For a newborn, flooded with uncontrollable sensory data, to be able to transform feelings and experiences into wishes and thoughts requires a great deal of learning very early in life Emotional development, basic to all learning, takes place in a series of six developmental stages.
Regulating State of Mind
Usually in the first three or four months of life, a child developing normally acquires a powerful tool for dealing with the world: the ability to regulate his state of mind.
Every individual has a personal version of the world, and that version is the one that counts. We now know that the way our senses function are different from individual to individual, and so are our sensory experiences. If loud noises or bright lights or soft touches irritate a child, it makes no difference that others find them pleasurable. If an infant cannot organize what he sees well enough to make out his mother's smile, it makes no difference that another child can. Every child comprehends and reacts to each type of sensation in a particular and characteristic way.
From a hodgepodge of sounds, sights, smells, and tactile feelings, patterns begin to emerge. Sounds become rhythms; sights become recognizable images; the ability to control movements makes it possible for a baby to cuddle, follow an object, or stand up in Mom's lap.
This early security is the foundation for the next level of development: establishing relationships. Loving adults offer not only pleasure and excitement but also relief from distress and a safe haven where an infant can make bold declarations of anger and rage.
Beginning with rapturous attention, which Baby lovingly returns, you create a matched pair of radiant grins; a chorus of purrs, coos, and giggles; smiles at rocking and being rocked; whoops of delight at swinging and being swung. As each baby experiences opportunities for closeness, varying levels of intimacy become possible. Out of this first immersion in delirious relating comes a sense of shared humanity that can later blossom into the capacity to feel empathy and love.
As a baby begins showing her preference for people, her sense of self seems more focused on the human world. She may smile at bright colors or objects, but not with the special joyful excitement that she greets her favorite people. This first hint of emotional selectivity ushers in the second stage: a pleasurable unity with the human world.
Infants become steadily more discriminating-taking delight in Mommy's attention and knowing when that source of delight is missing.
Without some degree of ecstatic wooing by at least one adult who adores her, a child may never know the powerful intoxication of human closeness, never abandon herself to the magnetic pull of human relationships, never see other people as full human beings, capable of feeling what she feels.
Circles of Communication
Though symbols and language still lie far in the future, at about six months of age a baby begins using gestures and expressions to participate in a preverbal dialogue. We call these simple interactive sequences circles of communication.
A fundamental psychological ability, essential to all future mental development, unfolds: a child's capacity to define the boundary that separates "me" from "you." The child begins to understand that her actions can elicit responses from others. She is now able to show emotion, perceive and respond to it, and turn experiences into exchanges. Seemingly trivial gestures, first understood in late infancy, serve to anchor human relationships and define who we are for the rest of our lives.
The child has become a willful self with a "budding sense of intentionality." However, this ability will begin to grow if-and only if-the child lives in an environment that responds to her and encourages her to make use of her new power.
Purpose and Action
While a child may already know the response that his smile elicits from Mom, and may have tried out her reactions to frowns and screeches, relationships still offer vast uncharted territories to explore.
A child's picture of himself becomes clearer through gesturing back and forth. A toddler glances questioningly at his mother. She returns his look and asks, "What?" Babbling with excitement, he takes her hand and pulls her toward the refrigerator. Countless circles of communication later-pointing and questioning, leading and laughing, raising eyebrows and nodding happily-he gurgles with delight as he helps uncap the very flavor of yogurt he wanted all along.
Well before a child can talk in phrases or hop on one foot-long before be can speak-personality is being molded by countless interactions between adult and child. A toddler begins to see patterns in his own and others' behavior. Mom usually responds when he makes friendly requests, but not when she's cranky. Grandma is a good deal less strict. Gradually, a child expands the notion of how his actions, intentions, and expectations fit in with those of the people around him. Which elicit affection and approval? Which yield only rejection or anger? Is he worthy of care, attention, and respect? Are those around him also worthy?
Children identify life's most essential emotional themes and form patterns to deal with them. Growing toddlers begin to distinguish facial expressions and body postures and discriminate among basic emotions-those that mean safety and comfort from those that mean danger; approval from disapproval, acceptance from rejection. And they begin to use their new ability in increasingly complicated situations-sizing them up on the basis of subtle behavioral cues.
