Social and Emotional Development Research Paper

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Infancy is a period of origins. It is when a child’s capabilities, individuality, and first relationships begin to develop. Early social and emotional development is concerned with developing capacities for emotional expression, sociability, selfunderstanding, social awareness, self-management, and other facets of socioemotional growth. Research in this field is important for understanding these central features of early development and for applying this knowledge to understanding why some young children become anxiously insecure in their attachments, easily dysregulated in their behavior when stressed, or preoccupied with sad affect early in life. By studying the dimensions and contexts of healthy or maladaptive growth, developmental scientists can contribute to preventive and therapeutic interventions and public policies designed to ensure that infancy is a period of growing competence, connection, happiness, and self-confidence.

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Because infancy is a period of origins, the study of socioemotional development also addresses some of the most significant questions of contemporary developmental psychology. How are nature and nurture processes fused in shaping developmental pathways? How may early experiences have an enduring effect on social and emotional growth (“as the twig is bent, so grows the tree”), and under what conditions are their influences subsumed by subsequent developmental processes? In what ways are early relationships of significance for the growth of social dispositions, self-understanding, and personality? Under what conditions does early temperament provide a foundation for mature personality?

These enduring questions cast the study of early social and emotional development within the broader context of lifespan development, and they focus on the early years as a period of potentially formative influences. Although not all developmental scholars concur that infancy may be a foundation for later development (see Kagan, 1984; Lewis, 1997; Scarr, 1992), belief in the enduring effects of early experiences is deeply rooted in Western and Eastern cultures as well as in developmental science. This belief contributes to the concerns of parents, practitioners, and policy makers that young children are afforded a good start in infancy because of the difficulties in later correcting developmental pathways that begin awry. The NationalAcademy of Sciences Committee on Integrating the Science of Early Childhood Development recently highlighted the “fundamental paradox” that “development in the early years is both highly robust and highly vulnerable . . . because it sets either a sturdy or fragile state” for later development (Shonkoff & Phillips, 2000, pp. 4, 5). Although an overemphasis on infancy as a period of formative influences can lead people to perceive the early years primarily as they foreshadow later development—rather than as a developmental period that is significant in itself— this view also highlights the practical and scientific value of understanding social and emotional growth in infancy.

Research on early socioemotional development is important, therefore, because it affords understanding of the growth of emotions, relationships, and self in infancy; provides knowledge enabling parents and practitioners to promote healthy early psychosocial growth; and offers unique opportunities to explore central questions of early development, especially those related to the significance of the early years. Each of these perspectives on early socioemotional development provides a guiding orientation to this research paper.

We begin by placing infancy in context. We consider the psychobiological context of temperamental individuality and neurobiological growth that shape early emotions, individuality, and patterns of relating to others. We also consider the contexts of culture and family that shape, and are shaped by, early experiences. In doing so, the dynamic interplay of nature and nurture is profiled at the outset of the paper.

Early emotional development and the growth of sociability are profiled next, with special attention to the importance of emotion to early social interaction and social relationships. This intertwining illustrates the integration of developmental functions, structures, and processes in infancy. In the section that follows, we focus on attachment relationships between infants and their caregivers, a topic of significant research interest during the past 30 years. Two central questions are highlighted: (a) how infants develop different patterns of attachment behavior in these relationships and (b) the controversial question of potentially enduring consequences of variations in attachments during infancy. The importance of relationships for self-awareness, emotional understanding, empathy, and conscience is subsequently discussed with respect to the early representations that are influenced by relational experience. Our focus on the representational features of early relationships constitutes a bridge between infancy and psychosocial development in early childhood, when representations of self, others, and relationships truly flourish. Finally, in a concluding note we consider the implications of research and theory in this field for policy and practice.

Socioemotional Development in Context

Because the young of the human species cannot thrive outside of a relational context (Tobach & Schnierla, 1968), in order to understand infant socioemotional development, one must understand also the broader caregiving context. This sentiment, illustrated by Winnicott’s celebrated statement that “there is no such thing as an infant” (Winnicott, 1965), sets the framework for this research paper. By its very definition socioemotional development invokes relationships. The mother-infant relationship is central to popular and scientific images of social and emotional development in infancy. This emphasis occurs because of cultural and theoretical traditions emphasizing that the sensitivity, warmth, and responsiveness of this first and primary relationship shapes a baby’s initial, and in some conceptualizations continuing, social dispositions and expectations for others. Later in this research paper we examine research concerning this relationship, especially within the context of attachment theory. It is important first, however, to establish a broader framework for our discussion of early socioemotional development by considering how social and emotional responding and the very relationships that develop transactionally (Sameroff & Chandler, 1975) are shaped by the psychobiological context of neurological development and temperament, as well as by the broader social contexts of culture and family.

