Human beings have an extremely rich and complex emotional life that provides value to our experiences, motivation to our actions, and a dimension of communication beyond spoken words. We can suppose that the individuals are mature enough to experience complex emotions and able to recognise those emotions in others. This capacity of emotion, as with other aspects of human development, emerges as an immature quality in infancy, expands through childhood and adolescence, where it blossoms in adulthood, full of subtlety and abundance. Positive emotional development has important benefits for young children. Young children who are emotionally stable and healthy benefit from being more attentive to learning, feeling good about themselves, having more friends and being able to better control their behavior. These all relate to long-term happiness and success in life as children grow older.
Emotions play an important role in our daily lives. From a young age, children show the ability to feel and respond to a variety of emotions. For example:
â€¢ Even as early as 1 month of age, infants demonstrate emotions (distress, pleasure) that show understanding of what is happening around them.
â€¢ By 4 months, a baby naturally recognises differences in faces expressing happiness, anger or sadness, and will react to try to change the expression on a parent’s face to be happier.
â€¢ In the first two years of life, children learn to laugh not only at being pleased, but in response to their own behaviors (flapping their arms, etc.) that get an emotional reaction from others (delight from parents, other children).
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All of us, including young children, are “wired” to experience and express emotion. Emotional development relates to a child’s developing ability to recognise feelings, distinguish among them, manage emotions and be aware of and respond to the feelings of others. The development of such abilities through time results in a person’s degree of “emotional intelligence,” an important concept that suggests people can become competent in how they handle and express their own emotions and respond to others’ emotions.
Emotional development relates to how we recognise, understand and choose how we feel, think or act. It shapes our understanding of us and also our interactions with others, i.e. family, friends, groups, communities.
It often defines what we value, and how and what we learn, as well as what and how we prioritize things in our daily lives. Our feelings provide us with insight and energy, and are involved with almost every decision we make. Emotional development affects a child’s capacity to relate to others, interact and communicate, and also his or her ability to express feelings, such as love, anger and trust.
Developing abilities associated with emotions are important “life skills,” meaning abilities that help us relate well to others and succeed in life. Some of these important skills include:
â€¢ Being aware of your own feelings
â€¢ Monitoring your moods and regulating expressions of emotion
â€¢ Handling anger
â€¢ Using emotions positively to help reach our goals
â€¢ Sensing how others feel
â€¢ Using emotions positively in making decisions
â€¢ Monitoring others’ emotions to manage personal relationships
Key Aspects of Emotional Development
As with other aspects of a young child’s growth, children develop different abilities related to emotions as they mature and change. Understanding how young children develop an awareness of their own and others’ feelings, as well as the ability to manage such feelings, is important.
Young children have an enormous capacity for learning. The early years provide a valuable window of opportunity to help children learn about emotions and relationships with others. Caring adults are most important in aiding a young child’s emotional development. Some of the best ways to develop emotional intelligence in young children include modeling and creating awareness of their emotions.
Children begin to gain greater awareness of their feelings and how to express them in different ways during their early years. Some key points to remember with young children and different stages of emotional development include:
Prenatal to 3 Months
â€¢ Infants this age develop feelings of trust and attachment through being held or having someone talk to them and respond when they fuss or cry.
â€¢ New infants need to feel tenderness and security, see smiling faces and experience responsiveness and warmth as they begin to feel what their environment is like.
3 to 6 Months
â€¢ Infants this age are learning to read emotion and express it through observation and imitation.
â€¢ Infants this age need parents and other caregivers to be responsive and attentive to them, which teaches them their emotions affect the world around them.
â€¢ Infants this age seek stimulation and emotional reassurance and connection.
â€¢ Parents can assist emotional development by using expression when talking (“baby talk”), spending lots of “face-to-face” time with a baby (gives emotional interaction) and showing different facial expressions (gives a baby practice at reading emotions).
6 to 9 Months
â€¢ Infants this age are learning expression of feelings, such as sadness, fear, curiosity and happiness.
â€¢ Infants this age are learning to distinguish between people they know and those they do not know, and feel reassurance or anxiety related to those around them (“stranger anxiety,” etc.)
â€¢ Infants can have feelings about objects, such as fear (of a cat) or desire to play (with a toy), and express invitations or interest in playing with toys, objects or adults.
â€¢ Infants this age look to parents for emotional cues about how to handle objects, events or people (this “social referencing” is a sign of emotional security with parents).
