Children's Social And Emotional Development

A child’s emotion regulation abilities are reflected in their manner of behaviour and by their social interactions with others in their various environments.

By Nithya Poornima

Children's Social And Emotional Development

Emotion regulation skills help a child identify and manage his diverse range of emotions. Dr. Nithya Poornima discusses this critical phase of social and emotional development when toddlers are beginning to establish the ability to manage their emotions.

1. What are emotions?

While there are various scientific definitions, emotions are basically bodily responses to a circumstance that creates a change in body functions like blood flow, heart rate and even the way neurotransmitters work.

2. At what age do children develop emotions?

Children begin to experience emotions right from birth. In fact, babies have been known to experience emotions even while in the womb. Children are extremely aware of their bodily responses. In fact, even a new-born infant will respond to things or occurrences in his environment that are comfortable or uncomfortable to him.

3. Can young children be taught emotion regulation skills?

Most of these skills are learnt and a majority of this learning takes place between the ages of 2 and 5 years.

4. How do we develop emotion regulation skills in young children?

Children develop their emotion regulation skills mainly by observing the responses of their parents or primary caregivers and adapting to these responses. Therefore, it is crucial that the parents or primary care-givers are attuned to their own emotions so that they are able to distinguish their emotional responses from their child’s emotional responses. It is also important for the parent to be sensitive to the reaction of a child’s experience of an occurrence.

For example, a 3-year-old child may have an intense emotional reaction to going out or meeting someone or even to not being given something specific to eat. These incidents, however, may not have a similar effect on an adult. If the parent is able to validate and empathise with this emotion, the child can recognise this reaction and perhaps begin to understand why he is feeling this way.

It is also important to understand that accepting a child’s emotions is different from giving in to a child’s demands. For example, when a parent can validate the emotion that a child is experiencing when he is refused a chocolate at bedtime, he will be able to handle himself even though he does not get what he wants. Instead of giving into the child’s demands or his emotional outburst, the parent can give him a hug or explain to him that it is okay to feel upset. This ‘emotional containment’ helps the child recognise accepting the emotion.

5. Can young children be taught to regulate their emotions?

The architecture of the brain is built with experiences. Every time a child experiences an emotion being felt and accepted, the child’s own brain architecture for emotional development is fostered. When a parent is emotionally available for the child or responds positively to the child’s emotions, it largely influences the way the child’s emotion regulation skills develop, and the child learns to regulate his emotions accordingly.

6. What is the connection between emotion regulation skills? Does one depend on or impact the other?

The skills of emotional development are closely linked with each other. The ability to regulate our emotions or even recognise others’ emotions largely depends on our ability to identify, understand or be aware of our own emotions.

Go through this article that looks at the different cognitive development milestones in children and why they are important for overall growth and development.

7. What role do parents and family play in emotional and social skills development?

Right from birth, parents and or the primary caregiver mainly influences the child’s social and emotional development. Each child is different – they have their own temperaments, some may express their emotions more intensely than others while some may find even a minor change uncomfortable and will convey their distress for a prolonged period.

So, it is important for a parent to understand the child’s nature and respond appropriately. There are instances where infants are found to be frequently uncomfortable or distressed. It is important for parents to be alert as this might be a sign of an emotional behavioural condition.

In this case, it is advised to seek professional help as this could affect the formation of the child’s brain architecture. This architecture may be modified, but as the child grows the degree and the pace at which it can be modified reduces.

8. How do preschool and kindergarten influence or facilitate social and emotional skills building?

The essential means of facilitating emotional skills building in preschool is to accept and acknowledge the child’s emotion, whatever it may be. For example, if the child is upset about something, he should be assured that it is okay to feel so rather than telling him not to be angry or sad.

Else, these emotions have a way of expressing themselves in other ways. It is also important to allow the child to express unpleasant emotions, especially those termed ‘unacceptable’, as opposed to expressing only emotions of happiness or excitement. This enables him to handle any emotion he will experience.

9. What role does attachment play in child development?

Attachment is one of the most crucial factors that influence child development. Children look to form a positive attachment with a stable adult. This is significant for a variety of reasons like their sense of safety, well-being and development of their cognitive, social and emotional skills.

10. What are the protective factors that contribute to building resilience in children?

There are various significant factors that influence this. Some of them are:

  • Positive interactions between adults
  • Parents or caregivers spending adequate time and being available to respond with support and reassurance to the child’s needs.
  • The child’s own development – the child is crossing his milestones normally without any delay.
  • Suitable environmental support whether it is for play or learning

11. What are adaptive and maladaptive behaviours? How do children learn these?

Adaptive behaviours in this context are those that enable children to express their emotion and regulate their emotion within a reasonable time frame. Maladaptive behaviours are those that prevent the child from expressing their emotions in safe ways and prolong the experience of the emotion over an extended period of time.

Children, particularly below the age of six years, are extremely responsive to their environments. Adaptive and maladaptive behaviours can be influenced by various factors like the child’s own temperament, events in the family or school and the parent’s response to the child’s emotional expressions.

They can also be indications of some other critical behavioural issues in the child. It is important to examine these behaviours from the child’s perspective in order to understand why the child is behaving in this manner as the child may not be able to express or explain the reason for his actions.

Most importantly, parents, family and a stable environment positively influence a child’s social and emotional development and his mental well-being. The emotional availability of an adult provides a positive support that helps the child regulate, express and communicate his emotions effectively. 

The author is Assistant Professor, Department of Clinical Psychology, NIMHANS, Bengaluru.

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