The first few years of a child’s life are so critical. From socialisation skills to physical and mental development, parents and caregivers support young children as they navigate a wide diversity of new experiences. What often gets left by the wayside, however, is a focus on emotional development – a problem that can hamper a child’s growth as they begin to experience all the highs and lows of human emotions.
Every child develops differently, including on an emotional level, which is why it’s important to have a firm understanding of the various stages of emotional development in early childhood. Here, we explore why it’s vital to teach children about emotional development, and what you can do to support those in early childhood through the three key stages.
THE COMPLEXITY OF A CHILD’S BRAIN
You might be surprised by just how much a baby’s brain grows in the first five years of its life. At birth, a baby’s brain is around a quarter of the size of a fully grown adult, but incredibly it doubles in size by age 1, hits 80% by age 3 and is 90% grown by age 5.
During these formative years, brain connections develop that allow children to move, communicate (verbally and nonverbally), think and experience emotions. In fact, at least a million new neural connections are made every second during early childhood – far more than any other stage of life.
Because the brain is constantly developing – i.e. building on top of itself – there must be a firm foundation on which to grow. That’s why it’s critical to approach early childhood as the best opportunity to develop a child’s brain, and in particular how they recognise and manage their emotions.
STAGE 1: EMOTIONAL RECOGNITION (AGES 0–2)
In the first 12 months of a baby’s life, they change from a helpless human who rarely does more than cry, feed, sleep and make dirty nappies, to little humans experiencing the first of many emotions.
While it’s impossible to tell just how many emotions babies should be experiencing by their first and second birthdays, what we do know is that there are three main emotions that are inherent from birth: happiness, fear and anger.
Unfortunately, babies in their first stage of development can’t really communicate what they are feeling beyond smiles, coos, tears and tantrums, as well as a few choice words as they reach the end of this stage. So it’s very important to create a safe and consistent environment for baby.
STAGE 2: EMOTIONAL EXPRESSION (AGES 2–3)
This is the time when children start to really develop their vocabulary, which is one of the best ways for them to express their emotions and be understood. It’s also a time when they explore their independence and start to test limits.
In addition to ‘sharing’ their emotions through speech, they may also start to draw their feelings, whether that’s in abstract forms or personifications of what they see and feel in their lives – like the scary monster under the bed or their best friend at the park.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, public tantrums may become more frequent. This is because this stage of their emotional development sees them experiencing some very complex feelings that they don’t yet have the capacity to manage in a healthy versus unhealthy way.
STAGE 3: EMOTIONAL GOVERNANCE (AGES 3–5)
This is the period when children are preparing to enter an entirely new environment: early learning with other kids. This presents a variety of new challenges, not least of which is managing their reactions to other children’s emotions.
Playing together, sharing toys and listening to each other are all skills they will need to develop in a healthy way, but it often becomes more difficult because they no longer have their parents present to chaperone interactions that may quickly cause friction.
This is where caregivers at early learning centres must take a leadership role. They need to understand the vast spectrum of emotional development among the children in their care, while also walking a fine line between allowing children to figure things out for themselves and intervening at the appropriate times.
RECOMMENDATIONS FOR EACH STAGE OF EMOTIONAL DEVELOPMENT
For parents, there are a few things you can do to foster your child’s emotional development at each stage.
Emotional recognition: It’s easy for first-time parents (especially) to think they need to rush in and comfort their child at the first moment of emotional disruption, but there’s much to be said for the impact self-soothing can have on a baby’s emotional development. Also be aware of your own emotions and don’t be afraid to show them when your child is present – after all, babies learn by mirroring their caregivers.
Emotional expression: Tantrums are inevitable at this stage, but it’s important that you don’t let your emotions get the best of you. Stay calm and teach them how to handle difficult situations with an empathetic yet firm response. These are teaching moments, so give them the language they need (e.g. “I’m upset because he took my toy” or “I’m angry because you won’t let me buy a treat”) to explain how they are feeling.
Emotional governance: At the final stage of their emotional development in early childhood, you can build on the language element and give them strategies to help manage their emotions. In the best-case scenarios, these strategies will allow them to regulate their reactions before a tantrum occurs. However, it’s important to have realistic expectations. Tantrums will still happen and you need to be understanding, lest they begin to associate their emotions with shame, anxiety and disappointing their parents.
Your role as caregiver is to teach your child to understand, express and manage their emotions. They want validation from you, and you need to help them find the right tools to express themselves. Beyond their time with you at home, it’s also critical to find an early learning provider who focuses on children’s emotional development, which is exactly what we do at Heritage House.