emotional development in children

Emotional Development in Children

emotional development in children

Emotions are the feelings we have within us. They may be pleasant or unpleasant, good or bad. It is quite easy for a child to describe a physical condition (for example, if he has a pain or is uncomfortable), but it is much more difficult for him to describe how he is feeling emotionally, and why.

Here are examples of some emotions, listed as positive or negative; but some of them may be both, depending on the circumstances in which we experience them. Emotional states can be very complex, and we can all have mixed up feelings.

Positive emotions

  • contentment
  • curiosity
  • eagerness
  • happiness
  • humour
  • delight
  • joy
  • love
  • pleasure
  • excitement

Negative emotions

  • impatience
  • jealousy
  • uncertainty
  • annoyance
  • anger
  • fear
  • suspicion
  • depression
  • anxiety
  • sadness
  • guilt
  • hate

We can feel these emotions strongly, and they can be shown in different physical ways – if we are happy, for instance, we may laugh out loud, or if we are frightened we may scream. You would not be surprised if you heard a child in a supermarket yelling and shouting with anger because he could not have any sweets; you would be very surprised if you heard an adult doing the same thing. This is because we are taught from early childhood to control our emotions.

We all have to live in a community, and it would be impossible if everyone expressed all their emotions exactly as they wished. We often conceal our emotions so that we do not hurt or upset other people.

Tradition and social attitudes teach us the degree to which our emotions may be shown or talked about. According to British social traditions, for example, it is expected that males are brave and do not show fear; it is acceptable that females may cry when they are distressed, but not males; small children may jump about and scream out when excited, but adults should not; and so on. Different communities have different expectations. These are the modes of behaviour accepted by society and taught to children from generation to generation.

Some communities, and some families within any community, are less inhibited than others and show their feelings more openly. Children coming from families with strict emotional control may find the pressures too great and may develop emotional problems in childhood or adult life. Keeping the emotions too bottled-up and repressed is like keeping the top on a bottle of fizzy lemonade; eventually, given certain conditions, there could be an explosion. Without being too restrictive, the parents’ aim should be to produce an emotionally well-balanced child, able eventually to solve his own problems and make his own decisions; able to mix with, and have consideration for, other people.

Emotional development is closely linked with physical and intellectual development.

The child cannot begin to control his feelings or have consideration for others until he realises that he is a separate individual and is able to think beyond his own basic physical needs. As with all the other areas of development, his emotional progress will depend a great deal on the example shown by the people with whom he comes into contact. This will be his parents and family first, followed by other relations, friends, teachers, other children and strangers; but his own family will be those with the strongest influence. Parents should guard against making their child emotionally dependent upon them, and should allow him to make his own decisions and set his own standards as soon as he is ready to do so. They should also not become emotionally dependent themselves upon their children. This happens most frequently when there is only a single parent who is very close to the child and finds difficulty in letting go.

Conditions for emotional development

Emotional contact can start immediately after birth, when the newborn infant is given to the mother. If the father is present he too will be involved in this initial contact. The tiny baby needs the constant care of at least one parent (or other adult carer) during his first few months, to satisfy his basic needs for warmth, food, protection and security. If these needs are satisfied without stress, a feeling of trust is established. A parent who is anxious and tense will soon transmit these feelings to the child, who will respond by becoming distressed. Gentle but firm handling will make a child feel secure. The child will also soon recognise his parent’s tone of voice, and a constantly aggressive tone will upset him, whereas a pleasant, loving voice will reassure him.

By the time the child is six months old he is more aware of himself as an individual. Depending upon the type of contact he has had with other people, he will be developing feelings of trust, love and security – or of anxiety, aggression and fear.

By the age of one year he will be struggling through the first stages of independence, beginning to feed himself, taking his first steps, and saying a few words. This increasing independence should be encouraged by giving him constant praise and reassurance. Many of his first attempts will fail and he will become angry and frustrated, and the temper tantrums of the two- to threeyear-old are the results of this rather than of naughtiness. Parents should respond with patience and support not with anger and punishment; praise rather than punishment should be the rule.

The way in which a child develops emotionally will be based upon his own character and the genes he has inherited (nature). Basically he may be quiet, shy and reserved, or noisy, boisterous and outgoing, but the influence of his family, friends and environment (nurture) will mould his personality along good or bad lines. By the time the child is five, he has his own personality, which has developed through his early emotional experiences. Good experience should produce an emotionally well-balanced child; but experiences cannot all be good, and he should be learning how to cope with unpleasant happenings as well.

Emotional disturbance

Most children go through periods of emotional disturbance, which are not usually serious and can be treated with parental understanding. These disturbances may show themselves in the following ways:

  • Antisocial behaviour
  • The aggressive child tries to draw attention to himself by bullying, hitting, spitting, biting, boasting, or temper tantrums.
  • Withdrawn behaviour

The insecure child shows lack of confidence, is usually quiet, has irrational fears, is shy and withdrawn, and clings to the adult he is most used to.

