Children’s emotional development: A mini-guide for parents
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Emotional development begins early in life. The ability to regulate one’s own emotions and manage successful interactions with other people is key for later academic performance, mental health, and social relationships. Childlike feelings develop through learning and experiencing in daily interaction. Unfortunately, a child has yet to learn how to deal with these feelings.
From birth, children rapidly develop their abilities to experience and express different emotions and their capacity to cope with and manage a variety of feelings. The development of these capabilities occurs at the same time as a wide range of highly visible skills in mobility (motor control), thinking (cognition), and communication (language).
Yet, emotional development often receives relatively less recognition as a core emerging capacity in early childhood. Yet, the foundations of social competence developed in the first five years are linked to emotional well-being and affect a child’s later ability to adapt to school and form successful relationships throughout life functionally.
As a person develops into adulthood, these same social skills are essential for forming lasting friendships and intimate relationships, effective parenting, holding a job, working well with others, and becoming a contributing member of a community.
Disregarding this critical aspect of the developing child can lead parents and policymakers to underestimate its importance and ignore the foundation that emotions establish for later growth and development. Thus, young children’s feelings must get the same level of attention as their thinking. Indeed, learning to manage emotions is more difficult for some children than learning to count or read and may, in some cases, be an early warning sign of future psychological problems. The failure to address difficulties in this equally important domain can result in missed opportunities for interventions. Had they been initiated early, these interventions could have yielded tremendous benefits for many children and society.
What Science Tells Us
The core features of emotional development include the ability to identify and understand one’s feelings, accurately read and comprehend emotional states in others, manage strong emotions and their expression constructively, regulate one’s behaviour, develop empathy for others, and develop empathy for others to establish and sustain relationships.
Emotional development is built into the architecture of young children’s brains in response to their individual personal experiences and the influences of the environments in which they live. Indeed, emotion is a biologically based aspect of human functioning that is “wired” into multiple regions of the central nervous system that have a long history in the evolution of our species.
These growing interconnections among brain circuits support the emergence of increasingly mature emotional behaviour, particularly in the preschool years. Stated simply, as young children develop, their early emotional experiences become embedded in the architecture of their brains. Here is what we know:
The emotional experiences of newborns and young infants occur most commonly during periods of interaction with a caregiver (such as feeding, comforting, and holding). Infants display distress and cry when they are hungry, cold, wet, or in other ways uncomfortable, and they experience positive emotions when they are fed, soothed, and held. During this early period, children are incapable of modulating the expression of overwhelming feelings. They have limited ability to control their emotions in the service of focusing or sustaining attention. Associations between positive emotions and the availability of sensitive and responsive caregiving are strengthened during infancy in both behaviour and brain architecture.
The emotional states of toddlers and preschoolers are much more complex. They depend on their emerging capacities to interpret their own experiences and understand what others are doing and thinking and interpret the nuances of how others respond to them. As they (and their brains) build on established foundations, they mature and acquire a better understanding of a range of emotions. They also become more capable of managing their feelings, which is one of the most challenging tasks of early childhood.
By the end of the preschool years, children who have acquired a strong emotional foundation have the capacity to anticipate, talk about, and use their awareness of their own and others’ feelings to manage everyday social interactions better.2,11 Their emotional repertoires have expanded dramatically and now include such feelings as pride, shame, guilt, and embarrassment — all of which influence how individuals function as contributing members of society. In addition, throughout the early childhood years, children develop increasing capacities to use language to communicate how they feel and can interpret and imitate his caregivers’ primary emotions recognise too can and brain areas gain help without “melting down” as well as to inhibit the expression of inappropriate emotions for a particular setting.
When feelings are not well managed, thinking can be impaired. Recent scientific advances have shown how the interrelated development of emotion and cognition relies on the emergence, maturation, and interconnection of complex neural circuits in multiple areas of the brain, including the prefrontal cortex, limbic cortex, basal forebrain, amygdala, hypothalamus, and brainstem. The circuits involved in the regulation of emotion are highly interactive with those associated with “executive functions” (such as planning, judgment, and decision-making), which are intimately involved in developing problem-solving skills during the preschool years. Thus, in terms of basic brain functioning, emotions support executive functions when they are well regulated but interfere with attention and decision-making when they are poorly controlled.
We now know that differences in early childhood temperament ranging from being extremely outgoing and adventurous to being painfully shy and easily upset by anything new or unusual are grounded in one’s biological makeup. These variations lead to alternative behavioural pathways for young children as they develop individual strategies to control their emotions during the preschool years and beyond. They also present diverse challenges for parents and other adults who must respond differently to different children. When it comes to finding the “best” approach for raising young children, scientists tell us that one size does not fit all.39 Young children are capable of surprisingly deep and intense feelings of sadness (including depression), grief, anxiety, and anger (which can result in unmanageable aggression), in addition to the heights of joy and happiness for which they are better known.
