Emotional Development

From the moment they are born, babies prefer to look at human faces compared to other visual stimuli and recognize their parents’ faces better than the faces of strangers. Newborns are also more attentive to the sounds of speech than to other environmental sounds and prefer to listen to familiar voices. These visual and auditory preferences indicate that people become the most salient part of babies’ environment from their very first days, and their primary caregivers play the most prominent role of all. The first signs of a special relationship with caregivers emerge when babies show preferences for and stronger emotional responsiveness to one person. This is the precursor to attachment, which blooms at 12 months. Attachment is a protective factor, helping children weather the stresses of life, and influences brain development. Caregivers’ behaviors are a predictor of the kind of attachment the baby develops—the best predictor of secure attachment being responsive and sensitive care given by an adult.

Emotional development in infancy and toddlerhood progresses along several dimensions. First, babies learn to express more complex emotions, from joy and anger to pride and shame. Second, they learn to recognize, interpret, and respond to the emotions of other people. Third, babies learn ways of regulating their own emotions. The emotional behaviors of infants are influenced by their temperaments. Children differ in characteristics such as how easily they get distracted or frustrated, how shy or outgoing they are, or how they respond to a novel situation. Understanding individual differences in temperament and addressing these differences in caregiving practices is critical in supporting social-emotional development in infants and toddlers.

The emergence of self-awareness marks an important milestone in social development as infants discover first their physical independence from a caregiver and later the difference in their own wants. Asserting their independence is often associated with toddlers’ frustration, manifested in emotional outbursts and tantrums. Remember that these behaviors indicate children’s emotional growth and are not signs of opposition and defiance. At the same time, caregivers should help toddlers cope with their frustrations by teaching them simple ways to regulate their emotions.