Emotional development: How to become emotionally intelligent and empathic

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Emotional development: How to become emotionally intelligent and empathic

They laugh out loud and our hearts go out to them. Sometimes they cry bitterly, almost bringing tears to our eyes. They scream their hearts out and our hearts bleed: children express their emotions unhindered, because the little ones perceive them much more intensively than we adults do.

Children first have to learn how to deal with it properly. This is an important point on which emotional development is also based. You can read more about this and how you can support your children in this respect here.

What is emotional development?

emotions accompany us throughout our lives. We live through them from the very first second. Immediately after birth, most of us greeted the world with a cry because we first had to understand why we were suddenly no longer allowed to stay in our mother's protective womb. Countless new influences poured in on us, and that can be unsettling at first.

But the older we get, the better we can control our emotions, because we go through emotional development. Thanks to it, we are able to understand and process our emotions. We learn to understand why we feel them and also how to overcome negative feelings. Emotional development also includes being able to empathy and to correctly interpret the emotional state of others.

Emotional development: 3 theories in portrait

There are various theories as to how exactly emotional development occurs. One of the most important questions here is, among others: Are emotions innate? We have summarized the three most popular theories for you.

1. the theory of basic emotions

In the 1960s, the U.S. psychologists Carroll Izard and Silvan Tomkins assumed that emotions are innate and that even young children are therefore already able to distinguish between them. According to them, there are certain basic emotions that every person feels and on which other emotions can build.

According to Tomkins, these include fear, disgust, joy, interest, distress, shame, surprise, and anger. Izard added sadness, shyness, self-hostility and contempt to this list.

Moreover, both assumed that every emotion is associated with a physical reaction. Thus, we have the urge to run away when we are afraid, laugh when we feel joy or widen our eyes when we are surprised.

2. the differentiation theory

Differentiation theory was penned by the US psychologist Alan Sroufe. He began working on it in the 1970s and argues that emotions cannot be differentiated from birth. He defines only three basic emotions that develop into more complex forms throughout life: Joy, Anger as well as Fear.

They are the only emotions that already exist from birth. Over the years, we go through emotional development, thanks to which we can perceive new emotions. For example, joy can become pleasure, anger turns into frustration and fear becomes Mistrust.

3 The Functionalist Approach

In the 1990s, the U.S. psychologist Joseph Campos also dealt with the topic of emotional development and launched the functionalist approach. According to his assumptions, no emotions are innate. We learn them from our social environment, which is why they can vary greatly from person to person.

If we repeatedly observe our parents in infancy being happy about nice weather, we will adopt that. If, on the other hand, we see them feeling disgusted when they find a spider in the house, this too will most likely be passed on to us. This is true at least until we have gathered our own experiences, on the basis of which we continue our emotional development.

emotional development child table

How do emotions develop in children?

Emotional development already begins in the first months of life. From the third month of life, children can feel basic emotions such as joy, sadness, interest, surprise, but also fear and anger. They cope with them mainly by sucking their thumbs or toys and with the help of comforting parents. At this tender age, children are even capable of imitating emotions or letting others infect them with them.

The 2nd year of life

From the second year of life, children can slowly express their feelings through words. They also feel significantly more differentiated emotions such as pride, guilt, envy and also shame. The reason for this is that they become more and more self-confident and begin to compare themselves with other children on the playground or in the toddler group.

They also develop new ways of regulating all these new emotions, for example, by hugging their favorite stuffed animal very tightly or kicking or knocking something over.

However, children at this age often have difficulty distinguishing between what they themselves feel and what others feel, as they become more responsive to the emotions of others.

The 3rd year of life

From the third year of life, it becomes insidious, because children now slowly learn to hide their feelings and fake certain emotions. They have realized that this can trigger certain reactions from those around them.

But at this age, little ones also learn that emotions are a consequence of certain processes that don't just come over them for no reason. When asked why they are sad right now, they can also provide an answer. In addition, they are now able to feel true compassion.

From the age of 4

At this age, children still find it difficult to interpret their friends' emotions, even if they can already feel empathy. However, they increasingly respond to the feelings of their loved ones and make an effort to understand why they are feeling the way they do. They are now also able to clearly distinguish their own emotions from those of others - so they are no longer so easily carried away by feelings from their surroundings.

Children from the age of four can also slowly feel several emotions at the same time. For example, they may be excited about an upcoming event, but they may also be excited. They now regulate all these emotions in a variety of ways. As their vocabulary grows, they talk to themselves or talk about it with parents or siblings. They often also try to vent their feelings through movement.

From the age of 6

From the age of six, children are able to Control emotions and adapt to the current situation. By now they have acquired a complex emotional knowledge and are therefore able to take care that no situations arise that could harm their loved ones. unhappy make. They also understand why others show certain feelings and can even put them in relation to the character of this person, but also to their experiences.

emotional development in children

How to promote emotional development?

The younger a child is, the more support it needs from its parents for its emotional development. But many parents don't really know how to do this, because they assume that things will take their course. That's true, but as a parent, you can make a significant contribution to helping your child develop into an emotionally stable adult who doesn't need Fear before feelings and can show empathy.

You lead the way as a role model. Show your child that it is perfectly normal to feel emotions and to show them. Keeping feelings bottled up is never the right way and can lead to all the pent-up emotions just bursting out of your child at some point. At a young age, they can't handle such a large wave of emotions. Talk to your offspring about their feelings and take them seriously. Do not play them down, but find out together with him why he feels them and how he should best deal with them.

In order for your child to learn to show empathy and to understand that other people also show certain emotions, it is important to provide him or her with social contacts at an early age. Parent-child groups, toddler groups and, of course, kindergarten are valuable places to start.

When does social-emotional development begin?

Emotional development begins as early as infancy. Slowly but surely, we learn why we feel certain emotions, how we should deal with them, and we become better and better at empathizing with our fellow human beings. Over the years, we develop emotional competence that helps us not only to get along better with others, but also to go through life with self-confidence.

Emotions are very closely related to social competence. Even at the age of just a few months, children try to recognize how adults are feeling by their facial expressions. So they are not only undergoing emotional development, but also social-emotional development. Especially in situations that children are not yet familiar with, this development can be observed wonderfully. Their gaze immediately wanders to their parents to see how they react. They adopt this behavior and will react similarly the next time such a situation occurs.

But experience also plays an important role. For example, if the child has learned that a wasp can sting and thus cause pain, he or she will stay away from insects in the future for fear of being stung again. In short, a situation has triggered a certain emotion, which in turn has led to a learning effect. The way children deal with their emotions also has an effect on social interaction. If they have their own emotions under control and react emotionally appropriately to certain situations, dealing with them becomes much easier.

Social-emotional learning processes in adulthood.

In adulthood, social-emotional development is complete. This is when people are able to understand and categorize their own feelings and those of their fellow human beings. Based on facial expressions, gestures and tone of voice, he can recognize how his counterpart is feeling at the moment and react accordingly. He has thus developed into an emotionally intelligent person.

But that doesn't mean that he doesn't learn anything more. Emotional competencies continue to develop throughout a person's life, provided they are willing to optimize them. Because as the saying goes Life means learning.


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Reviewed by Dr. med. Stefan Frädrich

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