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The Stages of Emotional Development in Early Childhood (0 to 6 Years)

A child’s development of physical and cognitive skills is important during the early formative years, but so too is their social-emotional development, which will lay the foundation for their emotional health and social relationships going forward.

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

What is Emotional Development in Early Childhood?

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

The ‘development’ aspect entails gradually learning to deal with, discuss, control and express 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.

Young children 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 feelings in healthy ways.

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

Picture of a brain as a heart puzzle

Examples of Emotional Skills

These are just a few emotional development examples, but there are many more. Together, they contribute to a person’s overall emotional competence.

Self Confidence

  • Exhibiting a positive self-image and sense of self-worth
  • Exhibiting pride in accomplishments
  • Asking for help if needed but showing independence when possible

Self-Awareness

  • Learning from mistakes
  • Developing a sense of self
  • Being able to identify own emotions 

The Ability to Express Emotions

  • The ability to express feelings in a healthy way
  • Communicating feelings through words (part of language development)
  • Displaying socially-acceptable, appropriate behaviours
  • Displaying self-control and regulation of strong emotions

Social Interaction and Positive Relationships

  • Building healthy relationships with family members
  • Forming healthy friendships
  • Resolving conflicts in positive ways
  • Listening to others
  • Engaging in prosocial behaviours – taking turns, cooperating, sharing, etc.
  • Developing social competence in a group setting

Kindness and Empathy

  • Showing affection for others
  • Paying attention to and being observant of others
  • Understanding others’ emotions
  • Being able to step into someone else’s shoes

According to berkeleywellbeing.com, emotional skills can also include positive thinking, resilience, gratitude, personal growth and more.

The healthy development of social and emotional intelligence is a complex process that spans years and is individual to each child, as outlined in the next section.

The Three Stages of Emotional Development

What are the stages of emotional development in younger children 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.

While these phases have been categorized in different ways by professionals, they often boil down to the following three stages of emotional development in childhood, along with these typical skills or milestones. [source]

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.

By around 6 months of age, 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 the child’s feelings.
  • Set fair limits firmly and calmly.
  • Establish daily routines.

2. Toddlerhood (Ages 1 and 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 the drums 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, which often results in temper tantrums. 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 to 5)

During stage 3, emotional learning in the preschool years includes developing the ability to control emotions and impulses and displaying socially appropriate behaviours.

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 feelings are expressed appropriately.
  • Encourage playing with others, taking turns and sharing.
  • Do some feelings activities together.

Parents play an important role in their children’s development.

Emotional Milestones by Age

Here are some typical social and emotional development milestones, as explained by Martie Pieterse in her fantastic book “Language and School Readiness.

Emotional Milestones for Babies

By Three Months

  • Starts smiling between 4 and 8 weeks
  • Likes main carers
  • Prefers not to be alone
  • Gurgles back to you when you talk to them

By Four Months

  • Recognizes familiar people and shows excitement when they see them
  • Gets bored when alone
  • Laughs out loud

Five to Six Months

  • Likes the mirror but isn’t able to recognize their reflection yet
  • Smiles more at those they have formed a bond with
  • Likes friendly voices
  • Strokes or pulls the hair of someone holding them 

Seven to Twelve Months 

  • Likes certain people 
  • Wants to be with main carer all the time
  • Gets upset when left alone
  • Is afraid of strange people or places
  • Becomes quite clingy by 10 months

Twelve to Eighteen Months

  • Likes making people laugh
  • Shows happiness or frustration
  • Likes other children but can’t yet play with them
  • Shows some jealousy
  • Imitates others by 18 months

Emotional Milestones for 2-Year-Olds

  • Likes playing with others but can’t share toys yet
  • Tries to get attention through behaviour
  • Sometimes hits or bites to get a reaction
  • Exerts will, sometimes with a tantrum
  • Transitions from a baby to a child

Emotional Milestones for 3-Year-Olds

  • Is egocentric and sees things from their own perspective
  • Talks about self, family and possessions
  • Waits for you to finish talking before they do
  • Responds to your emotions
  • Wants to comfort you
  • Does small tasks at home, such as sorting the laundry or setting the table
  • Is possessive over toys
  • Shows empathy with the story characters
  • Pretends to be someone else
  • May have an imaginary friend
  • Prefers playing with certain friends over others

Emotional Milestones for 4-Year-Olds

  • Distinguishes between self and other people
  • Sees fantasy and reality as very close to each other
  • Behaviour is often for attention
  • Becomes competitive
  • Has basic social skills and is able to greet, talk and answer questions – if this behaviour was modelled

Emotional Milestones for 5 and 6-Year-Olds

  • Friendships become more stable
  • Is often bossy
  • Tries to consider others’ suggestions while playing
  • Learns the value of compromise and negotiation
  • Seeks approval of friends
  • Competes with friends
  • May boast about parents’ possessions
  • Still learning about consequences and accepting responsibility for actions

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

If your child is not yet in school, you can ask your doctor for a developmental specialist referral. For children under about the age of 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 the acquisition of communication skills and knowledge, along with the integration of developing skills.

Parents spending time with preschooler

Options for Therapies and Interventions

According to this article on interventions, 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 counselling

As parents, you have daily opportunities to help your children 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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Nanise

Friday 28th of June 2024

very simple, understandable and helpful indeed.

Tanja McIlroy

Monday 1st of July 2024

Thank you, Nanise!

GUL

Monday 12th of February 2024

it's very interesting and brief.

Tuesday 26th of December 2023

Nice to see this addressed. Thank you!

adip,

Monday 10th of October 2022

nice advice it will be fruitful. thanks.#

Kelly Benjaminh

Thursday 7th of July 2022

Good one it has helped

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