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Emotional and Social Development in Early Childhood

Angela Oswalt, MSW

"Emotional intelligence" is term used to describe someone's ability to express his or her emotions appropriately, to correctly interpret other people's emotions, and to understand the triggers and outcomes of certain emotions. Children with high levels of emotional intelligence are also skilled in their ability to cope with their own or other people's emotions in a way that creates positive social connections. During early childhood, most children show great gains in each of these developmental skills. Advancing in emotional intelligence is a lifelong goal that can help people maintain emotional health and prosocial, cooperative behaviors.

emoticonsPsychological tests designed to assess emotional intelligence, somewhat like IQ tests, have been developed, but these tests are primarily used in research settings rather than for determining the real-world strengths and weaknesses of particular children. In research settings, children who show higher levels of emotional intelligence also have higher rates of self-esteem, social ability and happiness, as well as lower rates of aggression. However, caregivers should remember that rating children with a score on a test may not adequately describe and reflect each unique child's gifts and assets.

As discussed previously in our other child development documents, the different areas of development are interconnected rather than being separate, isolated skills. The interconnection between cognitive skills and emotional development is particularly important. As children's abstract thinking and language skills increase, they become better able to label and discuss their emotions with others. For example, they can let Mom and Dad know that they are feeling scared rather than just crying or screaming. Similarly, children can explain that a friend is "sad because he misses his Dad."

Language can also allow children to better regulate their feelings, self-soothe in response to negative feelings, and exert some control over emotion-provoking situations. For example, very young children may run away or hide from Uncle Todd when he makes a scary face. In contrast, older children can tell Uncle Todd that his faces are scary, ask him to stop making faces, and/or remind themselves that Uncle Todd is trying to be silly rather than mean. In addition, as older children develop the ability to take other people's viewpoints, they can start to change or stop their behaviors that might hurt someone else's feelings.

During early childhood, children typically start to develop self-conscious emotions as they start evaluating themselves, instead of purely reacting to caregivers' or other adults' evaluations. For instance, an older baby or a younger toddler may be perfectly happy covering himself or herself from head to foot with mud from the backyard, and won't experience a negative emotion until caregivers express their displeasure at the messy situation. Children in the early childhood stage may still enjoy playing in the muddy yard, but as soon as they see Mom coming, shame and/or guilt may emerge as a result of evaluating their appearance. A child may also experience a sense of pride when Daddy says, "That's a great drawing."

According to Erickson's developmental theory, children who start to evaluate themselves have entered the stage of "autonomy versus shame and doubt." At the end of this stage, young children's self-evaluations are either autonomous and positive, or negative and ashamed. Young children who feel autonomous see themselves as good, valuable people who are able to do what is expected of them in a positive way. In contrast, young children who feel ashamed also feel worthless and incapable of doing what is expected of them.

As children become increasingly self-aware, more effective at communicating, and better at understanding the thoughts and feelings of others, their social skills increase. Children in the early childhood stage become skilled at modifying and expressing their emotions to fit different social situations. For example, Billy may feel angry, but he knows that having a tantrum at school is inappropriate. Similarly, Sally learns that acting pleasant and happy even if she feels shy and scared is a better way to meet people at a birthday party when she doesn't know many of the other children. Changing or controlling one's emotions in social situations is an important skill that allows children to fit in with groups and start to create interpersonal relationships.