Emotional development through the ages

The first step in regulating is recognizing and naming the emotions. ‘When I feel like this in this part of my body I can name it this.’ The next step would be when I have a name for the feeling and I recognise it in my body then I have to learn what to do with that feeling in a socially appropriate way. And that continues over the next 50 years.

Teresa Odle writes:

“Emotional development is the emergence of a child's experience, expression, understanding, and regulation of emotions from birth through late adolescence. It also comprises how growth and changes in these processes concerning emotions occur. Emotional development does not occur in isolation; neural, cognitive, and behavioral development interact with emotional development and social and cultural influences, and context also play a role. Various emotional development theories are proposed, but there is general agreement on age-related milestones in emotional development.

Debate continues as to exactly when emotions appear in infants. For example, smiles occur early, but the earliest ones are more likely reflexive than social. A smile may express emotion as early as 6 weeks of age but it is not until about age 6 months that a smile can be considered more emotional and social in nature. Crying is a powerful emotion for infants and may be used as a communication tool. Distress, pleasure, anger, fear, and interest are among the earliest emotions that infants express. Laughter begins at about 3 to 4 months of age. Eliciting laughter in babies at this age often involves an action that deviates from the norm, such as peek-a-boo games provoke. Development of negative emotions probably follows soon after, with anger still winning over sadness to express negative feelings. Fear begins to emerge, and infants often follow the emotions of their caregivers and form strong attachment to them.

By toddlerhood and early childhood, children begin to develop more of a sense of self. Emotions such as pride, shame, and self-recognition begin to emerge.

These developments are facilitated partly by the rapid maturation of a toddler's frontal lobes and limbic circuit in the brain. These emotional developments lead to the strong sense of independence and defiance that often characterize the toddler years. Of course, toddlers also are becoming more independent physically, having developed skills such as walking. They may begin to play independently too. The self-recognition brings new levels of emotional development. For example, toddlers will begin to respond to negative signals from caregivers and others. It is at the toddler stage, or at least by age 2, that children also begin showing empathy, which is a complex emotional response to a situation. Feeling empathy requires that a child not only read emotional clues from others but understand the distinction between self and others. Actually putting one's self in the other's position also is required for empathy.

Emotional expression is still largely nonverbal, although some emotional language may develop by age 20 months. For the most part, facial expressions, crying or other vocal expressions, and gestures still express many of toddlers' emotions. In early childhood, verbal skills develop and with them, verbal reasoning.

Children also are able to talk about their feelings as they learn how to express themselves verbally. As young children enter preschool, they may be able to label their emotions and learn about them by understanding family discussions and actions concerning emotions. For example, a child may be able to say, “I am mad,” or “I am sad,” instead of simply expressing the emotion through actions such as crying, stomping, or yelling. This is not to say that tantrums do not occur; between toddlerhood and school age, children still express anger in the form of tantrums. Because emotions have become important to young children, they talk about them often in conversation.

Preschoolers begin to understand the rules of family, school, and society concerning how they express some of their emotions. They also can recognize nonverbal cues of emotion from one another. Preschoolers begin to distinguish between negative emotions such as sadness, anger, and fear. Although these young children have empathy, their knowledge of others' feelings generally is limited to people and situations with which they are familiar. Development of this emotional capacity also depends on positive, culturally acceptable emotional exchanges with peers.

Negative emotional influences of family life that are common and harsh, particularly in the child's discipline model, can lead to problems with emotional development and even psychopathology.


As children enter school, they gain a greater sense of self and an understanding of how specific situations can lead them to experience emotions. Children may experience shame, even in reaction to emotions expressed. They also can begin to understand how an event can lead to mixed emotions. Research has shown that by about age 6, children may appreciate that people can experience one emotion, then a completely different emotion immediately after the first. The understanding of simultaneous and even conflicting emotions soon follows.

As children move into later childhood, they learn the “rules” of displaying emotion, which is a form of social and emotional development. For example, if children have been taught to do so, they may, out of politeness or respect, be able to avoid showing disappointment in a gift or the failure of an adult to fulfill a promise.

School-aged children begin developing emotional coping skills, even if those skills are at very basic levels. For example, children may rationalize situations and behaviors or reconstruct scenarios to make them seem less upsetting emotionally.

The ability to suppress negative emotions is a factor of normal development, as well as other influences, such as gender, the specific situation, cultural influences, and the person likely to receive the expressed emotion.

In adolescence emotions still are developing. In face, the adolescent years often are considered an emotional period of development. Although adolescents begin to develop independence from their parents and begin to display social signs of independence by gaining employment, driving, and other activities, their emotional autonomy is represented by conflict and often negative emotions.

One reason for the negative emotions may be cognitive development of abstract thinking abilities. Because adolescents can imagine all sorts of complex and theoretical scenarios for romance or in response to other relationships, they may suffer resulting emotional distress.

In turn, social problems become more complex, and adolescents look to their peers to help provide a basis for how to manage the emotions they feel.

Family issues and struggles over becoming independent, with curfews, academic pressure, and romantic and other peer interactions, all place a great deal of pressure on adolescent emotions.

Strong self-perceptions from earlier childhood may give way to self-doubt or feelings of worthlessness. As adolescents realize that their emotions are separate from their parents' emotions, a process called “emotional autonomy” begins. Adolescents may feel pulled between the close emotional ties they have with their parents and a need to develop independent emotional responses.


A major part of emotional development in children and adolescents is how children recognize, label, and control the expression of their emotions in ways that generally are consistent with cultural expectations. This is called emotional regulation. In short, development of an emotion is dependent on regulation.

The exact definition and models of emotional regulation have been debated. But what is apparent in the study of child and adolescent development and the development of positive instructional strategies is the complex interaction of emotional regulation and development of emotions.

Self-regulation of emotions includes recognition and delineation of emotions. Once a child can articulate an emotion, the articulation already has a somewhat regulatory effect.

By about age 4, children begin to learn how to alter how they express emotions to suit what they feel others expect them to express. The ability to do so is what psychologists call emotional display rules.

By about age 7 to 11 years, children are better able to regulate their emotions and to use a variety of self-regulation skills. They have likely developed expectations concerning the outcome that expressing a particular emotion to others might produce and have developed a menu of behavioral skills to control how they express their emotions.

By adolescence, they adapt these skills to specific social relationships. For example, older children may express negative emotions more often to their mothers than to their fathers because they assume their fathers will react negatively to displays of emotion. Adolescents also have heightened sensitivity to how others evaluate them. Their self-consciousness and the culture-specific nature of guidelines concerning the appropriateness of emotional expression make this a particularly difficult time to learn when and how to express or regulate many emotions.


The interplay of emotional development, social development, and academic performance is complex. C. Cybele Raver's 2002 research has established a strong link between social/emotional development and behavior and school success, particularly in the first few years of schooling. If a child's academic tasks are interrupted by problems with peers, following directions, or controlling negative emotions, the child will have trouble learning to read or staying on task in other educational activities. Research also has linked antisocial behavior with decreased academic performance.

Emotional understanding can positively relate to adaptive social behavior, yet it can negatively relate to internalizing behavior. This may lead to feelings of anxiety, depression, and loneliness. Knowledge of emotion can affect verbal ability, and in turn, academic competence. Verbal and pro-social skills are critical to academic achievement. For example, a child must be able to communicate with his or her teacher, which includes reading emotional cues. Children who do not learn to regulate emotions and who display disruptive behavior in school spend less time on tasks and receive less instruction and less positive feedback.”
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