Emotional development in the early childhood years

two children playing at beach image by Sujit Mahapatra from Fotolia.com

Emotional development in early childhood is a step-by-step process that continues into adolescence. It is part of what psychiatrist Erik Erikson defined, in 1956, as the “eight stages of man,” with each stage representing a “psychosocial crisis” that must be resolved before further emotional growth can occur.

In early childhood. Of these stages, only the first three--hope, will and purposes--are resolved during the early childhood years.


This initial stage begins in infancy and continues until approximately age 2. A key moment occurs near one year of age when babies form attachments with caregivers. A well-adjusted child develops trust and security, while one who is badly handled is insecure and mistrustful, thus affecting relationships in later life. The quality of emotional attachment, or lack of attachment, formed early in life may serve as a model for later relationships.

Autonomy Versus Shame

Around 18 months of age, children begin to develop a more sophisticated self awareness. This stage lasts until approximately age 4, and is marked by the emergence of emotions, such as shame, pride, and embarrassment. The early part of this stage is often marked by stormy scenes between parent and child that can include tantrums, stubbornness and negativism.

The "No" Stage

Year-old babies are the centre of their own worlds. As they progress to their second birthday, they begin to develop their identities by learning their names, as well as language. They also begin to mimic parental actions. These skills allow them to become less dependent on parents, resulting in emerging autonomy. For this reason, the earlier portion of Erikson’s second stage is often called the “No” stage.

At first, 2-year-olds seem self-centered as they grapple with their emotions by refusing to listen and not cooperating while playing with others. Conflicts occur over items such as toys, and space, with anger manifesting itself in tantrums. As children age to three years and beyond, anger becomes based in social interactions.


From approximately age 3-1/2 until entry into elementary school, children develop a sense of initiative or purpose, as opposed to guilt, that includes a variety of emotional skills through active play that may include fantasy. During this period, play serves to teach the child to cooperate with others and learn how to lead as well as how to follow. Unhealthy development in this stage leads to fearfulness, excessive dependence on adults, fringe social participation, and restricted development of skills and imagination. Peer relationships, gender identification, and a sense of right and wrong develop.


Language aids children’s emotional development by allowing them to express emotions. In babies and toddlers, emotion is expressed by non-verbal means such as facial expressions and gestures, in addition to non-verbal vocalisation. As children develop a vocabulary, however, they are able to use words to express how they are feeling. This ability helps to maintain and regulate social interactions.