Developmental Stages of Social Emotional Development in Children

In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2024 Jan.


To understand human growth and development, healthcare professionals need to understand and learn about 2 areas: (1) knowledge of milestone competencies, for example, growth in the motor, cognitive, speech-language, and social-emotional domains, and (2) the eco-biological model of development, specifically, the interaction of environment and biology and their influence on development. This article reviews the developmental stages of social-emotional development and also discusses the role of the interprofessional team in identifying the cause of social-emotional problems and therefore, intervening effectively.

Social-emotional development covers 2 important concepts of development including the development of self or temperament and relationship to others or attachment. Clinicians will be able to identify and intervene to resolve social-emotional problems in early childhood if they have a better understanding of these concepts


Temperament is an innate attribute that defines the child’s approach to the world and his interaction with the environment across 9 dimensions which are activity level, distractibility, the intensity of emotions, regularity, sensory threshold, and the tendency to approach versus withdrawing, adaptability, persistence, and mood quality. We can define temperament as the child’s “style” or “personality,” and it is intrinsic to a child. It influences child behavior and interaction with others. Based on the above attributes that define temperament, researchers have categorized young children’s temperament into 3 broad temperamental categories:

  1. Easy or flexible: This category includes children who are friendly and easygoing, comply with routines such as sleep and mealtimes, adapt to changes, and have a calm disposition.

  2. Active or feisty: Children who are fussy, do not follow routines and have irregular feeding and sleeping schedules, are apprehensive of a new environment and new people, have intense reactions, and get easily upset.

  3. Slow to warm up or cautious: Children who may be less engaged or active, have a shy disposition to a new situation and new people, may withdraw or have a negative reaction. They become more comfortable and warm up with repeated exposure to a new environment or person.

This classification is for ease of discussion, and all temperaments will not fit into one or other categories exactly. Discussion about temperament with parents and caregivers can better identify the child’s strengths and needs. Based on this, caregivers can adapt their management and caregiving styles to match the child’s temperament. This can mold a child’s behavior and facilitate the child’s successful interaction with the environment, defined as “goodness of fit.”


The social-emotional development begins with parental bonding with the child. This bonding allows the mother to respond to the child’s needs timely and soothe their newborn. The consistent availability of the caregiver results in the development of "basic trust" and confidence in the infant for the caregiver during the first year of life. Basic trust is the first psychosocial stage described by Erickson. This allows the infant to seek for parents or the caregiver during times of stress, known as attachment.

Even before acquiring language, babies learn to communicate through emotions. One may argue that learning emotional regulation and impulse control may determine later success in life more than IQ. There is a rapid growth in social and emotional areas of the brain during the first 18 months of life. The nonverbal parts of the right brain, including the amygdala and the limbic system, receives, processes and interprets stimulus from the environment that produce an emotional response and build emotional and stress regulatory systems of the body. The lower limbic system, outside the cortex, dictates most of our spontaneous, instinctive emotional responses, like fear resulting in a racing heart or weak knees. The upper limbic system part of the cerebral cortex, known as the limbic cortex, controls conscious awareness of emotions and refines the responses according to the environmental culture of the individual. The amygdala is an almond-shaped structure that lies at the junction of the cortex and subcortical areas of the brain and plays a pivotal role in sensing emotions and connects them both to higher and lower limbic structures. During the second half of infancy, emotional information from the lower limbic system moves up and becomes part of the babies' consciousness. Frontal lobe activity increases and myelination of the limbic pathways also begin during this time. With this gain in the limbic system, a caregiver's soothing and consistent response to the child's emotions develops into the child’s attachment to the caregiver, usually the mother. Attachment is regarded as a pivotal event in a person’s emotional development. It lays the foundation of a child’s security, harbors self-esteem, and builds emotional regulation and self-control skills.

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