where they struggle to manage their emotions. This leads to regular temper tantrums.
- Emerging ability to name feelings (7 to 24 months): Toddlers develop the ability to name feelings like happy, sad, and scared (see also: developing a theory of mind).
- Overcoming fear and overdependence (3 to 5 years): Before school age, Erikson believes children work on developing initiative, which includes the ability to play cooperatively, lead, and follow others. In this stage, key emotional challenges include overcoming fear and overdependence on adults.
- Declining egocentrism (5 years and up): Toddlers care only for their needs and points of view. They will slowly move out of egocentric thinking throughout their childhood and adolescence.
- Confidence and self-efficacy (5 years and up): From about age 5 onwards, children increasingly feel confidence. Erikson argues that children who don’t develop sufficient self-belief will develop a sense of inferiority.
- The emerging social self (6 years and up): Young people develop a sense of themselves as a social being who can form friendships and meaningful relationships.
- Development of resilience (6 years and up): Jenna sighs after trying for the third time to write the letter “g” correctly and tries again.
- Concealing emotions (6 years and up): Billy pretends to like his grandmother’s birthday gift even though he asked for something different.
- Adult Intimacy (16 years and up): According to Erikson, a key emotional challenge of young adults is whether they can form stable intimate relationships where jealousy and positive interdependence occur; or whether they cannot emotionally handle mature relationships and move into an adulthood characterized by isolation.
Theories of Emotional Development
1. Attachment Theory
Attachment theory was a theory developed first by Bowlby, then further developed by Mary Ainsworth.
It looks at children’s emotional development in the early years by exploring how they overcome their sense of attachment to their parents and replace it with self-efficacy, self-confidence, and the ability to regulate emotions independently.
According to Bowlby, there are four stages of attachment. Each stage reveals maturing emotional development of the child:
- Pre-attachment: Babies don’t show preferences for caregivers, but demonstrate complete reliance upon the caregivers for their wellbeing.
- Attachment in making: The baby and parent bond, leading to a sense of attachment between the baby and their parent.
- Clear-cut attachment: The parents and baby are seemingly inseparable with the baby feeling extremely strong attachment to its parents and very low levels of independence.
- Formation of reciprocal relationships: Separation anxiety lessens as the child starts developing relationships outside of the parent-child bond. Independence and self-efficacy are formed.
Mary Ainsworth builds upon Bowlby’s theory by looking at the ways babies and their parents handle separation. Briefly, Ainsworth argues that effective parenting can lead to stronger independence and self-confidence.
Ainsworth, for example, explores concepts like base touching, where a child with anxiety will return to its parent to ‘touch base’ for comfort, before heading back out to practice its independence some more.
2. Erikson’s Psychosocial Theory
Psychosocial theory is another key theory of children’s development that explores the development of emotional maturity.
Its founder, Erik Erikson, argues that people develop through a series of stages in life where they have fundamental crises to overcome.
Each crisis, if poorly handled, will lead to emotional baggage that they will carry through their lives.
Erikson’s stages include:
|Stage (And ages)||Conflict||Emotional development|
|Infancy (0 – 1 years)||Trust vs. mistrust||Infants need to learn to trust their parents.|
|Early Childhood (1 – 3 years)||Autonomy vs. shame & doubt||Infants need to develop autonomy. Without encouraging parents, they may develop shame and doubt.|
|Play Age (3 – 6 years)||Initiative vs. guilt||Children need to learn to play constructively. Too much control over a child may lead to a sustained sense of guilt for their failure.|
|School Age (6 – 12)||Industry vs. inferiority||Children should be encouraged to be productive during the school age. If they are belittled for their efforts, they may develop a sense of inferiority.|
|Adolescence (12 – 19)||Identity vs role confusion||Adolescents attempt to create a unique individual identity for themselves. If they are successful, they are comfortable in their skin. If not, they struggle with a weak sense of self throughout their lives.|
|Early Adulthood (20 – 25)||Intimacy vs isolation||If the individual is not successful in developing a secure intimate relationship, they feel a sense of isolation that follows them through their lives.|
|Adulthood (26 – 64)||Generativity vs stagnation||During adulthood, individuals focus on building things that outlast their own lives. Examples include raising children and building businesses. If adults are successful, they feel accomplished. If they fail, they feel useless.|
|Old Age (65 – death)||Ego identity vs despair||In old age, we look back on our lives and assess whether we have lived a valuable life of integrity. If so, we feel a sense of wisdom, while if we have lived a shallow life, we feel a sense of despair.|
Other Domains of Development
Developmental psychologists tend to examine development in four domains, which are interconnected and overlap:
- Physical development – This refers to a child’s ability to control their body and use it in increasingly complex ways.
- Social development – This refers to the ability to live in a social setting, communicate with others cooperatively, and be both independent and positively interdependent with your community.
- Cognitive development – This refers to development of the brain, and how thinking gets increasingly complex and analytical as we go through childhood and adolescence.
- Emotional development – As outlined in this article.
Emotional development refers to a sequence of stages that all children progress through. Infants begin life with a few basic emotions such as anger and fear, and during the next few years develop more complex emotions such as embarrassment and pride.
As children get older, one of the key goals for parents and teachers is to help children understand, regulate, and express their emotions appropriately. This means knowing how to identify specific emotions, understand the causes, and know when and how to express themselves based on the social situation.
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Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education.