Emotional Development– Birth to Five Years

Emotional development refers to the attainment of emotional capabilities throughout life. These capabilities enable us to have and understand feelings within ourselves and others. Emotional development provides us with capabilities and skills that we need to function within society.

In the coming paragraphs you will find descriptions of emotional development milestones from birth to age 5. Emotional skills start developing from day one and generally progress in a predictable pattern, but as with all other areas of development, each child will develop these skills at their own individual pace.

These milestones are intended to be used as a guide only. Typical skills appear during particular age ranges however if your child is not demonstrating these at the age specified, it doesn’t mean they are delayed. Due to differing strengths, experiences and makeup, children can present skills earlier and later than the expected age range. If you still have concerns you can contact your local GP, Child Psychologist, Maternal Health Nurse or your child’s educator.

First Year

From birth, babies enjoy the sensation of being cuddled and held close. This is one of the ways they begin to establish close emotional attachments with caregivers. Forming close bonds is vital to the wellbeing of the baby during infancy and throughout life. Through responsive, loving and caring experiences, infants will develop a sense of trust and security and will be given an excellent foundation for continued emotional development.

A few months into life, babies will experience and display delight and distress through their behaviours. They will react with smiles, gurgles and coos at being tickled, rocked, stroked, cuddled and engaged in playful behaviour. They react to variations in their caregiver’s voice and show distress through anxious expressions and crying when they hear yelling or loud angry tones. As the baby grows and develops they spend less time crying, which is a relief for caregivers. At around 4 to 6 months some babies start to self-sooth by turning away from distressing stimuli, sucking fingers, etc.

From around 5 months babies begin to display a specific preference for the main caregiver. This can be concerning for the secondary caregiver however this is completely normal.

Around the age of 8 to 10 months babies may develop a fear of objects, sounds or people that wasn’t present before. Around this time stranger anxiety may also set in as they become more aware of the familiar and unfamiliar. This awareness may bring about resistance of separation from the main caregiver.

Babies of around 10 to 12 months are able to distinguish emotional expressions on familiar adults’ faces and they are able to understand that they are in fact an independent being from their primary caregiver. They are able to distinguish between positive and negative attention and may display assertiveness by resisting caregiver’s requests, throwing things down, crying or kicking.


Learning to walk brings independence to a toddler’s world. They will be more willing to explore away from their primary caregiver. However, they will usually ‘check in’ from time to time to make sure the security of the caregiver is still present. Sometimes the realisation of this new independence can lead to clingy behaviour as the toddler grapples with the thought of straying from the familiar.

As toddlers aren’t able to regulate their feelings, they seem to be on a roller coaster of emotions. Their mood can flick quickly from one emotion to another. They may become angry if their activity is interrupted or stopped. They will begin to assert their independence by refusing to cooperate with requests and refuse to participate in daily routines.

Tantrum behaviour may start to appear as early as 12 months but will hit its peak around 2 years of age. Toddlers will begin to act out their frustration and anger through physical aggression such as biting, hitting or fighting over toys.

Older toddlers display impatience as they aren’t able to defer their desires until a later stage. Toddlers want to experience immediate fulfillment of their wishes which often leads to tantrum behaviour.

Around 2 years of age toddlers begin to express empathy and caring behaviour towards those who are hurt or crying. They are also able to display the full range of emotional facial expressions.

Three Year Olds

At the age of 3, children will start to interpret emotions from facial expressions, tone and intonation. They can identify simple emotions, for instance, happy, sad, scared, angry and tired. Identifying more complex emotions such as embarrassment, guilt, worry and so on, will develop later in childhood.

Children who have just turned 3 are still led by their emotions and their behaviour is generally inconsistent. Anger, frustration, excitement and the like, will get the better of them. However as they move through to the age of 4, they will start to self regulate their feelings. This will see a decrease in tantrum behaviour and an increase in the ability to conform and cooperate.

3 year olds are less ‘ritualistic’ and cope better with changes in their routine or usual way of doing things. They will also be more eager to please and enjoy praise from adults and older peers.

Children around this age can start to develop fears. Given they find it difficult distinguishing fantasy from reality, it is common for them to fear monsters, the Boogie Man, ‘baddies’ and other make believe characters. The dark is often feared, as well as things such as robbers and dogs.

3 year old children show empathy and affection to their peers, younger children and babies. They are also more aware of and interested in their peers’ emotions.

Children at the age of 3 will generally separate from their primary caregiver so they can be left in a familiar setting such as child care or kindergarten. Being away from their primary caregiver allows them to form strong, caring relationships with other adults and children. They learn to trust other adults and become more independent.

Older 3 year olds start to understand their likes and dislikes and are able to express them in simple terms “I’m happy when I play with my kitten.”


Four Year Olds

The 4 year old child will start to identify how they feel about certain situations. They will know if they are happy, angry, scared, surprised or sad. With encouragement they can verbalise their emotions too. For instance “I feel sad that my toy broke”. They will also recognise these emotions in others and may attempt to express this, for instance “Are you angry because he took your toy?” They are becoming better at regulating their own feelings, however, 4 year olds can still become so emotional that it’s difficult to self regulate and verbally express how they feel. They may revert back to physical or emotionally fuelled responses to situations.

Testing boundaries at 4 is a way of gaining independence. 4 year olds may call others names or participate in inappropriate activities to see what the consequences will be. They love adventure, fun, silliness and excitement, particularly experienced with special friends. Their desire to fit in or be accepted by the group is starting to become important and their ability to do this will ultimately effect their confidence and self esteem.

As they grapple with power and group dynamics 4 year olds may start to exclude others from play. This can be done through name calling or verbal nastiness. Things such as “You’re not my friend!”, “Your not invited to my party” and “You can’t play with us” are all common phrases used by 4 year olds and older.

Feelings of responsibility and guilt are felt. Concern for others and sympathy are also felt.

Five Year Olds

5 year olds generally display better self control and are working towards regulating their emotions. They are developing strategies to calm and cope with their feelings. They are better at expressing their own emotions and will say things like “I feel sad when you push me, please stop it!” They are also much better at reading emotions in others and will often change their behaviour to prevent or illicit an emotional response in others. However, 5 year olds are still prone to quarrelling but arguments are short and generally quickly forgotten.

5 year olds still need emotional reassurance and the comfort of an adult. They may become jealous of peers and can display protective tendencies toward pets, siblings, parents and belongings.

At the age of 5 children have the ability to understand when they have done something wrong and that consequences given by an adult will ensue. Children at this age are more aware of themselves as part of a social group, therefore they can be embarrassed easily.

Written by Emma Butler BECS
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