Learning about emotions begins at a very young age, as the child discovers a wide range of emotions, and evolves over the years. This theme offers a better understanding of the essential stages of emotional development, its impacts, the interrelated abilities, and the factors that build emotional competence.
The foundations of children’s emotional development are based on their relationship with their parents. Through proper care and sufficient amount of attention, kids will learn to:
- Use words to express their feelings, positive or negative.
- Empathize with how others feel.
- Manage strong emotions under challenging situations.
- Cope with their fears in the face of the unknown.
- Calm themselves when in distress.
- Control their anger and learn from their mischief.
Having the capacity to deal with managing their emotions will help children to develop their confidence and be more able to communicate their needs and understand those of others. Indeed, self-confidence is one of the direct outgrowths of developed emotional control.
How important is it?
Emotional Competence (EC) is a developmental process that involves three interrelated competencies: 1) emotional expression, 2) emotional awareness, and 3) emotional regulation (e.g., being aware of his emotion and changing them if needed). In infancy, children already experience a wide range of emotions in social situations through non-verbal messages (e.g., hugging or making a face). Then, as cognitive development progresses, children can determine their feelings and those of others and the circumstances that led to their expression. This understanding of emotions, in turn, allows children to control and modify their emotions to cope with stressful situations.
Emotional development during infancy and early childhood are essential for many interrelated skills. Children with healthy EC are more likely to excel in at least three of the following. 1) persevere in learning, 2) engage in empathic and pro-social behaviors, 3) express appropriate emotions in various contexts, 4) use adaptive strategies to cope with conflicting and disturbing emotions (anger, disappointment), and 5) to reduce multiple risk factors related to psychopathology. Together, these skills predict academic success in the early years at school and positive interpersonal relationships with peers and family members.
What do we know?
Emotional control as a skill varies with age. It is also manifested in different ways from one culture to another. The culture in which children grow up tends to influence the intensity and type of emotion expressed. Notably, the expression and understanding of feelings are likely to vary among children depending on how children socialize, the presence of comforting objects, the proximity of parental figures and situational contexts.
Emotions do not all appear at the same time. Primary emotions (fear, anger, sadness, interest, and joy) appear in the first year of life, while secondary emotions (embarrassment, guilt, and shame) are usually expressed at the end of the second year. The mental representation that children have of “themselves” evolves at the age of two as well.
Emotions play an essential role in the appearance of psychopathologies during childhood. Children who have experienced adverse social experiences, such as abuse or insecurity, tend to be very vigilant in detecting signs of threat.
As a result, they engage in anxiety, aggression and fear behaviors as a means of self-protection. Their negative affectivity, inadequate regulation of emotions, and imbalances in the different emotional systems in their brains (anxiety, care, and research systems) predict internal and external disorders (depression, aggressiveness, respectively).
What can we do?
In order to enhance emotional competence in children, parents are encouraged to model various emotional expressions. Since emotions at home greatly affect the emotions that children express with their peers and at school, positive parent-child interactions is imperative. Particularly, parents will benefit from using positive parenting practices and support their children when faced with challenges. Interventions at an early age will help to improve the emotional control and emotional parent-child synchrony is greatly encouraged.