Psychobiological Context

Neurobiological Underpinnings

Infancy is a period of rapid physical and neurological growth, second only to the prenatal months in the scope and pace of development. This has significant implications for the changes that occur in emotional and social responding. Emotional development is predicated on the growth of richly interconnected brain structures and hormonal influences that organize the arousal-activation and regulatory-recovery interplay of emotional behavior (LeDoux, 1996; Schore, 1994). Because emotions are biologically essential features of human functioning in that they are critical to the very survival of the infant from the earliest postnatal days, they are based on regions of the human nervous system that develop very early, including structures of the limbic system and the brain stem. The capacity of a newborn to exhibit distress, excitement, and rage reflects the early emergence of these deeply biologically rooted emotional brain systems.

Major advances in emotional responding occur during the initial years of life as a result of developmental changes in central neurobiological systems, including maturation in adrenocortical activation and parasympathetic regulation systems, and the slow growth of frontal regions of the neocortex that exert regulatory control over limbic activation (Gunnar, 1986; Porges, Doussard-Roosevelt, & Maiti, 1994; Thompson, 1994). This development helps to account for the ontogeny of the newborn, whose unpredictable swings of arousal can be disconcerting to neonate and caregivers alike, into the emotionally more nuanced and well-regulated toddler, who is capable of responding emotionally to a wide range of events and whose emotional reactions can be managed by self and others. There are, of course, significant advances in emotional development yet to occur in childhood and adolescence with further growth in these and other brain processes.

For decades we have recognized that caregivers play a role in the infant’s psychobiological organization. Sander (1964), for example, proposed that the first role of the caregiver was to aid the infant in achieving physiological regulation. There is intriguing recent evidence that individual differences in the quality of caregiving can influence the development of these neurobiological systems when early experiences are highly stressful (Gunnar, 2000) or when mothers are seriously or chronically depressed (Dawson & Ashman, 2000). This research suggests that development of the physiological systems managing emotion and coping is impaired by experiences of chronic stress when the caregiver is either the source of stress or fails to buffer it.

Although the topic of early brain development and its role in shaping cognitive and emotional development has enjoyed both scientific and popular currency during the last decade, it is important to understand the extent to which findings representing acute or chronic severe deprivation or stressors apply more broadly. At present there is little evidence that more typical variations in early care have a significant impact on individual differences in brain development. Nor is there strong evidence that time-limited critical periods or “windows of opportunity” exist for early socioemotional development during which essential experiential catalysts are required for the young brain to develop normally—this despite widely publicized claims to the contrary (Thompson, 2002; Thompson & Nelson, 2001). In other words, much of early brain development is experience expectant rather than experience dependent. In most cases, the typical circumstances of early care afford many opportunities for healthy social and emotional development to occur; caregivers who are not abusive or neglectful typically provide these opportunities in the course of their everyday social interactions with the infants in their care (Shonkoff & Phillips, 2000). For development to proceed otherwise would indicate a very fragile system indeed.

Because of these developmental changes in the neurobiological systems governing early social and emotional responding, it is not surprising that temperamental individuality also emerges and flourishes during infancy. The construct of temperament has eluded firm definition. Scientists enumerating the dimensions that comprise the domain of temperament have reported from three to nine dimensions (Chess & Thomas, 1986; Rothbart & Bates, 1998). Some of the most distinctive temperamental attributes that characterize infants at birth are based on emotional response tendencies, whether they concern the baby’s dominant mood, adaptability, soothability, or reactions to novelty. In general, most theorists agree that aspects of temperament involve biologically based, heritable, response tendencies that involve emotionality, activity, and attention (Rothbart & Bates, 1998) and that are somewhat stable across time and context.

Temperamental individuality describes not only emotional response tendencies but also self-regulatory qualities (Goldsmith et al., 1987; Kagan, 1998; Rothbart & Bates, 1998); each of these has implications for social interactions and relationships. Young children who are behaviorally shy in response to new people or situations, for example, are displaying a temperamental attribute that is both emotional in quality (i.e., fearful) and self-regulatory (i.e., inhibited), with profound implications for the child’s social functioning (Kagan, 1998). Both reactive and self-regulatory aspects of temperament are based on early-emerging biological individuality founded on differences in neuroendocrine functioning, the reactivity of subcortical or sympathetic nervous system structures, variability in parasympathetic regulation, or other nervous system processes (Rothbart & Bates, 1998).

