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The Stages of Emotional Development in Early Childhood

Here is an overview of emotional development in the early years and the phases that children progress through during the first five years.

What is Emotional Development in Early Childhood?

Kids experience many of the same emotions as their parents. These can be confusing, and they often do not know how to talk about their feelings.

Children sometimes act in inappropriate ways because they have not developed an understanding of those emotions or how to express them in the correct ways.

Because of the close connection with social growth, you often see ‘emotional development’ referred to as ‘social-emotional.’

This area of human development includes how children feel about and act towards the people and situations in their lives.

Picture of a brain as a heart - emotional development

The ‘development’ aspect entails children gradually learning to deal with, discuss, and control emotions, such as fear, jealousy, anger, and sadness.

They also learn to experience and react to feelings of love, happiness, and excitement in a controlled manner.

Although you can find commonalities among children at certain stages and ages, they develop at different rates and are certainly not all alike.

Emotional Development Stages By Age

What are the stages of emotional development and how can we recognize them?

Developmental psychologist Erik Erikson (1902-1994) believed that the human development socialization process occurred in eight stages.

Three of those proposed stages, in which children gain trust, autonomy, and initiative take place during early childhood.

You can find various arrangements suggested by professionals regarding how to separate the early childhood stages of development.

They often boil down to the following three stages of emotional development in childhood, with these typical skills or milestones to achieve:

1. Infancy to Age 1

During stage 1, facial expressions of infants show happiness, fear, and anger. Babies learn to react with smiles to positive input, such as voices, touch, and even smells.

Mother embracing infant

Adults can usually soothe infants with touch, voices and smells. Many babies discover self-soothing techniques like sucking their thumbs.

At least by the half-year mark, children typically know appropriate ways to express happiness, fear, or anger. They learn these skills through responses and feedback modelled by their parents or other caregivers.

Erik Erikson maintained that children whose parents nurture them correctly during this stage develop trust, security and hope.

How Can Parents Support Growth?

  • Offer physical comfort and affection
  • Hold while feeding babies
  • Talk, read, and sing to children from infancy
  • Respond positively in words and tone
  • Exhibit consistency and predictability in responses
  • Acknowledge emotions
  • Offer names for child’s feelings
  • Set fair limits firmly and calmly
  • Establish daily routines

2. Toddlerhood (Ages 1-2)

In stage 2, toddlers often point to things as a way of interacting with others and use interactive gestures like waving goodbye.

They commonly take part in interactive play, such as peek-a-boo.

Father playing with toddler

During this stage, toddlers typically begin to learn empathy, such as feeling upset if another child cries.

They also take part in pretend play, like stirring “food” in a play cooking pot, and they engage in parallel play next to other children.

Many call this stage the ‘terrible twos.’ Most toddlers have strong emotions but have not yet learned how to fully express those in acceptable ways. They rely on caring adults to help them with the words they need.

Toddlers also look to adults to serve as models of how to stay calm.

In Erikson’s Stages of Development, this phase could last until around age 3. He wrote that children with supportive parents usually have confidence, will, self-control, and pride.

How Can Parents Support Growth?

  • Encourage curiosity and independence
  • Stay calm and offer comfort after outbursts
  • Address anger as a valid emotion
  • Maintain consistency in allowed activities
  • Talk to your children and use names for their feelings
  • Offer praise and encouragement
  • Model empathy for others
  • Encourage social games and taking turns
  • Model effective communication with others

3. Preschooler (Ages 3-5)

During stage 3, emotional development in preschool kids includes learning to control emotions and impulses to fitting with socially acceptable reactions.

They often attempt to test limits and rely on their parents and caregivers for guidance.

Mother and two children lying on grass together

Preschoolers also practise controlling their aggression toward others. They usually gain cooperative play skills, such as taking turns and sharing.

Erikson called this phase the ‘play age,’ and it lasts throughout preschool until children enter formal school.

According to him, the goals in this stage include using imagination, cooperating with others, and serving effectively as both leaders and followers.

How Can Parents Support Growth?

  • Help children develop trust in other caring adults
  • Give children your full attention when they talk
  • Offer opportunities to play with others
  • Keep interactions positive and express your own feelings verbally
  • Encourage initiative
  • Discuss the feelings of others
  • Offer praise and encouragement
  • Give positive feedback when they express feelings appropriately
  • Encourage playing with others, taking turns, and sharing
  • Try some fun feelings activities with your preschoolers

Examples of Emotional Development

These are a few emotional development examples:

  • Showing affection for others
  • Expressing awareness of their own feelings and those of others
  • Displaying self-control and management of emotions
  • Paying attention to and being observant of others
  • Forming healthy friendships
  • Expressing feelings through words
  • Exhibiting pride in accomplishments
  • Asking for help if needed but showing independence when possible
  • Exhibiting a positive self-image
  • Learning from mistakes
  • Building healthy relationships with adults

What if My Child Struggles Emotionally?

You may have a growing sense that your child is struggling in certain areas of emotional development. Keep in mind that the timeline for reaching emotional development benchmarks is not set in stone.

But if you have not seen progress in skills for some time or if you suspect some regression, what can you do?

If your child is not yet in school, you can ask your doctor for a developmental specialist referral. For children under about age three, you could also check for a local early intervention program to pursue an evaluation.

Try your local school district if your child is older than three. Various types of evaluations and assessments may be used, depending on age and the area(s) of concern.

Typical goals of services include the growth of positive social-emotional skills and acquisition of communication skills and knowledge, along with the integration of developing skills.

Parents spending time with preschooler

What are the Options?

Depending on your child’s age, the following kinds of occupational therapy interventions may be possibilities:

  • Touch-based interventions to coach parents for increased parent-child bonding
  • Relationship-based interventions to enhance caregiver-child interactions
  • Joint attention interventions, often with one child and one adult
  • Naturalistic preschool interventions for child-to-child engagement
  • Instruction-based interventions to directly teach social behaviours

Possible avenues for assistance can include the following:

  • Family resource centres
  • Libraries
  • Parenting education programs
  • Mental health counseling

As parents, you have daily opportunities to help your child develop to their full potential. Many of these support strategies may come naturally to you.

For those aspects that seem more challenging, just look back at the handy information on this site. That way, you can be sure you are meeting their emotional needs and giving your children all the assistance they require!


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