Social and Emotional Development in Early Childhood

Social and Emotional Development in Early Childhood

Hello brave parents and caregivers,

Child development can be as confusing as it is magical. One day a baby may have no problem being held by a grandparent, while the next he cries until he’s back in his mother’s arms. Or, seemingly out of nowhere, your usually easygoing child cries in protest as you leave for work, leaving you to wonder, “what’s changed?”

An understanding of child development is important; it provides insight that helps parents navigate developmental stages with compassion and, for many, offers comfort in the knowledge that challenging times are likely to be “just a phase”.

Here, I’ll overview early childhood cognitive, social, and emotional developmental stages to shed light on this complex and sometimes confusing process.

Read on, parents and caregivers, to help answer the age-old question: “Is this normal?”

A Little About Child Development

First, it’s worth mentioning that what I present here is based on theories, which by nature are controversial and everchanging. I highlight features of developmental theories that as a child psychiatrist I find interesting and as a mother I’ve seen unfold before my eyes. I realize it can be artificial to boil down the complexity of human development into stages. Developmental age ranges are approximate, there is often overlap between stages, and, ultimately, each child is an individual who develops at his own pace. That said, if you have any concerns about your child’s development, please seek an evaluation with your pediatrician.

Child Development and Regression

Child development is thought to be sequential–mastering a particular stage depends on having mastered the one before it. However, regression (abandoning recently-acquired abilities and reverting to past behavior) is common. In normal child development, regression is temporary and usually related to an identifiable stress, including facing a new developmental task.  In fact, Anna Freud observed that “backward moves” happen with all important childhood achievements.

Child development does not move along a perfect, linear course; it is an uneven, slow, trial-and-error process of successes and relapses. I remember having scratched my head when my daughter’s sleep regressed. There had been no changes in her routine or bedtime. No new stressors I could think of. What the heck? But, after the sleep regression, she started walking, and, wouldn’t you know it, her sleep soon returned to normal. I concluded she must have been so concentrated on learning how to walk that she had briefly abandoned recently-learned skills that had helped her fall asleep. Parents and caregivers, one step back and two steps forward seems to be the way of child development.

0-3 months

Textbooks describe the newborn phase as passive, which I take issue with. In my experience, newborns are quite good at actively communicating their wish to be fed or held! But I get it, there is no real back and forth in caring for an infant. Feed. Change. Sleep. Repeat.

And then comes the smile!  The first smile usually appears between 4 to 8 weeks old, almost always by about 3 months old. A newborn’s vision is about 20/200 and she focuses about 9 to 12 inches away. When smiling, she is responding to a face’s shapes without realizing they belong to a human being. The smile is a big deal because it means she’s beginning to acknowledge the existence of something outside of herself and actively engage with her world.

3- 12 months: Hope

Through repeated contact with his mother figure, a baby learns that a world outside himself exists. At this point, he believes that he and his mother figure are one entity rather than two physically separate individuals.

Around 8 to 9 months of age, he may become upset around unfamiliar people, marking the beginning of stranger anxiety. Here, he learns how to distinguish one person from another and realizes that certain people are critical to his well-being. Well-intentioned relatives may feel slighted when a baby does not return their affection. Remind them that stranger anxiety is normal and pretty exciting—a baby is growing in his ability to develop relationships.

During this phase, if a child’s needs are met through the love and nurturance of his caregivers, he perceives the world as a safe and gratifying place. He learns that he can trust people and his environment and he gains the core strength of hope.

1-3 years old: Will

This is a time of explosive growth and psychological development as a child begins to differentiate herself as an individual separate from her mother figure. As she starts to crawl and walk, her world wonderfully expands.  However, she soon realizes that she is a small person in a big world and moves back to her parent for comfort and reassurance. The push-pull between her drive for autonomy and need for closeness conflicts her, often leading to confusing or dysregulated behavior. It’s helpful for a parent to act as a secure base from which she can continue to separate, then reunite. Remaining emotionally available, understanding, and compassionate during this time helps her build confidence in her ability to navigate her environment.

During the first year, a child develops object permanence, or the ability to understand that people and objects exist even if she cannot see or hear them. This skill is typically well-formed by about 2-years-old, and marks an important cognitive step in developing language, memory, and imagination. This is also a vulnerable time for developing separation anxiety. A child realizes that her parent exists even if he is not visible and she is upset he is not with her. Separation anxiety is common and usually temporary. By about 3-years old, a child is able to maintain a mental representation of her parent and remember past experiences when her mother returned, making it easier for her to tolerate physical separation.

Keep in mind that negativism (i.e., resistance, endlessly hearing “no”, “not listening”, etc.) at this age is a healthy expression of a child’s drive for autonomy. Parents, you become a victim of your own success– your child feels secure and confident enough to assert her autonomy and forge her own path.

When a child masters this developmental stage, she develops the core strength of will.

3-6 years old: Purpose

Children now know the difference between right and wrong but conscience is just beginning to form; it will not be fully refined until around 12 years old, when they are capable of abstract thinking (e.g., being able to place themselves in someone else’s shoes).

Ego centrism continues to reign, meaning that a child will not view his parents as having an existence outside of their role of fulfilling his needs and wishes. Because of this, a child takes things personally–it is not uncommon to hear “you hate me!” if, for instance, you have to leave the park to get home for a meeting. Parents, if your child thinks he’s the center of the universe, no worries—it is expected at this age!

In line with ego centrism, magical thinking is also prominent as children believe their thoughts or actions directly influence the world around them. For instance, they may believe their dog died because they played with him too roughly or that they can bring him back to life by wishing it. As parents, we sometimes harness the power of magical thinking, such as using “monster spray” at night to keep danger away.

As kids in this age group learn how to use symbols their engagement in pretend play flourishes— I’ve enjoyed many tea parties where stuffed animals act as my daughter’s teachers, family, or close friends. And as imaginations soar, new fears may develop, adding new challenges to daily routines, such as bedtime or bath time.

Initiative is at the heart of this developmental stage. Kids focus their energy on trying new things and engaging in social interactions on their own. Because they are impulsive and not able to consider consequences, they will make mistakes. It is helpful for parents to create a safe environment that nurtures their eagerness to try new things. Teaching kids that mistakes are learning opportunities that are to be expected will give them the confidence to keep trying. And expect to repeat yourself many times—they will not be able to learn the first time. When a child masters this developmental stage, she acquires a sense of purpose.  

Brave parents and caregivers,

Child development is a magical and often challenging process. For parents, it involves creating a secure space for kids to explore, assert their autonomy, and make mistakes, all the while offering benevolent redirection to support their progress, ensure their safety, and develop their emotion and behavior regulation skills.  With your loving guidance, your kids will thrive as they navigate their social and emotional development.

Until next time,


Colarusso, CA. Child and Adult Development: A Psychoanalytic Introduction for Clinicians. New York, Plenum Press. 1992.

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