The Construct of Temperament

Because infant socioemotional development is embedded in a relational context, understanding the construct of temperament is key. Because social relationships are influenced by temperament, they also have an effect on the expression of temperamental individuality. A young child’s temperamental profile significantly influences how the child interacts with people in at least two ways. Temperamental qualities tend to evoke certain reactions from others (e.g., a temperamentally positive infant naturally elicits smiles and interest from others, paving the way for the development of mutually satisfying relationships) as well as shape a child’s preferences for certain partners, settings, and activities (e.g., a temperamentally shy child tends to withdraw from unfamiliar social situations; Scarr & McCartney, 1983). Thus, temperamental qualities shape social and emotional growth because they channel the young child’s early experiences in particular ways.

This interactional stance implies that early socioemotional growth can be significantly affected by how well a young child’s temperamental profile accords with the requirements of his or her social settings, a concept known as goodness of fit (e.g., Chess & Thomas, 1986). A temperamentally shy child is likely to be happier and become less withdrawn, for example, when parents are tolerant and accommodating to the child’s need for greater support and time with new partners. These parents may want to invite a potential sitter into their home on several occasions while they remain at home, before they leave their infant alone with the new caregiver. By contrast, even a temperamentally easy-going child will have difficulty in settings where social demands are excessive and developmentally inappropriate. Because of this, social experiences can considerably modify the behavioral manifestations of temperamental qualities a baby exhibits at birth. The interactions, or transactions, between the child’s constitutional makeup and the social “surround” acknowledge a more dynamic view of temperament than previously recognized (e.g., Lerner, 2002).

In light of this, and in view of the remarkable psychobiological advances of the early years, it is perhaps unsurprising that temperamental characteristics in infancy are only modestly predictive of later temperament, or of other behavior in the years that follow (Rothbart & Bates, 1998). Stronger evidence for enduring associations between temperament and later behavior begins to appear in children after the second birthday (Caspi, 1998; Sanson, Prior, Oberklaid, & Smart, 1998), perhaps because many of the biological foundations of temperament have consolidated after infancy (although some continue to mature throughout childhood). An additional factor may be measurement artifact, with greater difficulty measuring appropriate manifestations of temperament in the early years. Stronger continuity after infancy also may be advanced by the fact that the 2-year-old is a more self-aware child whose developing self-understanding is likely to incorporate temperamental qualities that cause the child to perceive herself, and to respond to situations, in temperament-consistent ways. Thus, temperamental qualities in infancy may not foreshadow the personality of the adult, although they are significant for shaping the quality of a baby’s social interactions with others.

There are, however, notable exceptions to this conclusion, namely the work on temperamental shyness or behavioral inhibition and work involving the construct of temperamental difficulty. Behavioral inhibition, associated with a unique physiological pattern including high and stable heart rate, elevated baseline cortisol, right frontal electroencephalograph (EEG) activation, and negative emotional and motor reactivity to the unfamiliar (e.g., Calkins, Fox, & Marshall, 1996; Kagan, Reznick, & Snidman, 1987; Schmidt,

Shahinfar, & Fox, 1996), has been identified early in infancy (Fox, Henderson, Rubin, Calkins, & Schmidt, 2001; Kagan & Snidman, 1991). Some work shows that the extremes of inhibition and the opposite end of the continuum, exuberance or uninhibited behavior, demonstrate considerable continuity from early infancy into toddlerhood and childhood (Fox et al., 2001; Kagan et al., 1987; Kagan & Snidman, 1991; Kagan, Snidman, & Arcus, 1998). Despite the stability, there also is lawful discontinuity in the behavioral manifestations of this pattern, with more early-inhibited children later showing decreased inhibition than early low-reactive or uninhibited children demonstrating later behavioral inhibition. Multiple factors may be implicated by this pattern of findings. Societal norms of desired behavior (e.g., positive affect, independence, sociability) may push for control of negative affect and manifestations of inhibition. Environmental factors may play an additional role. Fox et al. (2001) reported that infants who became less inhibited had significant out-ofhome care experiences during the first two years. Whether these experiences with multiple caregivers, peers, and environments contributed to decreases in behavioral inhibition or whether differences among the groups in parent personality or child temperament affected families’ decisions to place children in out-of-home care is a question that remains unanswered.

