Emotional development in under 5's

emotional development - tots to teens

The early years of a child’s life are incredibly important for their ongoing development. Often we focus on the physical and cognitive milestones a child reaches. However, a child’s development includes both physical and emotional stages. Here’s an outline of emotional development in under 5’s.

While we may realise the importance of a child’s emotional development, we often have little insight or understanding as to how their emotional being develops in their formative years. Young children’s ability to express, understand and regulate (manage) their emotions follows typical developmental sequences or pathways. Both biological and environmental factors influence that pathway. These factors can include, but are not limited to, the child’s temperament, culture, relationships with adults and their peers.

In her book The Emotional Development of Young Children, Marylou Hyson outlines a typical emotional developmental sequence, as well as signs to look out for if you are concerned.

birth to 3-months

A newborn will begin to look intently at faces, listen to voices and will become quiet when picked up (the majority of the time). A baby is learning who he feels comfortable with and how to express their familiarity with joy or contentment. Smiling, crying and cooing are all normal emotional expressions.

3- to 6-months

At this stage, infants will give warm smiles to those around them. This happens because they build a memory of the people around them and begin to understand they can vocalise how they feel around different people. A baby will cry to indicate they are upset and will seek comfort from one or two prominent people, i.e. mum or dad.

Hyson says it is not uncommon for an infant to favour one parent when they seek comfort. “It is normal for a 6-month-old to prefer one parent for joviality and play time and the other parent to soothe their distress. The child is learning they have needs and different people can meet different needs. They simply haven’t learnt yet that a person can fulfill more than one need at a time.” An infant will commonly display happiness through vigorous leg and arm waving and jerking.

6- to 9-months

At 6- to 9-months, a child will begin to play simple games and express a variety of emotions depending on the games’ outcome. For instance, they will play peek a boo and giggle gleefully when mum or dad suddenly appears.

Children of this age also begin to enjoy a familiar daily routine. Hyson explains that after 6 months of age, babies become much more aware of structure. “Where previously, due to the higher demand for sleep throughout the day, very young babies are more concerned with cuddles for comfort, children of this age will seek comfort in familiarity.” A child will become more unsettled if their routine is altered.

Around this time a child will also begin to experience separation anxiety and may become distressed if separated from a particular parent

9- to 12-months

From 9- to 12-months, children are able to be happy, angry and sad. They will show feelings by smiling, crying and pointing. Children will enjoy special relationships with parents and caregivers, will become infinitely more curious about their surroundings and will begin to imitate those around them.

A child may also find security in a particular beloved item such as a teddy or a blanket.

At this stage, a child begins to learn the concept of trust. This process begins by assuming that their needs will always be met.

signs for concern

In young babies and infants, you might become concerned if a baby frequently cries for prolonged periods of time, is difficult to comfort, resists being held, is failing to thrive, eats or sleeps too much or too little, rarely babbles, appears unresponsive to efforts to interact or engage, and rarely seeks or makes eye contact (even with parents).

12- to 18-months

Children will feel safe and secure in loving relationships, will be curious about meeting new people and will happily go exploring in new surroundings. Children at this age are incredibly bold and confident and are seemingly unaware of any potential for danger.

As speech develops considerably during this time, children are also beginning to use words to express emotion, as an extension of laughing for positive feelings and crying for negative feelings.

18- to 24-months

There does seem to be some truth to the notion of the ‘terrible twos’! Around this time, toddlers begin to fully grasp a range of negative emotions apart from merely feeling ‘sad’. They may express these emotions through resisting naps, refusing food and will begin to throw tantrums. They need comfort and reassurance from parents/carers and, rather than merely feeling ‘upset’ when a parent leaves, a toddler can begin to understand feeling afraid when they are apart from main caregivers and may cry when they leave.

A child will not understand the concept of sharing yet, but will begin to understand turn-taking games.

24- to 36-months

Play is the main activity of this stage and is important for the development of identity and confidence.

On the whole, a child should display a balance of happiness and contentment.

Children of this age are very self-centred and may feel responsible for everything that happens – both good and bad.

Commonly, children will have the ability to bargain but not to reason. It’s exceedingly frustrating as a parent, but Hyson explains that children first need to understand what they want and how to get it, before considering other people’s ideas and adding that to the equation. Fortunately, distraction techniques still work at this stage.

As physical and speech development takes place, children will become less frustrated and angry. It is, however, common to develop fears at this age including fear of the dark, moving objects and abandonment.

36-months to 5-years

Commonly, children of this age will enjoy jokes and silly games and will love showing off. They can demonstrate stubbornness, aggression, kicking, and blaming others for their naughtiness, especially other siblings.

A sense of past/future is developing and your child may compete with a parent of the same sex for attention of a parent of the opposite sex.

By age 5, children will understand the reciprocal nature of sharing. Sharing is still driven by personal gratification, such as “I will give him a go, because then he has to give me a turn.”

signs for concern

In toddlers and preschoolers, signs to look out for include:

  • A child not being apprehensive about strangers
  • Being excessively irritable or fearful
  • Failing to explore his or her environment
  • Lacking interest or curiosity about people or playthings
  • Inappropriate or limited ability to express feelings
  • Shows little preference for or excessive dependence on parents or caregivers
  • Often appearing sad and withdrawn
  • Excessive fears that do not respond to reassurance
  • Sudden aggression
  • Frequent night urination.

Young children learn through interest, curiosity and the desire to explore and discover, which enhances memory and comprehension. Similarly, feelings of joy and happiness are usually accompanied by confidence, energy and self-esteem.

The best way to foster healthy emotional development is to model healthy emotional relationships in the home environment. Play is an important learning tool for young children. When children play together, they create, imagine and problem-solve. In doing so, children learn co-operation and emotional management.

However, the goal is not to foster children with only sunny dispositions. Rather, Hyson explains that “healthy emotional development is about the child learning to acknowledge a range of emotions; both good and bad, learning that they have a choice in how to express and react to those emotions, and feeling secure enough in their environments to do so.”

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