What causes delayed emotional development?

Most new parents anxiously await their babies' first smiles and displays of affection. But when their children don't smile, laugh or show the same emotional gestures as other young children the same age, it can cause parents to worry. Delayed emotional development is also a concern for educators or anyone works with children. While sometimes genes are blamed, environment can also play a role.


Delayed emotional development is when a child fails to meet certain expected emotional developmental goals by a certain age. For example, by age four months, a typical baby can recognise an adult face or smile at a parent. By 15 months, most children start to play with other toddlers.

Genetic Abnormalities

A chromosomal or genetic irregularity can cause children to have delayed emotional developments. For example, Down’s syndrome is a disorder which can cause developmental delay due to an abnormal chromosome.

Neurological Problems

Children who struggle with the neurological disorder ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) are often emotionally behind their peers. Besides having difficulty socialising with others, they tend to be more stubborn, making it hard for them to be disciplined. These negative experiences create more emotional problems. Often, ADHD children are viewed by their peers as bullying or domineering. Mood swings can fluctuate often, as well as problems with attention problems affecting their moods, too.

Prenatal Factors

Sometimes when a pregnant woman is exposed to dangerous agents it can hinder her unborn child's emotional development. For example, exposure to lead or drugs can affect a newborn. Infections transmitted from mother to baby such as HIV or measles can also cause emotional development delays in children.

Maternal Depression

According to a document written by Matthew Melmed, executive director of the non-profit organisation, Zero to There, about 10 per cent of mothers of young children struggle with depression and anxiety disorders. The percentages are higher in poverty-stricken families. Depressed mothers can greatly affect the emotional health of children. Depression symptoms should be treated immediately so as not to negatively impact children. Educators or others who notice a problem with parents being depressed should encourage them to get help and support not only for themselves, but also for their children.

Environmental Risks

Family substance abuse or lack of health insurance can affect the emotional development of children. Extreme poverty or domestic violence within a child’s family can also delay emotional development in children, in addition to social isolation and the not receiving the proper treatment or support programs. Parents or other primary caregivers of children need to secure the proper help for children who may be struggling with any of these problems.