In addition to the intriguing work on behavioral inhibition, temperament research that demonstrates some measure of continuity from infancy into childhood utilizes the construct of temperamental difficulty (Chess & Thomas, 1986). Temperamental difficulty is a constellation of qualities that includes negative mood, frequent and intense negative emotional behavior, irregularity, poor adaptability, and demandingness. As was suggested by the research on temperamental inhibition, the interaction, or transaction, of temperamental characteristics and environmental characteristics aids prediction of long-term continuity or consequences. Difficult temperament in infancy is significantly more prognostic of later psychosocial difficulties because this constellation of characteristics is likely to create and maintain problems in early interactions with others and to color many aspects of early experience compared to other temperamental configurations (Bates, 1987; Rothbart & Bates, 1998).

Relational Context

Contrary to traditional maturationist views (e.g., Gesell, 1940), therefore, the infant is psychobiologically constituted by early experiences as well as heredity. This is one reason for interest in early caregiving relationships that sensitively accommodate to the infant’s temperamental qualities and offer support for the unfolding of positive emotional and social dispositions. The research evidence reviewed earlier suggesting that neurobiological systems governing emotion and coping with stress can be affected by abusive or neglectful care, by the caregiver’s serious depression, and possibly by other chronic experiences not yet studied contributes further to an appreciation of the importance of these relationships for healthy psychobiological growth.

But the social context of infancy extends far beyond relationships with primary caregivers to include other family members, including fathers and siblings. Although early relationships with these partners have been studied much less, infants develop qualitatively distinct modes of interaction with their fathers and older siblings that arise from the unique social experiences that they have with each (Dunn, 1993; Lamb, 1997). Infant-father interactions are characterized by exuberant, emotionally animated physical play, for example, that helps to account for a baby’s excitement in the father’s presence (Lamb, 1997; Parke & Tinsley, 1987). These characteristics of many father-infant play interactions may in part account for the importance of the father-child relationship to emotional regulation and control (Gottman, Katz, & Hooven, 1997). Although style of paternal involvement (warmth, sensitivity) is linked to positive outcomes for children, amount of involvement is not (Easterbrooks & Goldberg, 1985; Elder, Van Nguyen, & Caspi, 1985; Lamb, 1997).

Siblings also are unique sources of social and emotional understanding as young children carefully observe, interpret, and inquire about their behavior directly with the sibling or with others in the family (Dunn, 1998). In fact, sibling relationships may play a very important role in the emotional and social development of infants, given the special nature of the relationships. Sibling relationships, notable for their emotional intensity, provide ample opportunities for observing, experiencing, and interpreting both positive and negative emotions. Although sibling rivalry may be accompanied by intense competition and negative emotions, parents also state that siblings often can most easily induce positive mood in infants. These observations, combined with the role structure of sibling relationships, may serve as a catalyst for developmental growth in infants’ social and emotional repertoire. In part, this may be due to the fact that the demands of sibling relationships may encourage infants to stretch emotionally in ways that relationships with parents or other adult caregivers do not.

Whereas the direct interactions between infants and their family members are recognized as important, far less attention has been devoted to the indirect effect of other relationships, in terms of both their influence on infant development and the ways in which they are influenced by a developing infant.Positive marital relationships are more likely to be associated with sensitive parent-infant interactions because marital harmony is thought to provide support for the sometimes-difficult tasks of parenting (Gottman et al., 1997; Goldberg & Easterbrooks, 1984). Conversely, marital conflict is associated with less optimal parent-infant interaction and infant adjustment (e.g., attachment, emotion regulation; Cummings & Davies, 1994). In similar fashion, the extent to which fathers become actively involved in caregiving responsibilities significantly affects the extent to which mothers feel stressed or supported in their caregiving role.

The social ecology of infancy extends significantly beyond the family, of course, to include relationships with adults and peers in out-of-home care.This means that early social and emotional development is shaped not only by the quality of the relationship with the primary caregiver but also by relationships with a range of partners of varying developmental status and different characteristics who are encountered in widely varying social contexts (Howes, 1999). Zimmerman and McDonald (1995) reported, for example, that infant emotional availability was distinct with mothers and other adult caregivers (e.g., fathers, day care providers).

Research in the 1970s and 1980s established that infant peer relationships develop as early as the first year of life and help to define the structure and content of these interactions (Adamson & Bakeman, 1985; Howes, 1988; Mueller & Vandell, 1979). Although infant peer relationships involve both positive and negative emotions (Adamson & Bakeman, 1985; Hay, Nash, & Pedersen, 1983), positive affect predominates.

