Early Childhood Education

Development, Emotional


The development of emotion begins at birth and continues across the lifespan. Emotions, and their expressions in face, voice, and gesture, organize and shape human behavior. Most theories of emotion agree that emotions involve a complex process of interaction between cognitive processes in the brain, physiological changes (such as changes in heart rate, body temperature, and endocrine systems), and the environment. Emotions help us to (a) orient, or pay attention; (b) appraise, or assess the situation; and (c) prepare to act. In the fields of psychology, child development and education, emotional development is often defined in conjunction with social development because the two are interrelated. Emotional development is inherently social in that it occurs within a relational context of young children and the people in their environments.


Development of Emotional Expression

Humans are born with the capacity to experience and express emotions from birth. In fact, emotions can be called the “language of infancy” as, even before they have spoken language, infants can experience emotions and communicate them through their facial expressions, cries and other vocal signals, as well as gestures and behaviors. Over the first year of life, babies experience and express a set of emotions which sometimes are referred to as “primary” or “basic” emotions, including fear, anger, disgust, and surprise. These emotions are evident in cultures throughout the world. Newborns, for example, show expressions of interest (by widening the eyes and intently looking) and disgust (by wrinkling the nose, sticking out the tongue, and turning away). By seven months infants display all six primary emotions: interest, joy, fear, sadness, anger and disgust. Infant facial expressions of emotion are comparable to the emotional expressions displayed by adults. Researchers have shown that both caretakers and random observers are able to reliably identify emotional expressions in infants as young as one month. This shows that infant emotion expressions have meaning to adults, and attributions they make about infant emotional states influence their behavior toward them.

Toward the end of the second year, infants begin to display other emotions that are sometimes called “social,” “secondary,” or “self-conscious” emotions. These emotions, which include embarrassment, envy, empathy, pride, shame, and guilt, are thought to develop as the child becomes more self-aware and cognizant of social conventions and rules. A young child, for example, cannot experience embarrassment until she is aware that her behavior is socially inappropriate. These “self-conscious” emotions do not become stable until the child is older and able to internalize rules and social expectations.

For young children to abide by societal norms of behavior and accomplish their goals, they must first learn how to regulate their emotions. Emotion regulation involves awareness of emotional states and the ability to modify emotional behaviors, sometimes inhibiting or changing the expression of emotions. The caregiver-child relationship is typically the primary context in which children learn to recognize, evaluate, and regulate emotions.


Emotion Regulation

How caregivers respond to an infant’s need for emotional or regulatory support plays a role in shaping an infant’s emotional and social development. Initially, young infants depend on their caregivers to help regulate or manage their emotional states, for example to swaddle them or pick them up to help them stop crying. Caregivers who are able to read infant cues and sensitively assist infants in regulating their affect help infants learn adaptive ways of regulating their own emotions. Over time, and through many interactions with caregivers, infants learn which of their communication and coping strategies work best and when and how to use them. When children are better able to self-regulate, they can more easily engage with the world around them; they are able to explore their environments and to learn. They become better able to establish and express a more varied and integrated range of emotions.

Of course, not all caregiver-child interactions are positive and seamless; in fact the very process of repairing normal, everyday negative interactions is crucial to the development of successful emotion regulation. However, children are sensitive to others’ emotions, and when young children live in environments in which they consistently and repeatedly experience negative interactions with caregivers their emotional development can be put at risk. In cases where a mother is suffering from serious depression, for example, the mother’s ability to respond to her child may be diminished by her symptoms, expressed in withdrawal from interaction, or hostile, intrusive kinds of behavior. A depressed caregiver’s inability to scaffold and respond in a sensitive manner may result in repeated interactive failures that culminate in negative affect. Over time, a child may begin to see her attempts to engage with others as fruitless and eventually lose the motivation to engage with those around her. As well, in environments of chronic stress or situations of abuse and neglect, young children can develop a lowered sensitivity to stress and fear and maladaptive coping methods and interactional styles that can lead to future social and emotional difficulties.


