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Emotional & Social Development in Early Childhood

By Alexis Aiger ; Updated June 13, 2017

The social and emotional development of your child helps you understand the behaviors your child exhibits. Though children develop and mature at different rates, social and emotional development generally occurs in predictable stages. An understanding of these stages will help you determine the normalcy of your child's behaviors.

Trust vs. Mistrust

A psychiatrist, Erik Erikson, proposed trust versus mistrust as the first social-emotional stage of child development. This stage occurs from the age of 0 to 2 years, when the child develops a sense of trust, security and optimism or, if poorly adjusted, develops mistrust and insecurity. During this stage of social-emotional development, your child develops a sense of self-concept and forms attachment. Your baby will explore his body, sucking on his fingers, exploring his hands and looking at the place on his body where you touch him. Your baby responds positively to touch and begins to show emotions through his reactions to people and situations, according to the Illinois Early Learning Project. At this stage your baby also shows preference for caregivers as he begins to differentiate between friends and strangers, and may become anxious when separated from his preferred caregiver, according to the PBS website.

Autonomy vs. Shame

Autonomy versus shame, the second stage of social-emotional development according to Erikson, occurs between the ages of 2 and 4 years old. This stage determines whether a child will develop a sense of pride in her autonomy or shame and insecurity. At this stage of development, your child begins to show pride in accomplishments and becomes more assertive, directing others and feeling comfortable telling others "no." Your child has more fully developed her sense of self-awareness, identifying herself by gender and evaluating herself as good, bad or attractive, according to a PBS report. According to the Illinois Early Learning Project, emotions during this stage often prove unpredictable with frequent highs and lows. Unable to understand the need for limits, rules and restrictions frequently results in temper tantrums. Although aggressiveness at this age tends to increase, your child will also work out disagreements with friends and learn to share and take turns.

Initiative vs. Guilt

Initiative versus guilt, the final social-emotional developmental stage of early childhood according to Erikson, lasts from the age of 4 to 6 years old. This stage focuses on socialization and play. The well-developed child becomes able to imagine, cooperate and lead or follow as necessary. When not properly developed, this stage leads to guilt, which results in a fearful child unable to truly connect with peers and initiate active and imaginative play. As this stage of development focuses mostly on social skills, the development of friendships plays an integral part of your child's life. Your child learns to relate to others and often compares himself to peers. Your child explores morality at this stage as well as he considers fairness and good or bad behavior. Your child finds himself greatly concerned with pleasing his friends, which may lead to bad behavior despite his increased awareness of good and bad behavior. Parents should stress the difference between accidents and purposeful bad behavior, as well as the difference between a bad action and a bad person, advises the Illinois Early Learning Project.

Encouraging Development

The National Center for Learning Disabilities offers techniques to encourage your child's social and emotional development. Your child needs a predictable and loving home where she feels safe to explore herself and develop skills. Provide structure and daily routines, while encouraging her independence with praise to support her social and emotional growth. Teaching your child her name, parents' names, gender, age and address will not only help you feel safer when your child goes to school or to visit friends away from home, but will help her develop a sense of self and autonomy, which leads to successful social and emotional development. Provide your child with frequent social interaction with peers and observe her play. Listen to what she says about friends and use these play and reflection times as a chance to teach cooperation, problem-solving, conflict resolution and friendship.

Issues to Watch For

Children develop at different speeds, and your child's social and emotional growth may not match the predictable outline. However, challenges in social and emotional development may indicate a learning disability or delay, according to the National Center for Learning Disabilities. If your child has trouble joining friends and maintaining positive social status, maintaining control when frustrated, throws long and frequent tantrums, bullies other children, appears depressed or withdrawn or suffers from separation anxiety even in familiar settings, you may need to contact your pediatrician or a developmental specialist.

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