Familial and nonfamilial relationships may have overlapping or independent influences on early psychosocial growth. Recognizing these patterns undermines any assumption that, within this broad social ecology, a baby’s social and emotional dispositions arise from social encounters with the mother alone. In fact, several studies suggest that relationships with nonparental caregivers are more predictive of later social skills than are relationships with parents (Oppenheim, Sagi, & Lamb, 1988). Indeed, understanding how different social partners have unique and overlapping influences on early socioemotional growth is one of the significant research challenges in this field.

Cultural Context

Uniting these diverse social influences are the values of the culture. Cultural values define the needs and characteristics of infants, the roles and responsibilities of caregivers, and the goals of child development that are based on the mature attributes that are consensually valued. Cultural beliefs and values guide the behavior of caregivers, family members, and others in the community with an interest in young children and, in doing so, shape the ecology of infant care (New, 2001). For example, among the Efe, a foraging community in the forests of Zaire, infants receive care from birth by many adults besides the mother, and this intense social contact leads to strong connections with many people in the community (Morelli & Tronick, 1991; Tronick, Morelli, & Winn, 1987). This cultural pattern of infant care not only ensures that young children are protected by accommodating to the wide-ranging foraging activities of men and women, but also incorporates diverse community members into infant care and socializes infants into the intrinsically interactive, cooperative features of community life.

Culture is not synonymous with nationality. Within the United States and other heterogeneous nations, multiple cultural communities exist with distinct values related to young children and their care. General cultural attitudes are related to specific parental child-rearing beliefs, or ethnotheories, and practices (Small, 1998). One of the most important values related to child care that transcends specific national norms is the emphasis placed on the independence or interdependence of infants with their caregivers (based on Triandis’s 1995 distinction between individualist and collectivist cultures). Belief in the importance of infant-caregiver independence or interdependence affects many features of infant care and is influential even before a baby’s birth. Korean mothers, for example, are explicitly instructed to view each prenatal event as an experience shared with the fetus, and they are encouraged to avoid unpleasant experiences that might affect the child or the mother-infant relationship (Yu, 1984). The interdependence fostered by cultural beliefs such as these significantly influences subsequent patterns of infant care in Korea and in other cultures.

The extent to which cultural values emphasize the independence or interdependence of infant and caregiver affects early socioemotional growth through its impact on infant care practices. In most families in the United States, for example, infants sleep in their own beds independently of their parents within the first few months after birth, and their parents are extremely concerned about the establishment of reliable sleeping patterns and report a large number of sleeping problems in their offspring (Morelli, Rogoff, Oppenheim, & Goldsmith, 1992). By contrast, Japanese,African, and Mayan infants sleep with their mothers until toddlerhood, and their sleeping patterns are determined by the sleeping rhythms of those around them and are less of a family disturbance (Small, 1998). Infants who awaken are more easily and quickly comforted, fed, and returned to sleep (Harkness, 1980; Morelli et al., 1992). Likewise, not only does the constant carrying of infants by mothers of the !Kung huntergatherers of the Kalahari desert permit reliable contact and regular feeding, but also the baby’s fusses receive an immediate response before they escalate, and soothing can occur more quickly (Barr, Bakeman, Konner, & Adamson, 1987; Hunziker & Barr, 1986). By contrast, the cries of infants in the United States often escalate because soothing is delayed by the physical distance between infant and mother or by other demands in a child-care setting. The close physical contact of sleeping and carrying reflects cultural values concerning infant-mother interdependence that reduces the incentives for infants to acquire skills for managing their distress independently (Pomerleau, Malcuit, & Sabatier, 1991).

A cultural emphasis on independence or interdependence also influences other aspects of mother-infant interaction, including feeding practices, verbal stimulation, and provision of play materials. In one observational study, Puerto Rican mothers were found to be more likely to restrain their infants, physically position them, and issue direct commands to them, each of which was consistent with a maternal emphasis on interdependence and the infant’s need for guidance. By contrast, American mothers offered more suggestions to their offspring and praised infant behavior much more than Puerto Rican mothers did (Harwood, Scholmerich, & Schulze, 2000). In another study, Japanese mothers were observed to respond in a more animated fashion when the infant’s attention was directed toward them, whereas mothers in the United States were more responsive when infants were looking at objects rather than at them (Bornstein, Tal, & TamisLeMonda, 1991; Bornstein, Toda, Azuma, Tamis-LeMonda, & Ogino, 1990). This difference is consistent with the close intimacy fostered by Japanese mothers with their offspring, in contrast to the greater emphasis on individualism and independence of mothers in the United States.

