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Social and Emotional Growth - The First Five Years

by Anita Gurian, PhD

Understanding one's self and others


In the first year of life wonderful and dramatic things happen. The baby usually triples her birth weight; she moves from being totally dependent to crawling or walking. She is soon able to communicate and to understand language, and by six months she understands that she is a person in her own right. During the first five years the child accomplishes more than in any other phase of life, and the foundation is established for healthy social/emotional development, as she gradually comes to understand herself as well as others. Each area of growth occurs in tandem with others—e.g. social and emotional with motor, communication with thinking.

Milestones are flexible; they are approximate times when certain abilities are observable. There is no strict timetable for acquiring abilities or confronting different challenges, and there's a wide range for what's considered normal. Every child grows and adjusts to the world at his or her own pace. This article outlines the child's social/emotional growth and its interaction with other aspects of development.

Newborns arrive in a pre-social state, ready and eager for contact. They turn toward sounds and even show a preference for the human voice, especially a high-pitched one. Well before they use spoken language, infants let us know how they feel and what they mean.

Children come in all shapes and sizes, and differences can be seen right from the start:

Sammy, 3 months, doesn't like to eat, sleeps for short periods, screams, and is difficult to comfort when he's cranky.

Lisa, 7 months, established a regular schedule easily, is friendly, smiles readily and is eager to be sociable.

Drew, 6 months, is cautious, quiet, not physically active, and doesn't enjoy new experiences.

Temperament: Each infant has a unique inborn temperament or typical way of reacting to the world. Most children are easy; they are adaptable and establish fairly regular schedules: Some children are difficult; they cry a lot, wake at irregular hours, and are easily upset. Some children are slow to warm up; they're quiet and react after thinking things over. Children are born with a tendency toward certain moods and styles of reacting to people and events in their lives. This preferred style of responding—a child's first and most natural way of reacting—is called temperament.

Goodness of fit: No matter what the child's temperament, it's the harmony between child and a primary caregiver that's most important. The behavior of one influences the response of the other. The special bond between infants and their caregivers is known as attachment. When the attachment is solid, the caregiver provides a secure base for the child's emotional and social growth.

First Year Milestones

From birth to 4 months the child

  • conveys meaning through the earliest smiles and cries
  • makes sounds or moves to get attention
  • develops a social smile; gazes at faces that are about 8 to 12 inches away
  • cries to show discomfort or fatigue; smiles, gurgles and coos when happy or excited
  • plays with his own hands
  • smiles and laughs when talked to
  • responds to caregivers faces, smiles and voices

From 5-8 months the child

  • actively seeks interaction
  • starts to show interest in another child
  • searches surroundings for people and new items
  • laughs at funny faces
  • shows anger when toy is taken away
  • smiles and laughs at baby games
  • starts to imitate the inflection in people's voices
  • shows pleasure and displeasure
  • cries when separated from caregiver
  • prefers familiar persons to others; may fear strangers

From 8-12 months the child

  • plays and tests social reactions of others by doing "unusual" or "naughty" things
  • smiles at, pats or even kisses his own image in mirror
  • may refuse to be confined in crib or play pen
  • buries head in parent's shoulder when meeting new people, but usually warms up
  • shows moods by facial expressions
  • plays interactive games such as peek-a-boo and patty-cake
  • seeks approval and responds to "no"
  • offers toys to others
  • helps with getting dressed and maybe putting things away
  • will search for a person, pet or item when they are mentioned
  • uses sounds, gestures and facial expressions to gain attention
  • is learning to self-regulate (in terms of sleeping and eating) and parents should be flexible in adapting to the baby's schedule

By the end of the first year of life, the toddler smiles easily and shows affection for others by hugging, kissing and snuggling.

Second Year Milestones

By 13 months the child

  • enjoys being around other children; babbles or talks into a play phone and makes pretend conversation
  • can play simple interactive games such as chase me/catch me
  • imitates simple acts, such as hugging or fondling a doll and can play interactive games such as peek-a-boo, so-big, and pat-a-cake
  • initiates interactions such as reaching out to be picked up
  • responds to limits set by parents voice or gesture

By 15 months the child

  • kisses and greets people
  • loves to imitate activities she sees around the house, such as cooking, dusting, hammering

By 18 months the child

  • seeks help from adults
  • protests or shows anger by using voice and gesture

By two years the child

  • is learning that what she does has an impact on the world; she can make things happen
  • is becoming aware of herself as an individual
  • is developing visual self-recognition (in a mirror) and verbal self-reference (Susie big)
  • wants to assert her own independent style. She wants to do things for herself and takes pride in accomplishment. When she falls short however, she can become frustrated and resort to crying or tantrums
  • is becoming sensitive to events that violate her sense of the way things are "supposed to be," such as a doll missing an arm or dirt on clothes
  • imitates adults in her play, for example, using a hammer to bang and a spoon to feed her.
  • is beginning to imitate her parents' tone of voice and gender specific behavior

Two-to-Three Year Milestones

Between ages 2 and 3 the child

  • begins to interact with his environment in new ways. He is becoming aware that the feelings and wishes of others may be different than his own and develops the capacity for empathy. His imagination is flourishing and his world is filled with make-believe
  • is learning to master fears through play
  • is often assertive, refuses assistance and insists on doing things himself
  • is able to explore the world without the physical presence of his mother as he becomes more autonomous
  • can engage directly with other children, unlike a younger child who tends to enjoy playing side by side with other children (parallel play)
  • may have difficulty with sharing and taking turns
  • by the age of three the childs emotional repertoire broadens beyond the basic emotions of infancy; she can experience emotions like pride in accomplishment, guilt over doing something provocative, and embarrassment in social situations.

Four-to-Five Year Milestones

The friendly, talkative and curious preschooler explores ways of relating to people; her self-confidence expands and she likes to please others. She is learning to read the reactions of others, and she can be empathic and show sympathy and concern if a person is hurt or sad. She enjoys playing with other children, but her own needs may prevail and lead to problems in sharing and taking part in complex group play. Although she can still be cranky and stubborn at times, she is more responsive to reasoning.

The preschooler's pretend games become more involved and, for some children, may entail some form of violence in play. Fears (of the dark, of big dogs, for example) may persist and contribute to nightmares, but most children can generally calm down.

Between four and five years the child

  • seeks out same-sex friends
  • prefers children over adults
  • enjoys performing for others
  • whispers and has secrets
  • to blame and praise
  • be bossy
  • is becoming competitive
  • enjoys helping at home, with tasks such as watering plants, picking up toys

During the first five years, development proceeds at a pace faster than any other time of life. During this time children develop the social-emotional capacities that prepare them to be self-confident, trusting, empathic, intellectually inquisitive, competent and capable of understanding and adjusting well to others.

Date Published: September 18, 2006