Emotional Development in Childhood: 3 Theories Explained

Emotional DevelopmentWe have all witnessed a sweet smile from a baby. That cute little gummy grin makes us smile in return. Are babies born with emotions?

Fast-forward to a 5-year-old playing on the playground. They have words for emotions, can recognize emotions in their friends and family, and use their knowledge of emotions to guide their own behavior and predict the behavior of others. What explains this drastic change in emotional development?

Emotions in the teenager? New and intense social experiences are brimming with emotional highs and lows, sometimes strengthening and sometimes tearing down self-esteem. How do adolescents learn the emotional skills that provide the foundation for healthy adult emotions?

In this article, we will tease apart some of the complexity of emotional development and describe how emotional development is part and parcel of some of the most pivotal experiences of human development.

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What Is Emotional Development & Why Is It Important?

It is virtually impossible to fathom an experience void of emotion. Give it a try. Recall what you ate for dinner last night. What emotions come to mind? What thoughts, images, or plans were triggered? Are you hungrier?

We are in a constant state of expressing, recognizing, and interpreting emotions in ourselves, our children, our coworkers, and complete strangers. Even though emotions influence every thought, action, decision, attitude, and feeling we have, you may be surprised to learn that emotion was not studied as a developmental process until the 1970s (Pollak et al., 2019).

It is only in the past 20 years that considerable research attention has been given to explaining changes in emotions that occur from infancy through adulthood (Pollak et al., 2019).

A definition of emotional development

The definition of emotional development by Izard and Trentacosta (2020, para. 1) will ground this article. It gives us a common language for thinking about the complexity of emotional development and for analyzing how different theories of emotional development address this complexity.

Emotional development [is the] emergence of the experience, expression, understanding, and regulation of emotions from birth and the growth and change in these capacities throughout childhood, adolescence, and adulthood. The development of emotions occurs in conjunction with neural, cognitive, and behavioral development and emerges within a particular social and cultural context.

Based on this definition, there are three implications for theories of emotional development:

  1. Emotional development is a lifelong process, so a theory of emotional development needs to account for change from birth through the end of life (spoiler: we are not there yet).
  2. Emotions develop in conjunction with neural, cognitive, and behavioral changes, so with every hypothesis of emotional change we have to ask what is happening in the brain. How are thinking, memory, and learning involved in this change?
  3. Emotional development occurs within a socio-cultural context. A theory of emotional development needs to account for differences in social experiences and differences in cultural histories, beliefs, and lived experiences in which emotions develop.

2 Reasons understanding emotional development is important

Our experiences make us who we are, literally. Emotional experiences, particularly early in life when neuroplasticity is at its peak, have a profound effect on the developing brain and lifelong health.

1. Emotional experiences become embedded in the architecture of the brain

Rapid neural organization occurs during the first few years of life and establishes the basic foundation upon which future learning, health, and behaviors develop (National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, 2004).

The structure of this foundation is built through neurodevelopmental processes that are highly influenced by the child’s unique experiences, whether positive or negative (Perry 2002).

Neuroimaging studies provide evidence for the impact of early child maltreatment on the structure and function of the brain (Cassiers et al., 2018). A meta-analysis of adults who experienced childhood adversity found structural differences in stress-related areas of the brain compared to adults who did not experience adversity (Calem et al., 2017).

In a separate meta-analysis, studies using fMRI show that children with a history of abuse show disruption in neural pathways in the fronto-limbic networks associated with emotional and reward processing (Hart & Rubia, 2012).

Behavioral research on infant attachment histories also supports the relationship between early experience and emotional development. In a longitudinal study, Kochanska (2001) found that infants with a secure attachment to a caregiver at 14 months showed reduced fear and anger at 33 months in response to situations designed to elicit fear and anger. In contrast, negative emotions increased with age in insecurely attached infants.

2. Early emotional health is foundational for lifelong health outcomes

Babies, toddlers, and preschoolers may not be the population that immediately comes to mind when we think of mental wellness and mental health difficulties. However, because early experiences provide the foundation for neural development, we see that mental wellness begins far earlier than adolescence.

Zero to Three (2017, p. 1) defines infant and early childhood mental health as:

“the developing capacity of the child from birth to 5 years old to form close and secure adult and peer relationships; to experience, manage, and express a full range of emotions; and explore the environment and learn – all in the context of family, community, and culture.”

Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) occur in early childhood environments and involve parents and caregivers in the child’s household. Maternal violence, substance abuse, mental illness, and child abuse by a parent are examples. Ample research shows that exposure to ACEs in childhood increases the long-term risk for a wide range of chronic physical diseases and mental health issues in adulthood (Chang et al., 2019; Felitti et al., 1998; Gilbert et al., 2015).

To reduce the risk of exposure to ACEs, research and policy must prioritize:

  1. The support of responsive relationships in early childhood
  2. The reduction of sources of stress experienced by children and their caregivers
  3. Support for core life skills in early childhood, such as daily routines and setting and achieving goals (National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, 2020)

If you are interested in learning more about the health of babies, strength of families, and positive early experiences in the United States, check out the State of Babies Yearbook, which provides data by state.

Researcher and psychologist Bruce Perry gives a powerful and easily accessible public lecture in this video on the urgency of improving early experiences to promote mental and physical health.

Bruce D. Perry: social & emotional development in early childhood

Emotional development: Nature vs. nurture

“There need be no “versus” in the equation. We simply have the kind of nature that requires nurture, and they are utterly intertwined.”

Barrett, 2022, para. 10

One of the most unproductive debates in science involves theorizing about human systems through the lens of nature or nurture hypotheses. Framing questions within this dichotomy is a disadvantage to scientific progress and intervention at every level of human health and development, be it biological, sociological, or psychological.

Progress in the field of epigenetics has significantly contributed to our understanding of gene and environmental interactions and how early experience can have lifelong effects.

Epigenetic modification describes chemical alterations to the structure of genes without altering the genetic code itself (National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, 2010). For example, prolonged periods of stress during pregnancy and early child development can produce epigenetic changes in the brain that control how the body responds to stress (National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, 2010).

3 Emotional Development Theories

Emotional development theoriesKeep in mind the distinction between theories of emotion and theories of emotional development.

Theories of emotion explain the nature of emotions: innate, constructed, neurobiological, and cognitive.

Theories of emotional development explain the emergence of emotions and how emotions change across the lifespan.

This article is focused on emotional development, and empirical studies are often vague on the theory of emotion that drives their research and also the theory of emotional development that guides their research.

This lack of clarity has created barriers to progress in emotional development research that have not yet been resolved (Buss et al., 2019; Pollak et al., 2019; Camras, 2022).

At present, there is no widely accepted theory of emotional development that systematically guides research (Pollak et al., 2019). However, most theories agree that emotional development is intimately tied to cognitive development and is driven by social factors (Buss et al., 2019, Camras, 2022).

However, three major theories of emotional development were selected for discussion because they span the spectrum from an innate capacity for emotion to innate capacity and socialization processes to constructivism.

1. Discrete emotions perspective

Carroll Izard’s discrete emotions perspective is one of the most well-recognized theories of infant emotional development. Izard proposes that infants are born with basic emotions that are universal, meaning all humans are born ready to experience and express these emotions.

Emotions are present at birth, are hardwired, and do not rely on cognitive processes. Izard and colleagues posited a set of basic emotions including happiness, anger, fear, surprise, sadness, and disgust (Buss et al., 2019). Each emotion is discrete and distinguishable from one another and associated with specific facial expressions that are also universal.

Although for Izard, basic emotions are innate, the development of dependent emotions such as guilt and shame that emerge around the age of 2 to 3 years, is a result of social experiences and the maturation of socio-cognitive systems (Buss et al., 2019).

2. Theory of self-conscious emotions

Michael Lewis (2022) describes the emergence of a set of self-conscious emotions. Development of embarrassment, empathy, and jealousy are dependent on the development of self-awareness during the second year of life (Camras, 2022).

For example, jealousy may appear in a child when their mother gives attention to a younger sibling. The child has conscious self-awareness that someone else has what they want.

The next set of self-conscious emotions — pride, shame, and guilt — develops between the ages of 2 and 3, when children begin to understand social rules and goals and evaluate themselves against them (Camras, 2022).

