At what age is experience most important

Emotional development

The development of emotional competence and its importance

Understand your own feelings, explain them to others, develop strategies on how to overcome negative emotions, put yourself in the shoes of others and correctly interpret their emotional state:

A child must first learn all of these skills in order to be able to go through life "emotionally competent". Emotional competence is the ability to deal constructively with one's own feelings and those of others. Those who have this ability have usually developed a healthy level of self-confidence, have many strategies for dealing with frustration and defeat, and are able to form relationships and bonds. For this reason, emotional development is closely linked to a child's social development. Social competence and emotional competence are mutually dependent and build on one another.



1. The most important technical terms with regard to social development briefly summarized and explained

In order to be able to assess how important the emotional development is, one must first deal with the meaning of emotions. A definition is also important in this context, because simply equating the term “emotion” with “feeling” would not be appropriate. Emotions develop from feelings, but are also related to specific occasions and social interactions. Therefore, not only the emotions themselves play a major role, but also the skills and strategies that a person develops


  • Express feelings
  • to understand and accept one's own feelings,
  • To hide or pretend feelings
  • dealing with feelings constructively and being able to process them,
  • Recognizing, generating and evaluating emotions in other people and being able to react appropriately to them.


In order to better understand the emotional development from a pedagogical-psychological point of view, the most important technical terms are briefly explained below.


  • Emotional Expression: The ability to express one's emotions verbally or non-verbally
  • Emotion understanding: The ability to understand and interpret one's own and other people's feelings
  • Emotion regulation: The ability to deal constructively with one's own feelings depending on the respective situation
  • Empathy: The ability to empathize with the emotional state of another person and to be able to react (appropriately) to this state through social interaction
  • Social competence: The sum of all skills required in order to be able to deal appropriately with one's own emotions and those of others.




2. The emotional development from birth to elementary school age

The first year of life

Shortly after birth, the child can show primary emotions such as joy, fear or interest by crying, smiling at the person opposite or by standing their head in the direction of a source of noise. In addition, the baby is able to interpret and imitate the primary emotions of his caregivers, for example by responding to a smile with a smile. So it can be “infected” by the feelings of other people without being aware of them or feeling accordingly (global empathy).

As far as strategies of emotion regulation are concerned, an infant is still primarily dependent on receiving consolation and needs satisfaction from its caregivers (external emotion regulation).


The second year of life

In the second year of life, a child's vocabulary expands, and with it, their ability to express emotions. It can name primary feelings and also recognize them in other people (“man laughs”, “baby is crying”). The toddler has first experiences with social rules with regard to desired and undesired methods of emotion regulation, for example it is taught that it is not allowed to hit or kick when it is angry.

In addition, in the second year of life the child begins to empathize with other people. But it still mixes own and other feelings.


The third year of life

From the age of three, a child can distinguish between emotional experiences and emotional expression. This enables them to manipulate their facial expressions in order to provoke certain reactions in others. His vocabulary is expanding and therefore he is better able to express and explain his feelings. However, especially in this phase (“age of defiance”), a lot of help is needed to be able to deal with one's emotions.


The fourth and fifth year of life

Kindergarten children have many new experiences with regard to their own feelings and those of others, which they often find contradicting and confusing. It can now explain its feelings well and also reflect them better and better. By the age of four or five, many children develop their own strategies to deal with negative feelings. They distract themselves, avoid conflicts, etc. Nevertheless, even at this age, they often need help in the form of consolation and constructive suggestions for resolving conflicts.

The ability to empathize is already well developed in kindergarten children and helps them to make friends. You can now distinguish between your own feelings and those of others.


The sixth and seventh years of life

Schoolchildren have a complex expression of emotions and know how and when they can and should express emotions. If they were properly encouraged and had appropriate role models, primary school children can make and maintain solid friendships, empathize with others, make compromises, accept negative feelings and deal with them constructively and flexibly adapt and control their expressions of feelings.

This gives them the most important skills that make up emotional competence.



Graphic: Levels of emotional competence


Expressing emotions



Recognize emotions in others



Verbalize emotions



Understand emotions



Regulate emotions






3. How parents can support their child's emotional development


In order to gain emotional competence, children need the support of their parents. Below are some tips on how you can encourage a constructive discussion of feelings within the family:


  • Be a role model for your child and allow positive and negative feelings to arise. This is how you create a positive family atmosphere.
  • Talk to your child about feelings and always take them seriously: Feelings are never bad, fear, anger and sadness are emotions that can be shown openly.
  • Avoid downplaying feelings ("Nothing will happen to you. Don't pretend to be like that!") And do not put your child under pressure if their emotions are overwhelming.
  • Support your child in finding (non-violent) strategies for regulating emotions.
  • Train your child's self-perception (e.g. with the help of books, a mirror, emotional barometer, etc.)
  • Make sure that your child has contact with their peers right from the start so that they learn to empathize with others and improve their perception of others.
  • Studies have shown that boys need more help in expressing emotions appropriately, while girls need more physical affection and distraction.



Table: Crucial development steps with regard to emotional development



Author: Verena Fischer,
State-certified educator with Kneipp health training for children
Last update: January 2021
Date created: May 2016
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