Emotional and Social Development in Early Childhood

 Emotional and Social Development in Early Childhood

What are some of the key concepts related to emotional and social development during this phase? What are some of the important issues that children of this age may face and how can they be assessed and treated?

chapter 8 Emotional and Social Development in Early Childhood

During the preschool years, children make great strides in understanding the thoughts and feelings of others, and they build on these skills as they form first friendships—special relationships marked by attachment and common interests.

chapter outline


· ■  SOCIAL ISSUES: EDUCATION  Young Children Learn About Gender Through Mother–Child Conversations

·  Child Rearing and Emotional and Social Development

·   Styles of Child Rearing

·   What Makes Authoritative Child Rearing Effective?

·   Cultural Variations

·   Child Maltreatment


As the children in Leslie’s classroom moved through the preschool years, their personalities took on clearer definition. By age 3, they voiced firm likes and dislikes as well as new ideas about themselves. “Stop bothering me,” Sammy said to Mark, who had reached for Sammy’s beanbag as Sammy aimed it toward the mouth of a large clown face. “See, I’m great at this game,” Sammy announced with confidence, an attitude that kept him trying, even though he missed most of the throws.

The children’s conversations also revealed early notions about morality. Often they combined adults’ statements about right and wrong with forceful attempts to defend their own desires. “You’re ‘posed to share,” stated Mark, grabbing the beanbag out of Sammy’s hand.

“I was here first! Gimme it back,” demanded Sammy, pushing Mark. The two boys struggled until Leslie intervened, provided an extra set of beanbags, and showed them how they could both play.

As the interaction between Sammy and Mark reveals, preschoolers quickly become complex social beings. Young children argue, grab, and push, but cooperative exchanges are far more frequent. Between ages 2 and 6, first friendships form, in which children converse, act out complementary roles, and learn that their own desires for companionship and toys are best met when they consider others’ needs and interests.

The children’s developing understanding of their social world was especially apparent in their growing attention to the dividing line between male and female. While Priti and Karen cared for a sick baby doll in the housekeeping area, Sammy, Vance, and Mark transformed the block corner into a busy intersection. “Green light, go!” shouted police officer Sammy as Vance and Mark pushed large wooden cars and trucks across the floor. Already, the children preferred peers of their own gender, and their play themes mirrored their culture’s gender stereotypes.

This chapter is devoted to the many facets of early childhood emotional and social development. We begin with Erik Erikson’s theory, which provides an overview of personality change in the preschool years. Then we consider children’s concepts of themselves, their insights into their social and moral worlds, their gender typing, and their increasing ability to manage their emotional and social behaviors. Finally, we ask, What is effective child rearing? And we discuss the complex conditions that support good parenting or lead it to break down.

image1 Erikson’s Theory: Initiative versus Guilt

Erikson ( 1950 ) described early childhood as a period of “vigorous unfolding.” Once children have a sense of autonomy, they become less contrary than they were as toddlers. Their energies are freed for tackling the psychological conflict of the preschool years:  initiative versus guilt . As the word initiative suggests, young children have a new sense of purposefulness. They are eager to tackle new tasks, join in activities with peers, and discover what they can do with the help of adults. They also make strides in conscience development.

Erikson regarded play as a means through which young children learn about themselves and their social world. Play permits preschoolers to try new skills with little risk of criticism and failure. It also creates a small social organization of children who must cooperate to achieve common goals. Around the world, children act out family scenes and highly visible occupations—police officer, doctor, and nurse in Western societies, rabbit hunter and potter among the Hopi Indians, hut builder and spear maker among the Baka of West Africa (Göncü, Patt, & Kouba,  2004 ).

Recall that Erikson’s theory builds on Freud’s psychosexual stages (see  Chapter 1 ,  page 16 ). In Freud’s Oedipus and Electra conflicts, to avoid punishment and maintain parents’ affection, children form a superego, or conscience, by identifying with the same-sex parent. As a result, they adopt the moral and gender-role standards of their society. For Erikson, the negative outcome of early childhood is an overly strict superego that causes children to feel too much guilt because they have been threatened, criticized, and punished excessively by adults. When this happens, preschoolers’ exuberant play and bold efforts to master new tasks break down.

A Guatemalan 3-year-old pretends to shell corn. By acting out family scenes and highly visible occupations, young children around the world develop a sense of initiative, gaining insight into what they can do and become in their culture.

