Emotional Development in the Early Childhood Years

The first five years of a child’s life are considered the most crucial in several areas of growth, including emotional development. The ability to recognize and regulate emotions and to form relationships with peers and family do not just appear naturally -- those concepts are taught through play and other experiences in the early childhood years 2.

Infant Developmental Milestones

Emotional development in the early childhood years often follows a set of trends called developmental milestones. While not all children meet the milestones at the same time, they will show you generally what to expect or look for in your child’s development. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, infants don’t smile socially until about 4 months of age, and they learn how to respond to emotions by 6 months 1. By age 1 or 2 years, children feel fear of strangers but love to play with parents and other familiar people.

Toddlers and Preschoolers

Age 3 shows remarkable change because children will show affection without prompting or might show concern for someone who is upset. By age 4 or 5 years, children love to be with friends and want to please their friends, according to the CDC. Emotional development is often linked with social development -- the way children feel will affect how they interact with their peers. For example, a child who feels anxiety is more likely to play alone than with a group.

Emotional Regulation

Toddlers and preschoolers also tend to throw tantrums, but as they grow older and through strategies such as time-outs, children learn to regulate their emotions. According to ZerotoThree.org, at age 2 or 3, toddlers find it hard to share and do not quite understand what their peers feel. Forcing a toddler to share might result in a fit, but often talking to your child about sharing and teaching him to calm down in the midst of a tantrum will give him emotional regulation skills. Practicing sharing and turn-taking also helps teach self-control.

Building Relationships

Much of emotional development in the early childhood years centers on building relationships with family and peers. According to ZerotoThree.org, when parents make smiley faces or tickle their babies, those infants learn that they are cared for, and they begin to learn that their actions affect other people’s emotions. When you genuinely listen to your child when he talks and respond to his questions, he feels validation and support. If you comfort your child when he is scared during a thunderstorm, for instance, you promote a sense of safety and trust.