Cultural differences in normative patterns of social interaction are important not only because of how they affect early social and emotional responding, but also because they compel developmental scientists’ attention to the appropriate assessment of early social interaction and social relationships. Researchers cannot assume that caregiving practices and infant behavior that are normative for middle-class families in the United States are standard worldwide, nor even within different cultural communities inside the United States. Thus, early socioemotional development must be viewed within the context of the specific cultural values and goals that guide child-rearing practices. However, many aspects of early socioemotional growth, such as forming close attachments to caregivers, are broadly observed in different cultural contexts and appear to be universal features of psychosocial development based on human evolutionary adaptation (van IJzendoorn & Sagi, 1999). An important challenge to students of socioemotional development, therefore, is how to study broadly generalizable processes of social and emotional growth while respecting cultural differences in how these processes are realized (see, e.g., Rothbaum, Weisz, Pott, Miyake, & Morelli, 2000).


Taken together, the psychobiological context of infant development and the contexts of culture and family offer reminders that early socioemotional development occurs within a broader network of influences than is commonly portrayed. Although the majority of the research reviewed in this research paper focuses on developmental influences in the context of close relationships—most commonly mother-infant relationships—these relationships are influenced by the integration of the infant’s rapid neurobiological maturation and the values and beliefs of family and cultural members.

Developing Emotions and Sociability

It is difficult to conceive of early social development apart from the emotions that color social interactions in infancy. Emotions have been called the language of infancy, and infants as “emotion detectors” (Tronick, 2001). Infants signal their emerging social discriminations and pBibliography: according to which partners can most readily evoke smiles and cooing, and adults become engaged in social play with babies because of the animated, exuberant responses that they receive. Caregivers attune to the preemptory sound of the infant cry and the hunger, pain, or startled fear it reflects, and the baby’s developing sensitivity to the emotional expressions of others reflects achievements in an emerging understanding of people. In short, the study of “socioemotional” development reflects how interwoven are the processes of early social and emotional growth, each of which provides a window into psychological development.

Although it is common to view emotions as disorganizing, unregulated influences on infant behavior, it is more appropriate to regard their influence as both organizing and disorganizing (similar to how emotions affect adults). The image of a 3-month-old in a raging, uncontrollable tantrum must be joined to the image of the same child who has been motivated to learn how to make a crib mobile spin because of the interest and pleasure it evokes. Even a toddler’s angry conflict with a parent can motivate and organize new understanding of another’s thoughts, feelings, or motives.

Development of Emotional Expression and Sensitivity

Most conceptualizations of early socioemotional development place the social nature of emotions as a centerpiece of early development. Emotional availability, a relational construct, is considered central to healthy socioemotional development (Easterbrooks & Biringen, 2000). According to Emde (1980), emotional availability refers to responsiveness and attunement to another’s signals, goals, and needs. Stern (1985) called it a “dance”—those captivating images of parent and infant immersed in interaction, oblivious to the outside world. Such pictures highlight the extent to which emotions are part of the fabric of complex relationships, not simply sensations to be regulated. Emotions, in fact, “are apt to be a sensitive barometer of early developmental functioning in the child-parent system” (Emde & Easterbrooks, 1985, p. 80).

Face-to-Face Social Interaction

An important early social context in which the organizing influence of emotions is apparent is face-to-face social interaction with an adult partner. This activity becomes prominent by the time infants are 2 to 3 months of age, when they are capable of sustained alertness and display preferential responses to familiar people, and it continues until about 6 or 7 months, after which more active kinds of infant-parent interactions ensue with the baby’s developing locomotor skills (Tronick, 1989). Face-to-face play involves short but intense episodes of focused interaction between an infant and an adult (typically the mother) in which each partner entertains the other with smiling, vocalizing, animated facial expressions, and other social initiatives and responses. The goal of this activity is the establishment and maintenance of well-coordinated exchanges that elicit mutual pleasure, although these synchronous exchanges occur only about 30% or less of the time that mothers and infants interact with each other (Tronick, 1989; Tronick & Cohn, 1989). These sequences of affective synchrony and mismatches offer opportunities for infants to learn important lessons about the possibilities of reparation of dyssynchronous states (Kohut, 1977; Lyons-Ruth, Bronfman, & Parson, 1999; Tronick, 2001). For example, rules of communication within and across interactions, preferred interactive tempo and intensity, and ways to convert negative affect into neutral or pleasurable states can be learned. As a consequence, other developmental skills, such as learning to self-regulate (including managing emotional arousal) and to repair dyssynchronous interaction, are also fostered by these intensive social exchanges (Gianino & Tronick, 1988).

