What are the stages of emotional development?

Emotional development begins in the womb while an infant's neurological system is being formed. Healthy emotional development in infants correlates with the physical and emotional state of the mother. Psychologist and author Erik Erikson's theories regarding emotional development helped to define the field of child psychology. Erikson outlined the eight stages of social and emotional development in his book "Childhood and Society".


Erikson considered infancy the oral sensory stage that occurs from birth to 18 months. A strong, positive and loving connection is established between a mother and her infant during this period. Significant emphasis is placed on physical touch and visual contact. Infants start to expect that their basic needs will be met by their mother. Infants who pass through this stage successfully learn to trust people and their environment. Infants begin to build and develop confidence about the future.

Early Childhood

The early childhood stage takes place from 18 months to 3 years old. Young children learn to master basic life skills and start to become more independent. Motor skills are further developed. Children begin to walk, talk and feed themselves. Toilet training generally begins during this stage. Children build self-esteem as they gain greater control over their bodies. Confidence increases as their skills develop and improve. Erikson suggests that children can be emotionally vulnerable during this stage. Parents are urged to reward positive behaviour to prevent the development of low self-esteem.

Play Stage

The play age period takes place from 3 to 5 years old. During this stage, children become more observant of their environment and the people surrounding them. Children watch adults closely and begin to mimic their behaviours. Imagination flourishes at this time and children start to initiate play situations. Children begin to enact real-life scenarios in their games, experimenting with ideas of adulthood. The experience of guilt may also occur at this stage as children begin to question the world around them.

School Age

The school age period is from six to 12 years old. Erikson also refers to this time as the latency stage. Social relationships are further developed. Children begin to expand their world to include people other than their parental figures. Children start to attend school and establish friendships with their peers. Successful social interaction is imperative during this period to prevent a sense of inferiority. Children at this stage have a need to be productive and experience a sense of accomplishment from their schoolwork.


The adolescence stage is from 12 to 18 years old. Adolescence is the period between childhood and adulthood. Success in the previous stages of emotional development eases the transition into adolescence. Adolescence is a complex stage as individuals search for a sense of identity. The nature of social interactions during adolescence define and shape one's identity. Adolescents develop strong relationships with their peer groups and begin to separate themselves from their parents. Acts of rebellion and withdrawal may occur.

Young Adulthood

Young adulthood occurs between 18 to 35 years of age. Young adults actively seek out love and companionship in this socially active stage. Individuals try to create mutually satisfying relationships with friends and potential love partners. Young adults experience the need to connect at a deeper and more personal level and attempt to develop intimate relationships. Some young adults may wish to start a family. Establishing a strong sense of identity in earlier emotional stages increases the likelihood of greater success in young adulthood.

Middle Adulthood

Middle adulthood takes place between 35 to 65 years of age. Significant importance is placed on work and family matters. Finding and maintaining satisfying and meaningful work endeavours is one focus. Establishing a family and parenting is of significance to some individuals. Generating a sufficient income to support one's offspring becomes a concern. Significant life changes can develop during this time as adults enter middle age and children move out of the home 1. Marriages may undergo difficulties as relationship goals change. Struggles to find new meaning in life may occur.

Late Adulthood

Late adulthood is the final stage in Erikson's model of emotional development. Late adulthood is from age 65 to death. Individuals tend to reflect upon their lives at this stage. Some adults may look back with a sense of fulfilment and happiness. Others at this stage may feel regret, despair and a sense of failure. According to Erikson, it is essential that individuals at this stage accept full responsibility for their lives and come to terms with death.