Retarded physical and intellectual development

The child may be so emotionally disturbed that he cannot cope with the normal development of learning and physical skills, and slows down in these areas.


This occurs when a child cannot cope with a real fear, whether of a thing, a person, or a situation, and transfers the fear to another situation or object. A child may develop a totally irrational fear of spiders, for instance, and react hysterically to them; but his real fear may be of starting school, or the death of a pet, or some other traumatic experience.

Physical habits

Habits such as nail-biting, head-banging, hair-chewing, pulling out hair, or excessive thumb-sucking are often developed by lonely, neglected, bored children who are seeking attention.

Emotionally aggravated illness

The child may suffer from physical illnesses that are caused or made worse by emotional conditions. Such illnesses are asthma, skin rashes, eczema, tummy upsets, fainting, muscular tics, or allergies.

Emotional disturbances can be triggered off in many ways, by any of the following:

  • a violent home background, where there is always quarrelling and fighting,
  • and the child may be used as a pawn between one parent and the other.
  • physical and/or emotional neglect, by parents who are too concerned with their own interests to bother with their child.
  • immature parents who are not ready for child rearing and do not understand a child’s needs.
  • parents who expect too much from their child, putting pressures on him that the child cannot cope with, which result in his constant failure.
  • lack of stable parenting in early life, so that the child is unable to form a close attachment to an adult, due to frequent separation. This sometimes happens when both parents go out to work and the child is left with a variety of child minders.
  • parents who are unable to love their child, possibly because they themselves were never loved. They may look after the child very well physically, but be unable or unwilling to supply his emotional needs.
  • jealousy, caused by the arrival of a new baby that makes the child feel pushed out and rejected, or by one child in a family being constantly compared unfavourably with another.
  • new situations that the child cannot cope with and is not developmentally ready for, or that he has not been prepared for in advance. These may include starting playgroup or infant school, going into hospital, or a short stay away from home.
  • bullying, teasing or unfriendliness from other children.
  • adults such as playgroup leaders, teachers or nurses getting impatient and ridiculing or shouting at a child instead of giving praise and encouragement.
  • a physical disability, or a disfigurement such as facial scars, a hare-lip or large birth marks, which make a child different from other children. These can cause emotional disturbance as well as physical problems.

It is often difficult for parents and child carers to realise that these problems have deep-rooted emotional causes and are not just naughtiness or the normal problems of growing up. If treated quickly many of the minor conditions can be cured simply, but more complex, deep-seated problems will need specialist treatment.

Treatment of emotional disturbance

Treatment by parents and family will depend entirely upon the problem and the individual child. The first step is to discover what is bothering the child, and the next to examine their own attitudes and way of life. Are they giving their child enough love, a secure background, enough attention? Are they expecting too much from him, comparing him unfavourably with other brothers and sisters, being too strict and punishing too severely? Do they need to change their own attitudes and adjust their ways to the needs of the child?

Playgroups, social groups and schools are sometimes understaffed, over-concerned with administration and finance, and too busy to notice the problems of the individual child. Do they make each child feel welcome and part of the group? Do they look out for bullying, and do they discuss a child’s unacceptable behaviour with the parents? Do they provide stimulating and interesting activities with plenty of opportunities for success and praise, and do they set standards and rules which are easily understood and not too severe or too lax?

All the people who are professionally responsible for young children, such as social workers, health visitors, GPs and baby minders, should constantly be looking for suspicious signs that may indicate the emotionally disturbed child.

The child who is over-aggressive, bullying, clinging, very quiet, or extremely over-active, or whose physical and intellectual progress is abnormally slow, could be needing treatment. Contact should be maintained, parents consulted, and help given where necessary. Sometimes it is the parents and the home conditions that need help. Parents who are under stress because of a large family, marital or financial problems, loneliness or poor health, may be too busy with their own problems to worry about those of their chidren. The social worker or health visitor may be able to give the advice needed to help the whole family.

Specialist treatment may be needed for the child who becomes very deeply disturbed. He will be referred by the child’s doctor or school to a child guidance centre or a school psychological service, where he will meet the child psychiatry team. This consists of the psychiatric social worker, the clinical psychologist, and the psychiatrist.

  • The psychiatric social worker is a social worker or nurse with special training in all aspects of mental health.
  • The clinical psychologist tests and measures the emotional and psychological responses of the child.
  • The psychiatrist is medically trained and qualified in the medical conditions of mental disorder. The child’s problems will be diagnosed and special care programmes suggested.

If emotional distrubances in childhood are ignored, they can emerge in later years, producing adults who are unable to make lasting relationships, and have difficulty making and keeping friends.

They may be unable to provide love and security for their own children, because they did not experience it themselves, and be unable to cope with stress. This can result in nervous breakdown, emotional trauma and suicidal tendencies.

It is clear that to prepare a child for adult life parents and child carers must concentrate on all aspects of a child’s development, because all aspects are equally important. It is a very daunting task and we make many mistakes, but fortunately children are very resilient; and they amply reward all the time, interest, love and affection that adults give them.