By 15 months or so, young children become aware that a relationship of trust and security can coexist with anger-and soon will be able to merge two quite different "meg"--an angry one and a loving oneinto a single self. They are becoming able to retain emotional bonds across space and, eventually, across time. Earlier they felt Mom's warmth only when lying in her arms or Dad's playfulness only when sitting in his lap. Now children can look up from their blocks, cross the room, see her smile, and feel of having her near.
By the middle of their second year, children gain the ability to "carry" Mommy with them across space. This helps them begin to resolve the dilemma of separation. Developing the ability to "communicate" with the people they love even when they can't touch them gives young children a powerful sense of emotional security.
Children's sense of self grows through imitating the motions, gestures, expressions, and tones of voice of the people they love. Becoming like other people by trying out their actions prepares children for the development of empathy and encourages social behavior, language, and cognitive skills.
Images, Ideas, and Symbols
At two or three years old, children begin to deal not only with behavior but with ideas. They begin to grasp that an image of something can represent the thing itself. This allows them to create an inner picture of their world.
The ability to abstract a feeling and give it a name-to know that tightness in the chest is fear, the desire to throw a punch is anger, or a lift of the heart is joy-allows children to bring emotions to a new level of awareness. For example, they can tell Dad they feel scared rather than shrieking in fear or tell Mom they want a cookie rather than dragging her to the kitchen.
For children to make this crucial transition, both their nervous system and their emotional development must be ready. They must also learn to take pleasure in contemplating the patterns in their own minds. The key, once again, is a warm, close relationship with an adult, where communication becomes important enough to provide satisfaction in itself.
The sheer enjoyment of being listened to and the satisfaction of gaining attention through the use of images motivate this first big step. Love for the important adults in their life and the pleasure they bring lead children to enjoy communication in its own right. Through interaction, adults can support an ever greater use of signals, join in pretend play, and help link the pleasure of relating to the skills of communication. You can also foster this new ability by helping children reflect and encouraging them to express their ideas.
Children accumulate words and ideas with growing ease when those words and ideas are connected to the emotions or intent of daily life. Children's memories begin to include emotions, intentions, and desires as part of expressing their individual selves. We can see how this rich inner life is growing by observing pretend play. From tea parties to putting dolly to bed, simple pretend play develops into more complicated dramas.
Play comes to embrace more and more of life's basic themes: nurturance and dependency, assertiveness and aggression, curiosity and intrigue, empathy and loving, limits and boundaries, fears and anxieties. Ideally, all become part of the rich fabric of children's internal lives.
The pleasures of symbolic expression deepen with the years, and gradually conversation, reading, writing, poetry, mathematics, music, drama, painting, sculpture, and all the arts and sciences can become sources of profound gratification.
Even before children have mastered whole sentences, they can tie together different parts of their experiences and link ideas into sequences of inner images. This enables them to consider their actions before carrying them out and to connect ideas with emotions: "I am sad because I can't see Grandma."
Time is now separated into past, present, and future. Space is more orderly-here, there, and somewhere else. Categories of fantasy and reality emerge. As children begin to understand how their present acts relate to the future, consequences rather than fear become the basis for controlling impulses. This developmental step also contributes to children's ability to concentrate, plan, and work toward goals.
At three and four years old, children begin to form bridges between their own thoughts and those of others and see connections among many different feelings and ideas. "The doll is happy" becomes "The doll is happy because I love her"; "The teddy bear is waving bye-bye" becomes "The teddy bear is waving bye-bye because I'm leaving." Both in pretend play and in real life, plots and motivations are more elaborate. Children, at this stage, are asking "Why?" and "How?" and "What?" to create connections.
Action and satisfaction now take place internally: "Mommy's not here now, but she'll be here later." People exist in real life and within children's consciousness as their sense of reality becomes stronger, limits on behavior become more self-motivated, and moods become more stable. However, for all of this to happen, children must be nurtured through countless conversations, debates, negotiations, responses, remonstrances, and games. They must learn to argue, negotiate, and discuss.
If all goes well, growing boys and girls create strong self-images. Pictures, words, feelings, and other sensations come together: "I'm funny, nice, and stubborn." Children's minds can now put together various images they have of themselves from the immediate past, present, and future as well as from different settings (with Mom, with friends, with grandparents, and so on). However, it's important to remember that this integrated image is the result of deep behavioral, emotional, and symbolic patterns that have been forming for some time and will continue to evolve throughout life.
The emotional skills children need in order to learn and reach their true potential can be taught. Indeed, children can acquire these skills through all the ages and stages of early childhood with the support and guidance of nurturing and loving teachers and parents.