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Social & Emotional Development

In order to be able to support the emotional and mental health of children it is important to understand how children develop and what can get in the way of that process.

Early relationships shape emotional and social development and these begin during pregnancy, when a baby’s brain is developing rapidly and can be influenced by the physical environment of the womb, as well as the wider environment and relationships.

Think back to that first video with Molly and baby:

Why Love Matters explains why love is essential to brain development in the early years of life, particularly to the development of our social and emotional brain systems. Link to Sue Gerdhart

The attention that babies receive impacts on their brain structures. If we find ourselves cared for by people who love us, and who are highly sensitive to our unique personalities, the pleasure of those relationships will help to trigger the development of the “social brain”. In the simplest terms, the pre-frontal cortex (and in particular its orbitofrontal area) plays a major role in managing our emotional lives: it picks up on social cues, the non-verbal messages that other people transmit, it enables us to empathise, as well as playing an important part in restraining our primitive emotional impulses. You can start seeing social and emotional development milestones within the first few weeks and months after a baby has been born such as:

  • Begins to develop a social smile
  • Enjoys playing with other people and may cry when playing stops
  • Becomes more communicative and expressive with face and body
  • Imitates some movements and facial expressions
How baby brains develop

Many psychologists have studied how we develop socially and emotionally. We will look at some of these theories in following sprints but let’s start with Erik Erikson. Erikson was a developmental psychologist and psychoanalyst who developed a theory on the psychological development of human beings. His theory is outlined in the video below:

Erikson’s theory can provide a helpful way to think about some of the different conflicts and challenges that people may face as they develop and help us consider the impact these could have on mental health. It also emphasises the important influence of relationships on development.

Now consider this theory for yourself…

  • According to Erikson’s Psychosocial Stages of development, in what stage are you?
  • Do you believe you are facing the challenge described by Erikson? Why or why not?

Similarly to Erikson this article emphasises that emotional development begins early and relies on the relationships and context around the child.

Having insight into a child’s stage of development and what might be going on in their brain can help us understand children better. With this understanding we are better placed to help support their mental health.

<undefined> <strong>National Scientific Council on the Developing Child (2004)</strong>. Children’s Emotional Development Is Built into the Architecture of Their Brains: Working Paper No. 2. Retrieved from www.developingchild.harvard.ed</undefined>

National Scientific Council on the Developing Child (2004). Children’s Emotional Development Is Built into the Architecture of Their Brains: Working Paper No. 2. Retrieved from www.developingchild.harvard.ed


“Young children experience their world as an environment of relationships, and these relationships affect virtually all aspects of their development.” – Working Paper 1 National Scientific Council on the Developing Child

Why do you think relationships are key for social and emotional development in infancy? How might a lack of love affect development?