Emotional Development of Young Children Part I : From Infancy to Toddlerhood

The development of emotions and feelings begins early since infancy. Healthy emotional development relies on biological make-up and social environmental factors, in particular, the quality of relationship with carers. Professionals working with children and families need to be sensitive to children’s emotional needs and alert to risks on their emotional development.

The Core Features of Emotional Development

Emotional development includes the ability to identify and understand own feelings, to accurately read and comprehend emotions in others, to develop empathy for others, to express and manage emotions, to self-regulate behaviour and to form social relationships.1 These abilities do not appear at birth but develop throughout the course of the child’s development and even into adulthood. A brief description of the developmental ‘milestones’ of emotional development for 0 to 2 years old is summarized below and you will find discussion of older preschool children’s emotional development in Part II, our later issue.

The main task of the newborns is to try to regulate their immature physiological responses for coming to terms with their shift from womb to a much wider world full of stimuli. Distress is a prominent emotional expression at this stage characterized by irregular breathing, skin colour change, jitteriness, startles, excessive motor movements and crying.2 From around the second and third months, more expressions appear including social smiles, more effortful concentration in gaze and cooing especially in responding to the carer’s face. At this age, they can also discriminate emotions of adults by responding differentially to happiness, sadness or anger expressed in the adult’s voice and face.3,4 With the development of cognition, at around 8 to 9 months, babies do not just discriminate the emotions of others, but begin to appreciate others’ emotional expressions as pertaining to specific contexts, e.g. a baby tends not to crawl across a seemingly dangerous platform when mother expresses fear but is happy to do so when mother shows approval with smile. This ability is called ‘social referencing’ which helps babies obtain clues for deciding whether and how to explore objects. By one year of age, babies already display an array of expressions including disgust, sadness, surprise, fear, anger and joy.5

In the second year of life, children build on the ability of social referencing and develop ‘emotional eavesdropping’, i.e. they learn about how people respond to actions from adults’ emotional exchanges which they are not involved. They may refrain from playing with the toy after they witnessed adult A playing with the toy and adult B was angry about it.6 Children at this age also begin to develop self-awareness and more complex ‘self-conscious’ emotions such as embarrassment, shame, guilt and pride.7 Empathy begins to emerge around 18 months but it is not until 2 years old that children demonstrate less self-centred responses. They are able to be aware of others’ feeling and match with their own feeling.5,7 From 2 years of age, children develop rapidly in language and thinking and they begin to be able to express their emotions by using feeling words.

Attachment and Responsive Parenting

The quality of relationship with carers as an important factor for emotional development can be best illustrated by the concept of attachment. Attachment is used to describe “the infant’s or young child’s emotional connection to an adult caregiver – an attachment figure – as inferred from the child’s tendency to turn selectively to that adult to increase proximity when needing comfort, support, nurturance or protection.” (Zeanah, Berlin & Boris, 2011, p.819) The attachment relationship is described as a developmental process formed over time.7,8 While a baby seeks proximity to his/her carer(s) by instinct, preference to a particular carer emerges usually after 2 months old. Around 7 months old, babies will demonstrate fear to strangers and anxiety in separating with the main carer, signifying the phase of strong attachment to the main attachment figure, which is usually the parent.

How is strong attachment or attachment bond formed between the baby and the parent? Both the father and the mother have their autonomic responses of preoccupation, romantic love and caring (associated with the hormone oxytocin) triggered by seeing their baby. At the same time, babies have a predisposition to respond to social cues.9 Through daily parenting practices of caring, feeding and holding etc, the parent picks up the baby’s emotional signals and engage with the baby in responsive to-and-fro or ‘serve and return’ interactions10 with close connection established. These expressive exchanges help the baby learn about emotional expressions in his/her life. Securely attached children usually have parents that have the following features of responsive parenting:11

  1. Mutuality and Synchrony – both parent and child engage in coordinated activities in similar emotional tone and pace
  2. Sensitivity – awareness of child’s signals with accurate interpretation
  3. Responsiveness – prompt and appropriate in responding to child’s signals

The attachment bond can be observed more clearly when the baby becomes more mobile. When the child feels safe and delighted having the parent as a secure base, he/she will move away from the parent to explore; when the child experiences fear, feeling tired or unwell, he/she will go back to the parent to seek comfort.12,13,14 The responsive parent will be there to offer support for the child to cope with stress, helping the child to recover from emotional turmoil soon. When the child can receive a balance between security to promote exploration and comfort when feeling distressed, the child has secure attachment with the parent. When the balance is upset, in the case that either the parent cannot make the child feel secure to explore, or is unable to offer comfort to the child, insecure attachment occurs between the child and the parent. The child may then feel distressed, anxious or angry with the parent. 

Long-term studies found that securely attached toddlers were more likely to grow up into children and adolescents who had better social relationships, higher self-confidence, more self-reliant, recovered more quickly from distress and had less emotional problems.15,16,17

The Interplay between Biology, Life Stresses and Emotions

Genes set the blueprint for brain development early before birth. Nonetheless, the brain architecture is shaped by the interaction between genetics and experience.  Research shows that early brain development is critical to pave the way not just for cognitive development, but also for emotional development of children.1

The key influential experience is in the reciprocal interaction between the baby and the carer which results in multiplications of neuron connections in the developing brain. At the same time, responsive ‘serve and return’ interactions with a sensitive and loving carer forms the basis of a secure and trusting relationship10,18,19 which lays the cornerstone for emotional development.