Although adults take the lead in face-to-face interaction by sensitively scaffolding their initiatives to accord with the infant’s readiness to respond (Kaye, 1982), infants also participate actively through their animated emotional expressions, approach and withdrawal, and patterns of gazing that signal their interest in social play. In this respect, emotions organize early social interaction by structuring the ebb and flow of social activity and by providing signals by which each partner can respond in a coordinated fashion to the other. Moreover, changes in infant behavior during play over the early months also indicate changes in the emerging social expectations that guide the baby’s behavior. Infants begin to expect, for example, that others will spontaneously interact with them, and when their mothers are instructed to be impassive and expressionless, their offspring respond with social elicitations (e.g., brief smiles, increased vocalizing and reaching) followed, eventually, by withdrawal (Cohn, Campbell, & Ross, 1991; Cohn & Tronick, 1983). Even more, infants begin to expect to receive responses from their partners that are contingent on their own behavior: They respond with positive animation to responsive partners but turn away from partners who are comparably active but not responsive to the infant’s initiatives (Murray & Trevarthen, 1985; Symons & Moran, 1987). Taken together, these behaviors suggest that within the first 6 months, the infant is learning about the rules of social interaction and is developing a rudimentary awareness of her or his own efficacy in evoking responses from other people.

Later in the first year, infants respond differently also to the appearance of their mothers and fathers in social play, reflecting the development of discriminative expectations for specific familiar partners (Lamb, 1981). According to Tronick (2001), two qualities regulate the uniqueness of relationships that infants have with different social partners: implicit relational knowing (e.g., “how we interact together”) and thickness. Implicit relational knowing derives from repeated patterns of affect in interaction with a partner; thickness refers to the number of different time-activity contexts of interactions (e.g., play, feeding, bathing, putting to bed). As infants develop, then, much of implicit relational knowing is increasingly unique to specific relationships, which become more differentiated.

The Role of Distress-Relief Sequences

Face-to-face play is not the only context in which social expectations develop. From repeated experiences of distress and its subsequent relief from a caregiver’s nurturant response, infants begin to expect to be soothed after the adult arrives. This is revealed in the baby’s anticipatory quieting, after fussing occurs, to the sound of the caregiver’s footsteps (Gekoski, Rovee-Collier, & Carulli-Rabinowitz, 1983; Lamb & Malkin, 1986). By the latter part of the first year, therefore, infants have begun to learn about the behavioral propensities of others, as well as the self’s efficacy in provoking these behaviors, and this makes the baby a more competent and self-aware social partner. These early social expectations also shape emotional responding because an awareness of the contingency between one’s actions and another’s response is a highly reliable elicitor of smiling and laughter and can contribute to the alleviation of distress (Watson, 1972, 1979). Consequently, an infant’s early experiences of face-to-face play and the relief of distress contribute significantly to the social expectations and positive emotional responses to caregivers that set the stage for the development of attachment relationships.

The Growth of Meaning, Reciprocity, and Competence in Emotional Development

Throughout the first year, infants develop a more acute sensitivity to the emotions of others as they are expressed in vocal intonation, facial expression, and other behavior. Because these various modes of emotional expression typically covary, infants have many opportunities to learn about the behavioral propensities of someone with, say, an angry vocal tone, or the facial expressions that accompany the sound of laughter. By the second half of the first year, the emotions of others have become affectively meaningful to the baby through processes of conditioning, emotion contagion, or of empathy (Saarni et al., 1998). That is, the emotions of others become meaningful to the baby because of the actions with which they are associated and the resonant emotional responses that they evoke in the infant. Equally important, an awareness of the emotions of others in circumstances that evoke emotion in the infant herself contributes to a growing realization that other people, like oneself, are subjective human entities.

Later in the first year, the growth of crawling, creeping, and walking introduces new challenges to parent-infant interaction and socioemotional growth (Bertenthal & Campos, 1990; Biringen, Emde, Campos, & Appelbaum, 1995; Campos et al., 2000; Campos, Kermoian, & Zumbahlen, 1992). On one hand, self-produced locomotion changes the child, who, with the capacity to move independently, becomes more capable of goal attainment, as well as of wandering away from the parent, acting in a dangerous or disapproved manner, and experiencing the varieties of emotion and feelings of self-efficacy that these activities inspire. Parents commonly report that this developmental transition is accompanied by their child’s increased expressions of affection but also of anger and frustration, and offspring also become more adept at monitoring the parents’ whereabouts (Campos et al., 1992; Campos et al., 2000). On the other hand, self-produced locomotion changes the parent, who must now more actively monitor the child’s activity by using prohibitions and sanctions and expecting compliance from offspring. The testing of wills that ensues from self-produced locomotion not only is a challenge to the emotional quality of the parent-child relationship, but also provides a catalyst to the infant’s early grasp of mental states in others that are different from the child’s own.

