The infant – Mental development

Between the ages of one and three, the development of emotional life takes place at an astonishing speed. Parents and friends are often puzzled, even worried, by outbursts of anger triggered by apparently trivial events; then, a few minutes later, the child is all smiles and loving embraces. It is sometimes difficult for adults to cope with such an emotional roller-coaster, and not for nothing has this often traumatic time been dubbed the ‘terrible two’s’.

The basis of these changes is that a pre-nursery school child has not learned to understand or hide emotions, and expresses them forcefully. When such children are happy or loving, they are a joy to be with; but when they are angry or frightened, their rage or fear may often seem out of all proportion to its cause. Although children of this age often swing from joy to anger and back again in the space of a few minutes, this does not mean their emotions are not real or are only superficial. The difference between their emotions and those of older children is that the emotions are genuine but the memory is short. A pre-nursery

The language development of a child between 0 and 5 years is an example of the enormous leaps children make in the course of their mental growth. Not all children know the same number of words at a given age. The growth in a child’s vocabulary is often linked to certain events, such as attending a nursery school.

Child may truly hate his (or her) mother for making him sit down for a meal when he was enjoying playing, but when his favourite food appears his anger is forgotten and the event has passed.

The road to independence

The intense, often conflicting, emotions are the result of the child’s conflict between autonomy and dependence. Sometimes he revels in the recent discovery that he and his mother are separate people, and exploits it by wanting to do more things for himself. The drive to independence means that he will often reject offers of help and become violently angry if an adult, for the best of motives, keeps trying to ‘interfere’. On the other hand, there are times when this separateness is frightening; the child may then become anxious, or suddenly develop a fear of the dark. He still desperately needs reassurance.

The arrival of a younger sibling can cause extreme jealousy and outbursts of aggression in a child who up to that point had been the main focus of parental attention, and who now feels that he needs to compete for affection and recognition. The attention-grabbing tantrumst, often in a form of ‘babyish’ behaviour designed to imitate the new arrival, usually disappear quite rapidly once the child is reassured that his own position in the family is secure. A child’s first forays into independence lead to frustration.

There are some activities he may learn to do quickly, such as feeding himself or taking off his socks and shoes. Others take longer, but may be mastered with perseverance: taking off vests and jumpers, for example. Yet other accomplishments are still beyond him; he may want to dress himself but will not have the necessary co-ordination and may become frustrated and tired. But each day, the toddler will get nearer his goal. Adults should try not to interfere, and should offer help only when the child requests it or when his frustration gets out of hand. Frustration can build up gradually, as when a child is struggling to get dressed. Or just one event – such as not being allowed to go out in the garden bacause it is too wet – can spark it off. The child does not yet understand the consequences of getting wet; he knows only that he wants to go out and play. If this is forbidden he may then become angry. A watching adult may feel this response is unreasonable and that the child is exaggerating his feelings to get his own way, but his intense disappointment and rage are genuine.


Tantrums are usually the result of frustration. They are frightening to witness because the child is out of control. They have been aptly described as an ‘emotional blown fuse’. The child can no longer cope with his angry feelings, and so they explode. Nearly all children have had one or two tantrums by the time they are three years old, and many have them regu- larly. Dealing with tantrums can be difficult for adults. Distracting the child is usually not effective: he is too tied up in his own overwhelming emotions. He is also scared because he has no control over what is happening to him.

A tantrum has to run its natural course. While the child is still in its grip, adults should ensure that, as he careers about the room or lies kicking on the floor, he cannot hurt himself. A child should never be left alone at this time. When he does emerge from the tantrum he will be shaken and tearful and will need immediate comfort and reassurance.

Learning and understanding

At a year old, the child has developed some understanding of his world: when faced with a familiar object or situation he knows what to expect. When the table is laid, or his high chair brought out, for example, he knows his meal is imminent. Similarly, the sound of the front door opening at a certain time of day brings him rushing out to greet a parent returning from work. However, any change in the normal pattern of events may confuse him. The child has not yet had enough experience always to reach the right conclusions, even when the new situation is simular to one he knows about. New experiences come increasingly often as the child becomes more mobile. Once he is standing and walking, he discovers that familiar objects viewed from different angles look strange. He learns that things can appear different while remaining the same. This fascinates him and encourages him to explore further. He now assimilates more quickly the information about how objects look, feel and smell; he constantly makes new discoveries. The pre-nursery school child spends hours finding out how and why things work the way they do. He makes discoveries by a process of trial and error. When he first pours water into a sieve, for example, he expects the water to stay there. When it runs out, he is surprised. He is still surprised the second and third time, but eventually he grasps the fact that containers with holes always leak. In the same way, he learns that toy cars run faster on a bare floor than on a carpet, and that a ball rolls down, but not up, aslope.

The two-year-old cannot yet understand abstract concepts. He may be able to recite the numbers from one to ten, but has no idea that they can be used for counting. If he loses sight of a toy he forgets about it, because to him it is no longer there. Later in his third year he will be able to remember that the toy, although invisible to him for the moment, still exists somewhere, and he will look for it. This is an important development: not only is his memory getting longer – which will help him learn faster than before -but also what is ‘real’ for him is no longer just what can be seen and held in the hand. This stage marks the beginning of abstract thought and imagination.