â€¢ Learn that their emotional cues, such as the “social smile,” will get an emotional response from another person, so they learn to initiate emotional responses.
9 to 12 Months
â€¢ Children begin to understand they can share feelings, and others will understand them and know how they feel inside.
â€¢ Children become more attached to specific people (“mom”) and often become anxious when those people leave, crying or being upset.
â€¢ Reassure children when you leave the room or keep in visual contact if possible.
1 to 3 Years
â€¢ Children this age recognize their independence from others and express anger, control or other feelings about needing autonomy (desire to put on own clothes, etc.).
â€¢ Children this age become aware of other children and their feelings, but still are developing emotional skills for social interaction, such as sharing, etc. Adults need to have reasonable expectations for feelings about others (empathy, etc.), encourage and model sharing with others.
â€¢ Children feel the need to explore and find autonomy, and adults should understand the common use of “No” or behaviors that push boundaries as an expression of this feeling.
â€¢ Children this age can identify feelings that adults help them label, such as “sad,” “happy” or “scared.”
4 to 8 Years
â€¢ Children this age begin to understand and express fear of natural disasters, war, death or other concerns. Parents can assist in coping with such anxiety.
â€¢ Children this age are asked to control emotional responses as they enter school settings or other areas where behavior must be controlled. Practice of emotional responses in such situations and familiarity with the environment can be helpful to children this age.
â€¢ Children can brainstorm ways to overcome or handle particular emotions, such as fear or anger, with guidance from parents and caring adults.
â€¢ Children increase their ability to get along with others, but may need continuing help to manage hurt feelings or emotional upset with friends or peers.
In the very young age, assumptions regarding the state of emotional maturity are restricted due to the infant’s communicative ability. Newborn expressions consist mainly of distress and relaxed interest. They are driven by the desire to seek a balance between over-stimulation and under-stimulation and they learn very quickly that they can control their environment by influencing their caregivers. Ways that infants manipulate and regulate their environment are typically characterized by vocal and facial indices that are presumed to reflect emotions and the ways parents respond provides a history and basis for emotion control.
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At around two to seven months, infants are able to recognize different faces and display behaviors indicating discrimination toward primary caregivers and away from strangers. Attachments between the infant and the caregivers are formed through synchronized, “one-on-one” interactions, which are facilitated by the “social smile.”
Along with the emergence of this caregiver attachment, babies are now showing signs of stranger anxiety and separation anxiety. Thus the emotions associated with attachment lay the foundations for the establishment of mutual cooperation, and other social and cognitive competencies later in development.
At around 3 to 10 months, the emergence of playful, intentional, non-verbal communication is observable. Looking at each other, playing short games, taking rests become part of the infant’s social activity. By the end of the first year, infants are able to receive important information regarding their environment and behavior. This can be quite handy now that the child is becoming much more mobile. They are cruising at 9 months, standing at 12 months and walking without support at 13 months and by recognizing expressions on their mother’s face, they can more confidently indulge a curiosity or avoid a painful experience. These social referencing behaviors show that infants are able to recognize the emotional state of another person and know that the emotion is directed at a person, object or behavior. In addition, where experimental “failures” in social referencing are reported, this could be the result of the child’s ability to detect differences between authentic and role-played displays of expression thereby, indicating a truly remarkable sense of observation, discrimination and interpretation.
Humans naturally display indicators of embarrassment through blushing, anger through flushing, intense sadness through tears, fear through vocal tension, and surprise through pupil dilation. The ability to recognise when these emotions are present can be very helpful when dealing with other people. In the ages between 2 and 4, children become able to discern what caregivers want from them and modify behavior to meet expectations. Cognitively, they are moving away from centration and egocentrism, which gives them a greater ability to see things from another person’s perspective and also grasp more than one quality simultaneously. They begin to display a sense of humor and are now able to understand that one event, like a race, can cause one person to feel happy and another to feel sad at the same time.
Children enter life and immediately begin to express and experience emotions. As with other areas of development, learning the abilities associated with emotional development takes time and experience. Each domain of development has particular skills associated with it that children can learn and apply in practical ways. The primary skills associated with emotional intelligence include awareness of your own emotions, managing your emotions in positive ways, sensitivity to others’ emotions and empathy or reaching out to others emotionally. Developing and practicing these skills occur best when they are modeled in caring, meaningful ways in the home.
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