Emotional Attachments

One of the primary goals of infancy is to establish and maintain relationships with attachment figures. Secure attachment, a strong emotional bond between two people, characterized by trust or confidence that the attachment figure will help in times of stress, is thought to be established through readily available, sensitive, and responsive caregiving. Predictable and sensitive caregiving environments increase the infant’s opportunities for positive social interactions and experiences. A secure attachment with a primary caregiver provides a foundation for positive emotional development. Children with secure attachments are more effectively able to regulate negative affect.

The development of attachment depends on the “emotional availability” of the caregiver and the infant. The construct of emotional availability, which relates to the positive and negative emotional expression and responsiveness of both caregiver and child, is considered central to healthy socioemotional development.



Emotion regulation involves the child’s temperament, the constitutional predispositions of each individual that influence emotional development. Temperament refers to a child’s susceptibility to emotional stimuli, how reactive he is to events, and the strength and speed of his response. For example, a two-year-old child may be easily angered by being blocked from a goal, might quickly respond with yelling and kicking, and might be difficult to console. Another child, faced with the same situation, might take longer to get upset, show only mild anger (e.g., fussing), and would more easily and quickly regulate the negative affect. While temperament is thought to be part of our physiological makeup (in part, genetic), the ways in which a child’s temperament is expressed can be modified by the environment. The “goodness of fit” (or degree of match) between a child’s temperament and the caregiving environment is important. For example, a temperamentally shy child may be challenged by a parent who expects and encourages loud, boisterous behavior and easy interaction with strangers. Similarly, an active, uninhibited child may not adapt as well to a highly structured center-based daycare setting where each child must follow a strict schedule.


Understanding Others’ Emotions

The ability to recognize and understand emotions is critical for positive social development. Infants as young as six and seven months are able to decipher emotional expressions such as sad expressions from happy ones, but it is not until later in the first year that infants are able to use this information in a meaningful way. One way in which young children begin to take advantage of emotional information is through “social referencing.”

Social referencing is the utilization of the emotional responses and expressions of others to gain a better understanding of an environment or an event. An infant, for example, may check a caregiver’s emotional expression before approaching a novel toy or person. If a caregiver shows, through his or her emotions (voice, face, and gesture), that an event or object is “okay” or “forbidden,” a child will use these cues to guide her behavior (by approaching or avoiding the object). Young children initially rely on the emotional expressions of caregivers to evaluate a situation, but as children get older their use of social referencing extends to others.

Social referencing is one example of the ways in which emotions and their expressions become socialized during childhood. Caregivers show that emotions are acknowledged, accepted, or rejected through their behavior. They may provide emotion labels for children’s behavior “you’re acting sad,” or encourage children to change their emotion states and behavior “come on, let’s see a happy smile” or “even when you’re mad, it’s not okay to hit.” Caregivers may encourage children to change the way they express an emotion or they may fail to acknowledge certain emotion states by not talking about them.

During the toddler and preschool years, young children come to recognize that others’ emotional states are not necessarily the same as their own. Sometimes they work to change others’ emotion states. For example, young children can feel empathy for someone in distress, and share that emotion. Emotions can be a guide to action, and young children who realize that emotion states can be changed might, in this example, bring a “blankie” to another upset child in an attempt to alter the emotion state.

During the preschool years, young children become increasingly sophisticated in their ability to interpret and verbalize their emotions and the emotions of others. The ability to recognize and interpret emotions in self and others, to understand them, and to regulate one’s own emotions, is sometimes referred to as “emotional intelligence.” These abilities are highly correlated with positive peer interactions and social competency in childhood. See also Development, Social.

Further Readings: Crockenberg, Susan C., and Esther Leerkes (2000). Infant social and emotional development in family context. In Handbook of infant mental health. Burlington, Vermont: University of Vermont, pp. 60-90; Izard, Carroll E. and Carol Z. Malatesta (1987). Perspectives on emotional development. In Differential emotions theory of early emotional development. New York: Wiley, pp. 494-554; Sroufe, Alan (1996). Emotional development: The organization of emotional life in the early years. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press; Thompson, Ross A., M. Ann Easterbrooks, and Laura M. Padilla-Walker (2003). Social and emotional development in infancy. In Richard M. Lerner and M. Ann Easterbrooks, eds. Handbook of psychology: developmental psychology. New York: Wiley, pp. 91-112.

Joan Riley Driscoll and M. Ann Easterbrooks