In this series, we're taking a look at 3 different aspects of a child's development - emotions, literacy, and reasoning. Each article will highlight critical milestones in a child's life and how you can encourage your child to achieve these goals.
Everyone experiences emotions. We are born crying from discomfort, and are pre-programmed to feel contentment, surprise, and fear. As children grow, they learn more complex emotions, like pride or guilt. We are social creatures, and therefore, emotional maturity is vital to both self-awareness and everyday interactions equally. Understanding your emotions can help you communicate, share, and interact with others, and is an ongoing process well into a person’s teenage years. As each child sees the world as an individual, their emotional development varies slightly, but researchers believe that there are certain important milestones one must hit within each age group. Today, we’re taking a look at the timeline of emotional maturation a child typically goes through, and how you can help influence an emotionally well-balanced child.
While scientists are unable to study the private feelings of infants, they can focus on observable displays of emotion, such as facial expressions. An observable “social smile”, or a smile that communicates pleasure in response to adult smiles or interactions, occurs between 6 and 10 weeks of age. When a baby smiles, they elicit a positive response in adults, which reinforces a positive cycle.
As children progress, they start to smile in response to a wider variety of contexts. Laughter is introduced as a response to an action that deviates from the norm between the ages of 3 and 4 months, further advancing the social development of the child. By the time a baby is in the later stages of infancy (7-12 months), infants will begin to exhibit social referencing. This is when a child recognizes emotions of others and uses the information to respond to new situations and people. If an adult becomes alarmed when the child approaches something dangerous, the child will mimic the behavior and avoid that thing. Cues portrayed by primary caregivers are vital to an infant’s understanding of the world at this young age.
You can easily boost your child’s emotional and social development by being actively engaged. Respond to infant noises with happy vocalizations to build communication skills. When your child points, be sure to follow with your eyes and remark on items of interest. This creates “joint attention” which encourages exploration. Make eye contact often, and limit cell phone use to discourage your child from tuning you out. The best way to encourage a growing brain is to establish a close relationship between the child and the caregiver.
Between 12 months and 2 ½ years, children begin to become self-aware. This is the time in a child’s life that spoken communication begins to become prevalent, when children can verbally express their feelings. A 1986 social experiment found that by the age of 20 months, 30% of American children could correctly identify a series of emotional states that included pain, distress, disgust, affection, and sleep-fatigue.
It is around this stage that empathy, the ability to understand and share feelings of another, begins to emerge. Children can understand that other people are experiencing emotions they may or may not share in that instance, and can actively try to soothe the person. Children who are empathetic do better in school, social situations, and adult careers. A child with a well-developed sense of empathy is often seen as a leader amongst their peers as they get into their teen years.
Empathy is an incredibly important emotion that has been overlooked in recent years. A 2010 study by researchers at the University of Michigan found that kids today are 40 percent less empathetic than their peers were 30 years ago. This could be attributed to several societal developments – the need to always be on the go, our fascination with computer screens, or a priority of academics over emotional development. A recent Harvard study in which 10,000 middle and high school kids were surveyed found that success was deemed more important than being a caring person. This center-of-the-world attitude does little to benefit children, and can be a major barrier to emotional maturity as they become adults.
To encourage an empathetic toddler, encourage communication about other people’s emotions. If a child is upset about cancelled plans, recognize that emotion and talk about another instance in which you found yourself disappointed when things did not work out the way you wanted them to. Role play with toys or puppets, then ask how the characters might feel about the interaction. Teach your child to be aware of the world around him or her by demonstrating the correct way to act when you interact with people outside of your family or community. If you can instill a sense of awareness at this young age, your child will grow to be a socially successful individual.
Children who are elementary school-aged have a very good grasp on regulating their emotions, and are beginning to mask emotional responses in socially appropriate ways. At this age, children have developed a set of expectations for how others will react when they express their emotions. Children regulate feelings of anger or sadness when they talk with their peers more than when they talk to their parents for fear of being teased or belittled by friends.
Children between the ages of 7 and 11 are also able to rationalize and cope with negative situations to minimize the impact of that experience, which in turn changes their emotional response. For example, if a child is banned from going to the park, they could tell themselves, “at least I can still watch TV inside.” This type of behavior helps a child to re-structure a scenario to make it less upsetting or threatening.
During these years, children start to recognize that emotional states of others are not a simple as they imagined in previous years. Being able to recognize that they can feel several emotions at once, such as finding a moment “bittersweet”, begins to slowly evolve. Having mixed feelings fully takes shape around the age of 10. Children with parents that restrict or severely punish behavior tend to show less empathy at this age.
It’s important to listen to a child when they express their feelings at this age. By expressing feelings, children can learn to cope and overcome any emotional obstacles they’re experiencing. Take the opportunity to be present in your child’s life and offer guidance. Offer support and encourage children to problem-solve when needed. When we help children feel safe enough to feel and express emotion, we help them trust their own emotional process.
By the time children reach their adolescent years, they are well equipped to interpret social situations and a manage emotional displays. At this age, children begin to break emotionally intimate ties with their parents and reform them with their peers. Adolescents also experience a heightened sensitivity to peer evaluation, which makes them more self-aware of their role in societal structure. Finding an identity at this time in their life is crucial to figuring out where they fit in the world.
At this stage, children are less interested in the opinions of their parents, but it’s still vital that you maintain an emotional connection. Continue to be a role model in the way that you behave with other people, and be open about your feelings. Encourage them to share their emotions, and look for “teachable moments” when the opportunity arises. Teenagers are extremely self-conscious, so focus on praising non-physical aspects of social development, such as trying hard at school and being a good friend.
Emotionally mature children grow up to lead rewarding and satisfying lives, and able to overcome adversity with ease. They are generally more successful than their emotionally immature counterparts, and know how to learn from past experiences. Because emotional maturity is not something we’re born with, parents play a vital role in shaping their child’s future emotional acuity. Every day, psychologists and researchers are discovering more about the developing mind, and are coming up with new ways to mold happy, well-adjusted individuals. It is essential that we foster a generation people who are both self-aware and socially connected.