Although Freud’s ideas are no longer accepted as satisfactory explanations of conscience development, Erikson’s image of initiative captures the diverse changes in young children’s emotional and social lives. Early childhood is, indeed, a time when children develop a confident self-image, more effective control over their emotions, new social skills, the foundations of morality, and a clear sense of themselves as boy or girl.

image2 Self-Understanding

The development of language enables young children to talk about their own subjective experience of being. In  Chapter 7 , we noted that young children acquire a vocabulary for talking about their inner mental lives and gain in understanding of mental states. As self-awareness strengthens, preschoolers focus more intently on qualities that make the self unique. They begin to develop a  self-concept , the set of attributes, abilities, attitudes, and values that an individual believes defines who he or she is.

Foundations of Self-Concept

Ask a 3- to 5-year-old to tell you about himself, and you are likely to hear something like this: “I’m Tommy. See, I got this new red T-shirt. I’m 4 years old. I can wash my hair all by myself. I have a new Tinkertoy set, and I made this big, big tower.” Preschoolers’ self-concepts consist largely of observable characteristics, such as their name, physical appearance, possessions, and everyday behaviors (Harter,  2006 ; Watson,  1990 ).

By age 3½, children also describe themselves in terms of typical emotions and attitudes—“I’m happy when I play with my friends”; “I don’t like scary TV programs”; “I usually do what Mommy says”—suggesting a beginning understanding of their unique psychological characteristics (Eder & Mangelsdorf,  1997 ). And by age 5, children’s degree of agreement with such statements coincides with maternal reports of their personality traits, indicating that older preschoolers have a sense of their own timidity, agreeableness, and positive or negative affect (Brown et al.,  2008 ). But preschoolers do not yet say, “I’m helpful” or “I’m shy.” Direct references to personality traits must wait for greater cognitive maturity.

A warm, sensitive parent–child relationship seems to foster a more positive, coherent early self-concept. In one study, 4-year-olds with a secure attachment to their mothers were more likely than their insecurely attached agemates to describe themselves in favorable terms at age 5—with statements that reflect agreeableness and positive affect (Goodvin et al.,  2008 ). Also recall from  Chapter 7  that securely attached preschoolers participate in more elaborative parent–child conversations about personally experienced events, which help them understand themselves (see  page 240 ).

Cultural Influences Cultural Variations in Personal Storytelling: Implications for Early Self-Concept

Preschoolers of many cultural backgrounds participate in personal storytelling with their parents. Striking cultural differences exist in parents’ selection and interpretation of events in these narratives, affecting the way children view themselves.

In one study, researchers spent thousands of hours studying the storytelling practices of six middle-SES Irish-American families in Chicago and six middle-SES Chinese families in Taiwan. From extensive videotapes of adults’ conversations with the children from age 2½; to 4, the investigators identified personal stories and coded them for content (Miller, Fung, & Mintz,  1996 ; Miller et al.,  1997 ,  2012 ).

Parents in both cultures discussed pleasurable holidays and family excursions in similar ways and with similar frequency. But five times more often than the Irish-American parents, the Chinese parents told long stories about their preschooler’s previous misdeeds—using impolite language, writing on the wall, or playing in an overly rowdy way. These narratives, often sparked by a current misdeed, were used as opportunities to educate: Parents conveyed stories with warmth and caring, stressed the impact of misbehavior on others (“You made Mama lose face”), and often ended with direct teaching of proper behavior and a moral lesson (“Saying dirty words is not good”). By contrast, in the few instances in which Irish-American stories referred to transgressions, parents downplayed their seriousness, attributing them to the child’s spunk and assertiveness.

Early narratives about the child launch preschoolers’ self-concepts on culturally distinct paths (Miller, Fung, & Koven,  2007 ). Influenced by Confucian traditions of strict discipline and social obligations, Chinese parents integrated these values into their stories, affirming the importance of not disgracing the family and explicitly conveying expectations for improvement in the story’s conclusion. Although Irish-American parents disciplined their children, they rarely dwelt on misdeeds in storytelling. Rather, they cast the child’s shortcomings in a positive light, perhaps to promote self-esteem.

A Chinese mother speaks gently to her child about proper behavior. Chinese parents often tell preschoolers stories that point out the negative impact on others of the child’s misdeeds. The Chinese child’s self-concept, in turn, emphasizes social obligations.

Whereas most Americans believe that favorable self-esteem is crucial for healthy development, Chinese adults generally see it as unimportant or even negative—as impeding the child’s willingness to listen and be corrected (Miller et al., 2002). Consistent with this view, the Chinese parents did little to cultivate their child’s individuality. Instead, they used storytelling to guide the child toward responsible behavior. Hence, the Chinese child’s self-image emphasizes obligations to others, whereas the American child’s is more autonomous.

As early as age 2, parents use narratives of past events to impart rules, standards for behavior, and evaluative information about the child: “You added the milk when we made the mashed potatoes. That’s a very important job!” (Nelson,  2003 ). As the  Cultural Influences  box above reveals, these self-evaluative narratives are a major means through which caregivers imbue the young child’s self-concept with cultural values.