It is here that differences in children’s social experiences can influence the expression of these emotions (Lewis, 2022). For example, a child may experience guilt if they spill their milk because messes aren’t tolerated in the home, whereas another child may not experience guilt.

3. Theory of constructed emotion

The theory of constructed emotion developed by Lisa Feldman Barrett posits that emotions are abstract concepts rather than innate capacities. Emotional development is essentially the development of emotion concepts (Hoemann et al., 2019).

Children construct emotions using the same processes they use to construct all abstract concepts that are not directly tied to physical objects or experiences, such as freedom, intelligence, and beauty (Hoemann et al., 2019).

Barrett and colleagues hypothesize that the process of labeling emotions by caregivers is particularly relevant for the construction of emotion concepts. Children hear and observe caregivers using emotion words incidentally across different instances. For example “I’m so angry I could scream,” “Look at my happy baby,” and “You are so grumpy; time for a nap.”

The hypothesis is that children learn to use these emotion words to construct emotion categories and concepts (Hoemann et al., 2019).

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6 Examples of Emotional Development in Childhood

It is nearly impossible to imagine emotional development as separate from changes in cognitive development that occur in the first two decades of life. As memory and thinking become more complex and abstract, emotional development changes as well.

Similarly, markers of emotional development are intimately linked to a child’s social experiences. The following examples are major markers of change in emotional development as they occur within a social context.

  1. Social smile (2 to 3 months)
    While breastfeeding, the infant shares a gaze with mom. Mom responds with a smile using infant-directed speech. “You are a hungry little fellow!” The infant smiles in response (Pagano & Parnes, 2022).
  2. Attachment (6 to 12 months)
    Baby is distressed when mom is absent and is comforted with her return (Pagano & Parnes, 2022).
  3. Social referencing (8 to 10 months)
    Baby looks to the caregiver to make a decision or know how to respond emotionally (Walle et al., 2017).
  4. Theory of mind (3 to 5 years)
    Children progress in their understanding of the thoughts and emotions of others. Progression occurs from understanding that two people (oneself and another) can have different desires and beliefs about the same thing to understanding hidden emotions; a person may look happy on their face and body but feel angry inside (Wellman et al., 2011).
  5. Emotional competence (7 to 10 years)
    Emotion expressions are used to manage relationship dynamics, such as smiling at a new friend (Saarni & Camras, 2022).
  6. Emotion regulation (infancy through adulthood)
    Emotion regulation strategies are processes used to monitor, evaluate, and modify our emotional reactions in order to achieve a goal. Strategies become more sophisticated from extrinsically based regulation in infancy to more intrinsically based regulation from preschool-age through adulthood (Eisenberg et al., 2010; Thompson & Goodvin, 2007).
    • 4 to 6 months: Infants shift their attention away from stressful stimuli.
    • 1 to 2 years: Young toddlers crawl or walk away from stressful stimuli.
    • 2 to 3 years: Older toddlers begin to show beginnings of self-regulation of emotion.
    • 8 to 9 years: Cognitive emotion regulation strategies emerge, and children begin to use thoughts and feelings about themselves and others to control their emotions (Garnefski et al., 2007).

The ability to regulate our emotions is one of the most important skills for learning, social relationships, and mental health. This video by James Gross is an easy-to-follow introduction to the development of emotion regulation and interventions to improve it.

Emotion regulation with James J. Gross

How Emotions Develop in Adolescence

Once self-conscious emotions such as guilt, embarrassment, and shame emerge in middle childhood, very few new emotions develop. Adolescents’ cognitive skills to reason about abstract concepts improve their ability to manage and reason about their own emotions and improve emotional competence in relationships (Rosenblum & Lewis, 2006).

Research on adolescent emotional development shows how emotions change during this time of rapid physical development.

Emotion expression

Emotion expression in adolescence differs from that in childhood and adulthood. Adolescents report experiencing greater extremes of emotion and more negative mood states than adults. Adolescent emotional experiences are reported to include less happiness than during childhood (Rosenblum & Lewis, 2006).

Emotional dissemblance

Emotional dissemblance is the ability to separate one’s emotional expressions from one’s internal feelings. Children learn how to control the emotions they display in order to avoid negative outcomes.