For some children, the preschool years mark the beginning of enduring emotional difficulties and mental health problems that may become more severe than earlier generations of parents and clinicians ever suspected. Moreover, the emotional health of young children — or the absence of it — is closely tied to the social and emotional characteristics of the environments in which they live, including their parents and the broader context of their families and communities.
Young children who grow up in homes troubled by parental mental health problems, substance abuse, or family violence face significant threats to their emotional development. The experience of chronic, extreme, and/or uncontrollable maltreatment has been documented as producing measurable changes in the immature brain.
Basic emotional skills
In contrast to learning to walk, for example, emotional development continues throughout childhood in a specific age range. However, children develop and expand the essential basic emotional skills as early as school age. This includes the skills
- To be aware of one’s feelings,
- Expressing feelings through facial expressions and language,
- Deal with feelings and be able to regulate them independently,
- Recognize and understand other emotional expressions.
The first year of life
Already in the first months of life, your baby’s sensations and ability to express feelings – joy, anger, sadness, and even the first sensations of fear- can visibly be shown. By the end of the first year of life, your child will be able to recognize what someone is reacting angrily or happily too. And when it feels safe and secure, it may know how to “calm down” itself at one or the other uncomfortable moment.
In addition, the baby is able to interpret and imitate the primary emotions of his caregivers, for example by responding to a smile with a smile. It can be “infected” by other people’s feelings without being aware of them or feeling accordingly (global empathy).
As far as emotion regulation strategies are concerned, an infant is still dependent on the first line of comfort and needs satisfaction from his caregiver (external emotion regulation).
Give your child the opportunity to make choices – this helps them to feel in control. Simple questions like “would you like your red shorts or your blue shorts?” help prevent a battle over getting dressed in the morning.
Keep it simple – your little one will struggle if given too much choice. Stick to two or three things that are achievable for both of you.
Routines and boundaries help your child to feel safe and secure because they know how their day will be. You may find they don’t want to do what you ask, but stick to your guns! Stay calm and kind. Your growing toddler needs to know that you’re in control. They learn from you, so try doing the same things at the same time as much as you can.
Once you have your routines in place, it’s okay to be flexible. Holidays are a break for everybody, but you can return to your routine once things are back to normal.
Too many rules will be hard to manage for you and your child – pick what is essential to your family.
Young children have lots of energy. They love to go outside and keep active – visit the park or walk in the woods. Opportunities to meet with other children mean that they learn from each other.
Quiet times with family are important too. Reading and sharing quiet times helps your child know that they are essential to you. This helps them build their self-esteem and attention span, giving them a head start when they begin school.
The second year of life
In the second year of life, a child’s vocabulary expands and their ability to express emotions. It can name primary feelings and also recognise them in other people (“the man laughs”, “baby is crying”). The toddler has first experiences with social rules with regard to desired and undesired methods of emotion regulation, for example, they are taught that they must not hit or kick when they are angry.
In addition, in the second year of life, the child begins to empathise with other people. At the same time, however, it mixes one’s own and other people’s feelings.
Your two-year-old seems to be growing up fast. They will sometimes struggle with this as there are still many things they can’t manage by themselves. They can have very strong feelings about what they will and won’t do, which can be hard for you to understand at times. Help your child develop skills to manage tasks they would like to do by providing play opportunities to practice these.
Activities could include:
- Pouring in water play
- Practising using zips, poppers and buttons
- Cutting, pressing and rolling with playdough
- Building with blocks, lego and other similar toys
Developing these skills can support your child’s emotions by helping them to feel less frustrated, building confidence and boosting their self-esteem.
The third year of life
From the age of three, a child can distinguish between emotional experiences and emotional expression. This enables them to manipulate their facial expressions to provoke specific reactions in others. In addition, his vocabulary is expanding and therefore, he is better able to express and explain his feelings. However, it is precisely in this phase (“age of defiance”) that a lot of help is required to deal with one’s emotions.
By three years old, children often move into a period of new skills and understanding. This helps build strong relationships with those around them. Your child will still need to know that they can return to you as their safe place and enjoy playing with other children rather than just alongside them. You can support their developing relationships by providing chances to play with other children and practice how to manage different situations safely.
You can do this by having role-play activities available such as:
- Tea set and play food (you could use pots and pans from the kitchen for this)
- Doctor’s set
- Doll’s, pushchairs and baby changing equipment (you could use nappies and old baby clothes for this)
- Various dressing up clothes (children love dressing up in your old clothes!)
These do not need to be expensive toys, but imaginative play with household objects will work. Children love using packaging and cardboard boxes as cars or aeroplanes two-year-old, for example! The important thing is for your child to spend time with others around their age. This gives children the chance to ‘act out’ situations and to practice how to manage when things don’t go reasonably as they had expected, with your support as needed. They will also learn these skills by copying people around them.