As they talk about personally significant events and as their cognitive skills advance, preschoolers gradually come to view themselves as persisting over time. Around age 4, children first become certain that a video image of themselves replayed a few minutes after it was filmed is still “me” (Povinelli,  2001 ). Similarly, when researchers asked 3- to 5-year-olds to imagine a future event (walking next to a waterfall) and to envision a future personal state by choosing from three items (a raincoat, money, a blanket) the one they would need to bring with them, performance—along with future-state justifications (“I’m gonna get wet”)—increased sharply from age 3 to 4 (Atance & Meltzoff,  2005 ).

Emergence of Self-Esteem

Another aspect of self-concept emerges in early childhood:  self-esteem , the judgments we make about our own worth and the feelings associated with those judgments.  TAKE A MOMENT … Make a list of your own self-judgments. Notice that, besides a global appraisal of your worth as a person, you have a variety of separate self-evaluations concerning how well you perform at different activities. These evaluations are among the most important aspects of self-development because they affect our emotional experiences, future behavior, and long-term psychological adjustment.

By age 4, preschoolers have several self-judgments—for example, about learning things in school, making friends, getting along with parents, and treating others kindly (Marsh, Ellis, & Craven,  2002 ). But because they have difficulty distinguishing between their desired and their actual competence, they usually rate their own ability as extremely high and underestimate task difficulty, as when Sammy asserted, despite his many misses, that he was great at beanbag throwing (Harter,  2003 ,  2006 ).

After creating a “camera” and “flash,” this pre-schooler pretends to take pictures. Her high self-esteem contributes greatly to her initiative in mastering many new skills.

High self-esteem contributes greatly to preschoolers’ initiative during a period in which they must master many new skills. By age 3, children whose parents patiently encourage while offering information about how to succeed are enthusiastic and highly motivated. In contrast, children whose parents criticize their worth and performance give up easily when faced with a challenge and express shame and despondency after failing (Kelley, Brownell, & Campbell,  2000 ). Adults can avoid promoting these self-defeating reactions by adjusting their expectations to children’s capacities, scaffolding children’s attempts at difficult tasks (see  Chapter 7 ,  page 234 ), and pointing out effort and improvement in children’s behavior.

image3 Emotional Development

Gains in representation, language, and self-concept support emotional development in early childhood. Between ages 2 and 6, children make strides in emotional abilities that, collectively, researchers refer to as emotional competence (Halberstadt, Denham, & Dunsmore,  2001 ; Saarni et al.,  2006 ). First, preschoolers gain in emotional understanding, becoming better able to talk about feelings and to respond appropriately to others’ emotional signals. Second, they become better at emotional self-regulation—in particular, at coping with intense negative emotion. Finally, preschoolers more often experience self-conscious emotions and empathy, which contribute to their developing sense of morality.

Parenting strongly influences preschoolers’ emotional competence. Emotional competence, in turn, is vital for successful peer relationships and overall mental health.

Understanding Emotion

Early in the preschool years, children refer to causes, consequences, and behavioral signs of emotion, and over time their understanding becomes more accurate and complex (Stein & Levine,  1999 ). By age 4 to 5, children correctly judge the causes of many basic emotions (“He’s happy because he’s swinging very high”; “He’s sad because he misses his mother”). Preschoolers’ explanations tend to emphasize external factors over internal states, a balance that changes with age (Levine,  1995 ). After age 4, children appreciate that both desires and beliefs motivate behavior ( Chapter 7 ). Then their grasp of how internal factors can trigger emotion expands.

Preschoolers can also predict what a playmate expressing a certain emotion might do next. Four-year-olds know that an angry child might hit someone and that a happy child is more likely to share (Russell,  1990 ). And they realize that thinking and feeling are interconnected—that a person reminded of a previous sad experience is likely to feel sad (Lagattuta, Wellman, & Flavell,  1997 ). Furthermore, they come up with effective ways to relieve others’ negative feelings, such as hugging to reduce sadness (Fabes et al.,  1988 ).

At the same time, preschoolers have difficulty interpreting situations that offer conflicting cues about how a person is feeling. When asked what might be happening in a picture of a happy-faced child with a broken bicycle, 4- and 5-year-olds tended to rely only on the emotional expression: “He’s happy because he likes to ride his bike.” Older children more often reconciled the two cues: “He’s happy because his father promised to help fix his broken bike” (Gnepp,  1983 ; Hoffner & Badzinski,  1989 ). As in their approach to Piagetian tasks, preschoolers focus on the most obvious aspect of an emotional situation to the neglect of other relevant information.

