Emotional Development in Children
It has always been difficult to define exactly what a feeling or emotion is. Yet we know for sure that they do exist, that everyone experiences emotions perhaps every single moment, and that emotions guide our actions and reaction even if subconsciously sometimes.
How do we define emotions? Here are some definitions
• Biologically driven, cross-cultural responses to environmental stimuli. Eric Jensen
• Human beings’ warning systems as to what is really going on around them. Emotions are our most reliable indicators of how things are going in our lives; they help keep us on the right track by making sure that we are led by more than cognition. Maurice Elias
• The glue that holds the cells of the organism together in the material world, and in the spiritual world they’re the glue that holds the classrooms and the society together. Candace Pert.
As soon as the baby’s central nervous system is in place (i.e. when the foetus is about 3-4 months old; in other words before birth) she is capable of experiencing emotions and of responding to stimuli in the environment.
Why we should study emotions.
Emotions play an important role in every individual’s life, whether we want to pay attention to them or not. Emotions define who we are. In children they help to determine the temperament of the child. Emotions help define an individual’s sensitivity and responsiveness. Another important role is motivation. From very early, emotions motivate a child towards or away from a situation. Throughout life our emotions are part of our motivation to decide and to act. Sometimes they even protect us from unfortunate decisions.
Emotional development like every other aspect of human development takes place in stages. The ‘normal’ sequence of development looks like this-:
Infancy 0- 12 months-: Makes social smiles and other pleasure sounds. The social smile emerges first as a response to adults’ expression and then to things in the environment. This is followed by development of laughter in response to being kissed or playing peek-a-boo. Express fear, anger and disgust, usually by crying. Fear is expressed of unknown or unfamiliar person or event. Separation anxiety
Toddlerhood 1-2 yrs-: Learns to express shame or embarrassment and pride. This is usually dependent on the values of the culture. Learning to express emotions verbally Develops and displays empathy- try to comfort mother in distress.
Preschool 3-6 yrs-: Ability to alter emotional expression. For example the child learns to smile and say ‘thank you’ when given a gift even if he is not pleased with the gift. At around 5 yrs. The child develops a deeper understanding of others’ emotions.
Middle childhood 7-11yrs The child develops a wider range of self-regulating skills- knows how to control and express emotions more appropriately. Develops cognitive and behavioural coping skills for emotional experiences as he becomes more sensitive to social contextual cues and cultural expectations. Also understands that it is possible to experience more than one emotion at a time, e.g. can be happy but worried about overnighting with grandparents.
Adolescence (Independence)-: Sophisticated self-regulating skills. They regulate how they express emotions depending on what they think other’s expectations are or how they presume others will react. Wide vocabulary for expressing feelings or emotions Adept at interpreting social situations
Along with these developmental stages there are particular emotional skills that are developed as the child grows and matures. These skills are-:
Emotional Awareness and Empathy:. The ability to perceive and understand emotions. Understanding one’s own emotions is pre-requisite to self-control and anger management. Understanding other’s emotions is essential to read social situations accurately and respond to them appropriately.
Emotional Regulation: The ability to control negative thought patterns. Resilience-’bouncing back’ from disappointment and failure.
Self-motivation: Setting goals, responsible decision-making, communication skills and relationship building. Using emotions as a guide.
Adults have an important role to play to ensure that children develop emotionally by meeting their needs for:
1. Physical Touch.- All babies start off with the basic need for physical touch and attention. These needs do not dissipate as the baby grows older. Scientists have proven that babies who are touched, held and cuddled thrive better than babies who are left lying in their cribs with very little human contact. The need continues throughout life. It is not age-specific. Every human being needs a certain amount of appropriate physical touch, e.g. a hand on the shoulder, a hug etc.
2. Positive Attention.- Positive attention involves listening respectfully, not ridiculing, invalidating or being judgemental either intone of voice or facial expression. It is being there in the best of times and the worst if times- not just when the young person is ‘behaving herself’. When the child is feeling bad, (i.e. is angry, frustrated, afraid, embarrassed, etc.) and cannot figure out how to deal with it, that’s when she most needs positive attention. Withholding love and attention at this time only adds to the distress being experienced and makes it harder for the child to think through the incident.
Closeness and positive attention give human beings, especially young people, a sense of their importance in people’s lives, a sense of worth, a feeling that they are wanted in the world, a sense of security that an adult will be there to help them through any situation. There is a myth that giving a child too much attention will spoil the child. The opposite is true. The more the need is met the less of it there will be to be met.
3. Being Listened To.- Young people need a lot of listening to. They need to know that an adult will listen to them in a trusting and caring way. They want to share their precious thoughts and feelings with adults but they must know that it is safe to do so. Therefore they need to be listened to with full attention and interest in what they are sharing. What may seem insignificant to an adult can, feel like a major trauma in a young person’s life. They also need to be able to depend on the confidentiality of that adult. Young people are aware of the parents’ practices to ‘share’ their child’s experience with the parent’s friends. Knowing that the information will remain safe with the listener encourages the child to feel confident enough to talk about his struggles, goals and dreams. This helps the talker to think more clearly.
4. Respect. - Every human being needs and deserves complete respect. We need to respect the very youngest person in the same way that we respect an adult. They are respected if only because they are human beings. The child understands a lot more than we give him credit for. He is also able to think and feel. He may not be able to verbalize things, but information is registering in his brain. The way we help him to learn and help the intelligence to develop is by treating him as a person (though little) with thinking capacities.
5. Release of emotions.- From the formation of the nervous system, every human being feels or experiences emotions- anger, grief, sadness, fear. The need to release these feelings begins as soon as the feelings are experienced, otherwise these stored up feelings get in the way of thinking well in a present situation. Even babies therefore need ample opportunity and safety to release their feelings- their fear of the birth process, the separation from the womb, the lack of touch and positive attention, being hungry, being isolated etc. The earlier and more often humans are allowed to release these feelings safely, the clearer will be the attention of the person as he grows up to function rationally in the present time. Children who are not allowed to cry enough from birth, children who are prevented from releasing anger or showing fear carry these unpleasant emotions into their teenage or adult years and have a greater difficulty getting rid of them. These emotions lead to chronic behavioural patterns that are usually harmful to the person or to others.