AUTHOR: Kristin Reinsberg, MS, LMFT

Social-Emotional Development at Different Stages

Infancy. In infancy, emotions arise primarily from physical sensations, such as hunger, fatigue, and discomfort. Emotions and feelings can easily “flood” and overwhelm the young infant, who is not yet able to soothe herself. In her first few months, she relies almost entirely upon the responsive and nurturing care of her parent to calm her and bring her back to a state of comfort and ease. This can be an overwhelming time for parents as well, as they try to discover the best ways to respond to the needs and temperament of their young infant. Yet it is through the repeated interactions of the infant ‘s needs and parent ‘s response that the infant begins to develop a sense of trust in her caregivers and in her world. This is how she develops a sense of being loved, which enhances her self-confidence and her confidence in others.

Toddler years. As the infant grows and enters toddlerhood, emotions become more complex. The young child feels many emotions with intensity and is now expressing her independence. She expresses her feelings more openly, displaying strong ideas and her wish to make her own decisions. With this newfound independence, toddlers also have a drive for exploration. This is brought about in part by increased mobility. Wander too far, however, and the toddler may find herself seeking out her parent ‘s reassuring presence before starting out again on her next adventure. A key role for parents of children at this age is one of balance: It involves encouraging exploration and choice, while maintaining a presence that ensures the toddler a sense of safety and security.

As her social world expands, the toddler is also learning how to share, how to appropriately communicate her needs, and how to negotiate in her relationships. Tough work for a two-year-old! All of these tasks require a great deal from the young child who wants it all, yet is learning that the world is not always the way she wants it to be. The kind, reassuring presence of a trusted caregiver can help the young child express her needs and manage her frustration, which promotes self-control and self-confidence.

Preschool years. By the preschool years, children ‘s feelings, ideas, and expectations of others are more fully developed. Their increasing language skills provide them with a valuable tool for expressing their emotions, managing their feelings of disappointment and aggravation, and resolving conflicts when situations do not go their way. The preschooler is more able to display a wide range of emotions as well as convey empathy for others.

With support from her caregivers, she is able to anticipate how she may feel in various situations. She can use this skill to help her problem solve and develop solutions that promote a feeling of worth and confidence. Her social relationships are becoming more complex. She continues to benefit from the support of trusted adults who help her express herself, navigate conflicts, and enjoy her developing friendships.


James Hymes’ Understanding Your Child by Kadija Johnston, LCSWLerner, C. & Dombro, A.L. (2000). Learning & Growing Together: Understanding Your Child’s Development. Washington, D.C.: ZERO TO THREE

Nelson, J., Erwin, C. & Duffy, R. (2007). Positive Discipline: The First Three Years. New York, NY: Three Rivers Press.