The more parents label emotions, explain them, and express warmth and enthusiasm when conversing with preschoolers, the more “emotion words” children use and the better developed their emotional understanding (Fivush & Haden,  2005 ; Laible & Song,  2006 ). In one study, mothers who explained feelings and who negotiated and compromised during conflicts with their 2½-year-olds had children who, at age 3, were advanced in emotional understanding and used similar strategies to resolve disagreements (Laible & Thompson,  2002 ). Furthermore, 3- to 5-year-olds who are securely attached to their mothers better understand emotion. Attachment security is related to warmer and more elaborative parent–child narratives, including discussions of feelings that highlight the emotional significance of events (Laible,  2004 ; Laible & Song,  2006 ; Raikes & Thompson,  2006 ).

As preschoolers learn about emotion from interacting with adults, they engage in more emotion talk with siblings and friends, especially during make-believe play (Hughes & Dunn,  1998 ). Make-believe, in turn, contributes to emotional understanding, especially when children play with siblings (Youngblade & Dunn,  1995 ). The intense nature of the sibling relationship, combined with frequent acting out of feelings, makes pretending an excellent context for learning about emotions.

Applying What We Know Helping Children Manage Common Fears of Early Childhood

Fear Suggestion
Monsters, ghosts, and darkness Reduce exposure to frightening stories in books and on TV until the child is better able to sort out appearance from reality. Make a thorough “search” of the child’s room for monsters, showing him that none are there. Leave a night-light burning, sit by the child’s bed until he falls asleep, and tuck in a favorite toy for protection.
Preschool or child care If the child resists going to preschool but seems content once there, the fear is probably separation. Provide a sense of warmth and caring while gently encouraging independence. If the child fears being at preschool, find out what is frightening—the teacher, the children, or a crowded, noisy environment. Provide extra support by accompanying the child and gradually lessening the amount of time you are present.
Animals Do not force the child to approach a dog, cat, or other animal that arouses fear. Let the child move at her own pace. Demonstrate how to hold and pet the animal, showing the child that when treated gently, the animal is friendly. If the child is larger than the animal, emphasize this: “You’re so big. That kitty is probably afraid of you!”
Intense fears If a child’s fear is intense, persists for a long time, interferes with daily activities, and cannot be reduced in any of the ways just suggested, it has reached the level of a phobia. Sometimes phobias are linked to family problems, and counseling is needed to reduce them. At other times, phobias diminish without treatment as the child’s capacity for emotional self-regulation improves.

As early as 3 to 5 years of age, knowledge about emotions is related to children’s friendly, considerate behavior, willingness to make amends after harming another, and constructive responses to disputes with agemates (Dunn, Brown, & Maguire,  1995 ; Garner & Estep,  2001 ; Hughes & Ensor,  2010 ). Also, the more preschoolers refer to feelings when interacting with playmates, the better liked they are by their peers (Fabes et al.,  2001 ). Children seem to recognize that acknowledging others’ emotions and explaining their own enhance the quality of relationships.

Emotional Self-Regulation

Language also contributes to preschoolers’ improved emotional self-regulation (Cole, Armstrong, & Pemberton,  2010 ). By age 3 to 4, children verbalize a variety of strategies for adjusting their emotional arousal to a more comfortable level. For example, they know they can blunt emotions by restricting sensory input (covering their eyes or ears to block out an unpleasant sight or sound), talking to themselves (“Mommy said she’ll be back soon”), or changing their goals (deciding that they don’t want to play anyway after being excluded from a game) (Thompson & Goodvin,  2007 ). As children use these strategies, emotional outbursts decline. Effortful control—in particular, inhibiting impulses and shifting attention—also continues to be vital in managing emotion during early childhood. Three-year-olds who can distract themselves when frustrated tend to become cooperative school-age children with few problem behaviors (Gilliom et al.,  2002 ).

Warm, patient parents who use verbal guidance, including suggesting and explaining strategies and prompting children to generate their own, strengthen children’s capacity to handle stress (Colman et al.,  2006 ; Morris et al.,  2011 ). In contrast, when parents rarely express positive emotion, dismiss children’s feelings as unimportant, and have difficulty controlling their own anger, children have continuing problems in managing emotion (Hill et al.,  2006 ; Katz & Windecker-Nelson,  2004 ; Thompson & Meyer,  2007 ).

As with infants and toddlers, preschoolers who experience negative emotion intensely find it harder to shift attention away from disturbing events and inhibit their feelings. They are more likely to be anxious and fearful, respond with irritation to others’ distress, react angrily or aggressively when frustrated, and get along poorly with teachers and peers (Chang et al.,  2003 ; Eisenberg et al.,  2005 ; Raikes et al.,  2007 ). Because these emotionally reactive children become increasingly difficult to rear, they are often targets of ineffective parenting, which compounds their poor self-regulation.

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