Genes may contribute to the temperament of children and temperament is children’s biological reactivity to the environment (e.g. irritable or placid, timid or curious to novel stimuli, activity level, adaptability and persistence). So some children may be more vulnerable to negative emotions due to genetic factor. However, some children may be more vulnerable to environmental threats as temperament may interact with social experience, e.g. when support and comfort from the parent are not available. Studies showed that insensitive parents, or either the child or the parent underwent severe stress such as abuse and domestic violence would make children with certain genes more vulnerable to emotional disturbance.20,21,22 As for the interplay between life stresses and emotion, long-term research found that attachment type (secure or insecure) in early childhood could be changed by negative life events in adolescence and adulthood.23,24

What We Can Do

In view of the importance of social environment for children’s emotional development, professionals working with children and families could help by offering:

  1. Early prevention through parenting education to sharpen parents’ sensitivity and responsiveness to baby’s signals of needs25
  2. Early intervention in helping parents or potential parents to cope with life stress such that they can have more regulated emotions to function as responsive parents
  3. Early identification of risk factors and interventions for children and families undergoing chronic stresses. e.g. rehabilitation for parents with drug misuse with support in parenting. This is essential to protect children’s development from severe or so-called ‘toxic’ harms26 and to restore the family’s vital resources as nurturing carers
  4. High quality educare with responsive care for children provides a source to moderate emotional harm on children27 especially when responsive parenting is not available for them. Examples of evidence-based programmes can be found in this webpage.


  1. National Scientific Council on the Developing Child (2004a) Children’s Emotional Development Is Built into the Architecture of Their Brains: Working Paper No. 2.
  2. Nugent, J.K., Keefer, C.H., Minear, S., Johnson, L.C. & Blachard, Y. (2007) Understanding Newborn Behavior & Early Relationships. Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co.
  3. Haviland, J. M., & Lelwica, M. (1987). The induced affect response: 10-week-old infants' responses to three emotion expressions. Developmental Psychology, 23(1), 97-104.
  4. Walker-Andrews, A. S. (1997). Infants' perception of expressive behaviors: Differentiation of multimodal information. Psychological Bulletin, 121(3), 437-456.
  5. Bee, H. (2000) The Developing Child (9th Ed). Massechusetts: Allyn & Bacon.
  6. Meltzoff, A.N., & Kuhl, P.K. (2016) Exploring the Infant Social Brain: What’s Going on in There? Zero to Three Journal, 36(3), 2-9.
  7. Zeanah, C.H., Berlin, L.J., & Boris, N.W. (2011) Practitioner review: Clinical applications of attachment theory and research for infants and young children. Journal of Child Psychology & Psychiatry, 52(8), 819-833.
  8. Bowlby, J. (1982). Attachment and Loss. Vol. 1 Attachment. Basic books.
  9. Murray, L. (2014) The Psychology of Babies. London: Constable & Robinson Ltd.
  10. National Scientific Council on the Developing Child (2004b). Young children Develop in an Environment of Relationships. Working Paper No. 1.
  11. Department of Child and Adolescent Health and Development, World Health Organisation (2004) The importance of caregiver-child interactions for the survival and healthy development of young children: a reviewexternal link. WHO.
  12. Bowlby, J. (1988). A Secure Base: Parent-Child Attachment and Healthy Human Development. Basic books.
  13. Circle of Security International (2014) Circle of Security Animation.
  14. Cassidy, J. (2008) The nature of the child’s ties. in Cassidy, J. & Shaver, P.R. (Eds) Handbook of Attachment. New York: The Guildford Press.
  15. Sroufe, L.A. (2000). Early relationships and the development of children. Infant Mental Health Journal, 21(1-2), 67-74.
  16. Sroufe, L. A., Egeland, B., & Kreutzer, T. (1990) The fate of early experience following developmental change: Longitudinal approaches to individual adaptation in childhood. Child Development, 61(5), 1363-1373.
  17. Elicker, J., Englund, M., & Sroufe, L. A. (1992) Predicting peer competence and peer relationships in childhood from early parent-child relationships. in R. Parke & G. Ladd (Eds) Family-Peer Relations: Modes of Linkage. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
  18. National Scientific Council on the Developing Child (2007) The Science of Early Childhood Development.
  19. Family Health Service, Department of Health (30 Jan, 2015). Early child development from the scientific point of view (Part I). Retrieved from http://www.fhs.gov.hk/english/health_professional/OMP_eNewsletter/enews_20150128.html
  20. Rosenblum, K.L., Dayton, C.J., & Muzik, M. (2009) Infant social and emotional development. in Zeanah, C.H. (Ed) Handbook of Infant Mental Health. New York: Guilford Press.
  21. Kaufman, J., Yang, B. Z., Douglas-Palumberi, H., Houshyar, S., Lipschitz, D., Krystal, J. H., & Gelernter, J. (2004). Social supports and serotonin transporter gene moderate depression in maltreated children. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 101(49), 17316-17321.
  22. Meins, E. (2017) Overrated: The predictive power of attachment. The Psychologist, Vol.30, pp.20-24.
  23. Hamilton, C. E. (2000) Continuity and Discontinuity of Attachment from Infancy through Adolescence. Child Development, 71(3), 690-694.
  24. Waters, E., Merrick, S., Treboux, D., Crowell, J., & Albersheim, L. (2000) Attachment Security in Infancy and Early Adulthood: A Twenty-Year Longitudinal Study. Child Development, 71(3), 684-689.
  25. van den Boom, D.C. (1994). The influence of temperament and mothering on attachment and exploration: An experimental manipulation of sensitive responsiveness among low-class mothers with irritable infants. Child Development, 65(5), 1457-1477.
  26. Center on the Developing Child, Harvard University. Key Concepts: Toxic Stress.
  27. Institute of Medicine and National Research Council. (2015). Transforming the workforce for children birth through age 8: A unifying foundation. National Academies Press.