The fourth and fifth year of life
Kindergarten children have many new experiences with regard to their feelings and those of others, which they often experience as contradicting and confusing. It can now explain its feelings well and also reflect them better and better. By the age of four or five, many children develop strategies to deal with negative feelings. They distract themselves, avoid conflicts, etc. Nevertheless, even at this age, they often need help in consolation and constructive suggestions for resolving disputes.
The ability to empathise is already well developed in kindergarten children and helps them to make friends. You can now distinguish between your feelings and those of others.
Between the ages of four and five, your little one is preparing for school. You can help your child feel ready by encouraging them to learn skills like getting dressed, putting shoes on, brushing their teeth and eating meals at a table.
This can be a tricky time as your child may refuse your help as they want to do things by themselves! They are building a sense of independence, and it may be helpful to try to plan times when you can support your child to practice these skills without feeling under pressure.
- Help your child practice getting dressed for school by making it into a game. If you can have their clothes ready in advance, they can role-play and practice any tricky zips or buttons before starting school.
- Ensure that your child is confident with sitting at the table to eat their meals and using a knife and fork.
These skills will help them feel prepared and confident that they will be able to manage at school. They will also support your child’s developing emotional health by building confidence and self-esteem, reducing any anxieties they may have.
The sixth and seventh year of life
School children have a complex expression of emotions and know-how and when they can express emotions. Suppose they were properly encouraged and had appropriate role models. In that case, primary school children can make and maintain solid friendships, empathise with others, make compromises, accept negative feelings and deal with them constructively and flexibly adapt and control their expressions of feelings.
This gives them the most important skills that make up emotional competence.
Tears of disappointment
In their years of growing up, feelings become more diverse and differentiated. Your child would now like to do more and more things on their own and every day collects new important experiences – even sad ones because everything does not always work out the way your child would like. Many a loud protest and tears of disappointment are inevitable here. But even if you find it difficult to see your child like this: Dealing with disappointments and not letting them get you down is one of the most important learning experiences.
Closely linked to intellectual and social development, further sensations gradually develop from the end of the second year of life: pride, shame, guilt, envy, embarrassment, pity.
Defiant phases - in the roller coaster of emotions
Towards the end of the second year of life, your child increasingly sees himself as an independent person.
- It is torn between the desire for independence and a still great need for protection.
- They would like to do a lot themselves, but always experience limits – their own and those set by you.
- At the same time, it becomes more and more aware of what it is doing. He can increasingly imagine the result and goal of his actions and is perhaps all the more disappointed and desperate when it fails or is denied.
Especially in the third year of life, violent outbursts of emotions can occur, in which your child expresses his feelings uninhibited and sometimes even very spirited and loud because your toddler is largely at the mercy of these sometimes extreme emotional fluctuations between security and insecurity, independence and dependency, success and failure.
Encounter these periods of defiance and defiant reactions as relaxed, calm and consistent as possible, as difficult as it is often. Don’t get into an argument or power struggle with your child, it can increase their defiance and anger. Instead, try to calm them down, maybe distract them, and, when they’re old enough, convince them.
Learning to deal with feelings
How your child can deal with these often violent and conflicting feelings can only be learned with support. It needs guidance. This includes the experience that there are limits to the way they express their feelings. This is the case, for example, where other people are injured or insulted, and objects are destroyed.
For you, as a parent, it is not easy to always show the necessary calmness when your child has strong emotional outbursts. But often, it is the only thing that helps in an acute situation.
But with all the progress that your child makes – it will repeatedly reach its limits and experience disappointments that can unleash a real storm of despair and anger even in a four-year-old child. And even if your child is already in school, he seeks and needs your consolation and encouragement if his feelings are out of whack.
First steps in emotional development
Emotional learning begins in the first moments of life and continues throughout childhood. The most apparent steps in emotional development take place in the first six years of life and include the following skill areas, which develop parallel to one another and influence one another:
- Expression of emotions (non-verbal and verbal),
- Knowledge of emotions (especially knowledge of triggers for certain emotions in oneself and others),
- Emotion regulation (internal and external strategies in dealing with emotions).
Suppose one looks at the development of the expression of emotions. In that case, the non-verbal expression of basic emotions such as joy, sadness, anger and fear can first be observed in development. At the same time, in the first two years of life, the child learns to recognise emotional and emotion-relevant expressions of the caregiver (e.g. the encouraging voice of the mother) and react to them (e.g. with a smile). Furthermore, in situations in which the child is on his own, he learns regulation strategies and behaviours right from the start. He can calm himself down in stressful situations (e.g. by sucking his thumb or the cuddly toy’s help).