During adolescence, teens begin to display expressions according to the norms of adult interaction (Rosenblum & Lewis, 2006); for example, the ability to outwardly display a facial expression of congratulations to a competitor immediately after a tough loss, while feeling intense emotion internally.

Emotional competence

A successful transition to adulthood is associated with increased emotional competence across several skills during adolescence; for example, learning to regulate intense emotions, knowing how to attend to emotions without becoming overwhelmed by them, and learning how to manage interpersonal relationships in the midst of intense emotions (Rosenblum & Lewis, 2006).

Does Development Continue in Early Adulthood?

Research on adult emotion regulation strategies and their relationship to psychological wellbeing provides evidence that emotional development continues into adulthood.

You may think of emotion regulation as a milestone of early childhood that facilitates learning and socio-emotional development. However, the ability to maintain or change one’s emotions, which actively continues to improve with age, is a lifelong skill that predicts positive life outcomes in adulthood (Compas et al., 2014; Martin & Ochsner, 2016).

Cutuli (2014, p. 1) provides an overview of two common emotion regulation strategies in adulthood:

  1. Cognitive reappraisal
    “the attempt to reinterpret an emotion-eliciting situation in a way that alters its meaning and changes its emotional impact”
  2. Expressive suppression
    “defined as the attempt to hide, inhibit or reduce ongoing emotion-expressive behavior”

A review article including both experimental and individual differences studies in adults provides converging evidence that cognitive reappraisal strategies are associated with better psychological health, lower symptoms of depression, higher self-esteem, and better interpersonal relationships (Cutuli, 2014).

Adults who use expressive suppression strategies tend to show poorer coping abilities, lower self-esteem, and a lack of close social relationships (Cutuli, 2014).

These findings have significant implications for the development of clinical interventions focused on the improvement of positive reappraisal skills.

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Our Emotional Intelligence Resources

Here at PositivePsychology.com, we have a wide variety of resources to support the understanding and development of emotions, and these include worksheets and excellent articles. Here are a few examples:

Recommended reading

Read our blog to review the Cannon-Bard Theory of Emotion with three simple examples.

Do you want to overcome and stop negative emotions? Check out our article What Are Negative Emotions and How to Control them?

Do you want to improve the emotional IQ of the teens in your life? Our blog Teaching Emotional Intelligence to Teens and Students includes helpful lesson plans, a slide presentation for teachers, and fun emotional intelligence games.


Use our Telling an Empathy Story worksheet to improve empathy and emotional perspective-taking skills.

When working with young children, use our Emotion Mask worksheet, which encourages children to identify hidden emotions through drawing.

This Skills for Regulating Emotions worksheet provides four easy-to-use emotion regulation activities to add positive experiences to your daily routine and reverse negative emotional responses.

Test your ability to identify emotion from facial expression in this Emotional Labeling Activity from Paul Ekman’s facial affect coding system.

Make it easier to track your mood throughout the day with our simple-to-use Daily Mood Tracker.

Use this Emotional Regulation Worksheet for Adults to help recognize and analyze adult emotions using real-life examples.

If you’re looking for more science-based ways to help others develop emotional intelligence, check out this collection of 17 validated EI tools for practitioners. Use them to help others understand and use their emotions to their advantage.

A Take-Home Message

In this article, we’ve taken a deep dive into the emergence of emotions in infancy and the enormous changes that occur in emotional development from early childhood through adulthood.

We’ve learned that emotional experiences in the first few years of life, both positive and negative, become embedded in the architecture of our brain with lifelong consequences.

This body of research is extremely valuable to each of us as we advocate for improvements in policy and funding allocation for early intervention.

The human brain is plastic and ever-changing based on our individual experiences. Emotional development is no different. It is never too late to make the investment in improving emotional development of our children and, importantly, ourselves!

We hope you enjoyed reading this article. Don’t forget to download our three Emotional Intelligence Exercises for free.

Frequently Asked Questions

Emotional development is the process of change in emotion states, expressions, reasoning, and competency that occurs across the lifespan.

Emotional development is important for neural development, learning, healthy interpersonal relationships, positive wellbeing, and lifelong health.

Improve your emotional development by practicing self-awareness through journaling, practicing daily meditation, and developing a breathwork practice to manage stress.

Emotions develop throughout the lifespan in combination with changes in cognitive development and within social experiences.

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