Emotional Development

Emotional Development

What is Emotional Development?

Emotional development refers to the ability to recognize, express, and manage feelings at different stages of life and to have empathy for the feelings of others.1 The development of these emotions, which include both positive and negative emotions, is largely affected by relationships with parents, siblings, and peers.2

Infants between the ages of six and ten weeks begin to show emotion with a social smile accompanied by actions and sounds that represent pleasure. The social smile develops in response to caregivers’ smiles and interactions. Around three to four months infants begin to laugh, which demonstrates that they can recognize incongruity in actions that deviate from the norm. Laughter fosters reciprocal interactions with others, which promotes social development. From six to twelve months infants can begin to express emotions, such as fear, disgust, anger, and sadness, which indicate to caregivers that they are experiencing discomfort or displeasure and need attention. Infants will respond to their emotions to the degree that their caregivers respond and then learn from their emotional facial cues.3

During a child’s second year, toddlers begin expressing shame, embarrassment, and pride, which are learned emotions based on their culture. As they acquire language and learn to verbalize their feelings, they can express their emotions of affection, distress, pain, and fatigue. The ability to recognize and label emotions and then to control emotional expression in ways that are consistent with cultural expectations is called emotion regulation. Children learn to self-regulate their emotions to be able to cope with difficult situations. Usually by age two, children also begin to acquire the complex emotional response of empathy by reading others’ emotional cues and understanding their perspectives.4

By the age of three, children begin to understand society’s rules regarding the appropriate expression of emotions. They are taught by caregivers that expressions of anger and aggression are to be controlled in the presence of adults, but they are less likely to suppress negative emotional behavior around their peers. This difference is the result of differing consequences of their behavior with adults or with peers.5

Children acquire the ability to alter their emotional expressions by around age four. They can display external expressions that do not match their internal feelings, such as thanking a gift giver when the gift is not really liked. This ability requires complex skills of understanding the need to alter their expression, realizing the perception of another, knowing that their expression does not need to match their actual feelings, and having the motivation and control to mask their true feelings convincingly.6

A wider variety of self-regulation skills is displayed by children ages seven to eleven. Factors that influence their emotion management decisions include the type of emotion experienced as well as the relationship, age, and gender of the person involved. Children develop a set of expectations of the outcomes they will receive from different people. Parents might handle some emotions better than peers, who might belittle or tease them.7

As school-age children deal with their emotions and the people involved with them, they develop social skills. Based on how they perceive they compare with their peers, they either develop confidence and are competent in useful skills or feel inferior and unsuccessful.8 Their self-esteem is influenced by how they feel others view them. If their performance does not match their personal aspirations, they are likely to feel inferior and inadequate. Conditions that threaten to expose their inadequacies can cause anxiety. If children believe in themselves and their abilities, they can have a stable, positive self-concept about themselves.9

During play, children increase their emotional maturity and social competence by interacting with other children. Play helps children practice their communication skills as they negotiate roles and appreciate others’ feelings. They learn to share, wait their turn, and handle conflicts while playing with others. Play also allows children to express and cope with their feelings through pretend play, which allows them to think out loud about their experiences and feelings.10

  • 1. Hearron, P. F. and V. Hildebrand. “Social-Emotional Development.” Education.com. < http://www.education.com/reference/article/social-emotional-development-2/ > 18 Nov. 2010.
  • 2. Frost, J. L., Wortham, S. C., and S. Reifel. “Characteristics of Social-Emotional Development.” Education.com. < http://www.education.com/reference/article/characteristics-social-emotional-development/ > 18 Nov. 2010.
  • 3. “Emotional Development.” faqs.org. < http://www.faqs.org/heatlh/topics/27/Emotional-development.html > 18 Nov. 2010.
  • 4. Ibid.
  • 5. Ibid.
  • 6. Ibid.
  • 7. Ibid.
  • 8. Frost, Joe L., Sue Wortham, Stuart Reifel. Play and Child Development. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 2001. p. 232.
  • 9. Gallahue, David L. and Frances Cleland Donnelly. Developmental Physical Education for All Children. 4th ed. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics. 2003. p. 122.
  • 10. Isenberg, J. P. and M. R. Jalongo. “What is Play Important? Social and Emotional Development, Physical Development, Creative Development.” Education.com. < http://www.education.com/reference/article/importance-play—social-emotional/ > 18 Nov. 2010.