Linguistic expressions of feeling develop from the age of two and expand the child’s repertoire of emotional communication and the child’s learning and interaction opportunities. Talking about feelings becomes more critical with age, although non-verbal expression does not lose its importance in understanding emotions. Using emotional experience in words, the child develops so-called “emotional schemata, i.e. a steadily growing repertoire of “general knowledge” about typical triggers of specific emotions, which can use in new situations. In this way, the child acquires the ability to anticipate emotional situations and reactions in themselves and others and act accordingly (e.g. avoid unpleasant emotional situations).
Developing emotional and social skills
The child increasingly learns complex emotions in preschool age, such as Knowing pride, shame, guilt or envy – self-related and social emotions, which require certain cognitive-developmental steps and a differentiated understanding of emotions. The development becomes clear in the following step model.
- ” I am proud that it is my birthday today” – children between the ages of 4 and 5 know about the emotion pride that this represents a pleasant emotion. Therefore, use the term synonymously with joy, happiness or enthusiasm.
- “I am proud of myself when my mom says that I paint beautifully” – At the age of around 7, children are proud when they have been praised. The presence or immediate response of adults is critical.
- “I am proud that I can do math” – children from the age of 8 usually give their reasons why they are proud of themselves. By internalising the parental feedback, for example, the child gradually develops its benchmark for its actions and thus the ability to independently assess its performance.
As soon as children recognise which feelings are triggered in themselves in which situations, they gradually develop an understanding of the emotions of others. Prerequisites for the development of empathy, i.e. the ability to perceive an emotional situation and to experience feelings on behalf of the person concerned, are above all cognitive factors, such as the knowledge that the observable expression of emotions and the actual emotional experience in social Contexts do not always have to match.
How Parents Can Support Their Children Throughout the Emotional Development
Feelings are the key to having a child.
If we want to find out what is happening here and – at least as interestingly – how we can do something about it, we have to ask ourselves what the situation looks like from the child’s point of view, more precisely, how the child is feeling right now because feelings are the reason why people do or don’t do something.
In the example described above, the case seems clear: “The child is bored!” And yes, you are right, the kid is bored. In addition, one can also state that the child does not want to annoy or annoy the parents. We are not dealing with premeditation or malice, but with a feeling of the child that is uncomfortable for himself and that he is often not yet able to classify properly.
So it tries to get rid of this unpleasant feeling, which it is more or less aware of depending on age – by asking, “When will we be there soon?” That works for a moment because there is a short ‘conversation’ with mom or dad, which only interrupts the boredom for a tiny moment.
We saw at the beginning how things would continue. Result: Parents and children are at the end of their nerves, the mood is below zero, and both ‘parties’ wonder whether the other side is also nice and easy to care for … But it can also be done differently and more pleasantly for both sides still development-promoting for the child:
Reflect children’s feelings
Just tell the child how you feel in him, what you believe or how he is feeling right now. So in our example: “You are bored.” but maybe also: “You are already very excited, you are really happy.” or “You are worried that ”, “You fear that.
That sounds strange at first, but it helps the child to sort and process their feelings. After all, children do not come into the world knowing what feelings there are and how they feel.
Incidentally, this is also why small children often have “stomach aches”, regardless of where it hurts and how they feel in detail. You must first learn that the grumbling in your stomach is excitement, and your chest pressure is fear. In many cases, this is enough to process a feeling: we accept the feeling as it is, and it dissolves.
So you don’t always need a solid solution or action. Incidentally, no one can always shake a suitable solution up his sleeve. So parents shouldn’t put themselves under pressure.
Secure attachment for optimal emotional development
“Does my child even understand it when I talk to him like that?” You might ask yourself now. Well, it has been found that when mothers of infants (!) Could adequately address their baby’s emotional states, e.g. B. “Oh, does your tummy hurt?” “Yes, you are happy, my darling, bunny (or what kind of animal you prefer …)”, then a secure bond could be predicted. A secure bond is something like basic trust and an essential protective factor for mental health. Although it is proven that the babies do not yet understand literally what the mother is saying, it positively affects the child.
From the beginning, children have all kinds of feelings. By ‘mirroring’ the child’s feelings, we help the child perceive their feelings, distinguish them, put them into words, and process them.
In doing so, we also lay the foundation for the child to learn to control their emotions when it makes sense—for example, not getting tantrums all the time when something doesn’t go as planned.
Children’s Emotional Development Is Built into the Architecture of Their Brains
Emotional development begins early in life. The ability to regulate one’s own emotions and manage successful interactions with other people is key for later academic performance, mental health, and social relationships. We also encourage you to read this working paper from the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child discusses how a child’s capacity to regulate emotions develops in a complex interaction with their environment and ongoing mental, physical, and social development. It also discusses the implications of this research for policies affecting young children, their caregivers, and service providers.