This development is important because by 9 to 10 months of age infants begin to show other indications of a dawning awareness of mental states in others. For example, they strive to achieve joint visual attention with those with whom they are communicating, and their protocommunicative acts (e.g., gestures, vocal appeals) and imitative activity each increase in sophistication. Taken together, infants are beginning to understand that others are intentional agents with potentially shared subjective orientations toward objects and events that are worth understanding. This dawning psychological understanding changes how they interact with others and their interpretations of why people act as they do (Bretherton, McNew, & Beeghly-Smith, 1981; Carpenter, Nagell, & Tomasello, 1998; Tomasello, Kruger, & Ratner, 1993).

Social Referencing

Another reflection of the infant’s growing realization that others have mental states is the emergence of social referencing, in which infants respond to events (particularly novel or ambiguous events) based on the emotional expressions that they detect in other people (Campos & Stenberg, 1981; Feinman, 1992; Saarni, Mumme, & Campos, 1998). In a manner similar to how adults take their cues from others nearby when responding to unexpected or uncertain situations, the sight of an adult’s reassuring smile or terrified gaze (especially if it is accompanied by the appropriate vocalizations and other behavior) can significantly influence whether a young child approaches or withdraws from an unfamiliar person or novel object. Social referencing is commonly believed to arise from the infant’s active search for clarifying information from another’s emotional reactions, although it may also be derived less deliberately when the child shares a new experience or seeks reassurance from a caregiver (Baldwin & Moses, 1996). In either case, social referencing is important for socioemotional development because it indicates that infants are competent at obtaining and enlisting emotional information from others into their own responses to events, and it reflects the infant’s growing awareness of accessible subjective states in others.

Although its direct effects on an infant’s behavior can be modest and transient, social referencing in the first year is the vanguard of the variety of more sophisticated referencing activities that enable young children to acquire social understanding from the experiences that they share with adults. During the second year, for example, social referencing permits toddlers to compare their own evaluation of events with those of others, enabling them to begin to understand conflicting as well as shared mental states. Somewhat later, social referencing becomes an important avenue to conscience development as behavioral standards are conveyed through the parent’s nonverbal affective reaction to approved or disapproved activity, which may be referenced by a young child even prior to acting in a disapproved way (such as the toddler who watches the parent’s face carefully while reaching sticky fingers into the VCR; Emde & Buchsbaum, 1990; Emde, Johnson, & Easterbrooks, 1987). Social referencing can also be a source of pride and self-confidence as children consult their parents’approving expressions after succeeding at a difficult task (Stipek, 1995). In these ways, the infant’s dawning awareness of subjectivity in others, as well as interest in understanding these mental states, transforms the development of social understanding and self-awareness.

As social and emotional capabilities develop in concert, they are mutually influential. Emotional connections to familiar people provide a foundation for developing attachments and social understanding, and early social experiences cause the generalized emotional systems of early infancy to become more discretely and functionally organized (Saarni et al., 1998).

Emotion Regulation

Social development and emotional development are interwoven also in how emotions become enlisted into social competence. One way this occurs is through the growth of skills of emotion regulation (Thompson, 1994). In infancy, of course, parents assume the prominent role in managing the emotions of offspring. They do so by directly intervening to soothe or pacify the child, as well as by regulating the emotional demands of familiar settings like home or child care (e.g., by creating predictable routines), altering how the young child construes an emotionally arousing experience (e.g., by smiling reassuringly when a friendly but unfamiliar adult approaches the child), and later by actively coaching young children on the expectations or strategies of emotion management. Moreover, young children’s emotions are managed because of the security or confidence that they derive from their relationships with caregivers, such as in a baby’s anticipatory soothing to the sound of the parent’s arrival. Infants and toddlers who can anticipate reassurance from the arrival of their caregivers are aided by the belief that, with the adult’s assistance, emotions are neither uncontrollable nor unmanageable (Cassidy, 1994; Nachmias, Gunnar, Mangelsdorf, Parritz, & Buss, 1996).

In the early years, however, young children are also developing rudimentary means of managing their own emotions. This can be observed initially in the comfort seeking of a distressed infant or toddler, but young children quickly appreciate that emotions can also be managed by making active efforts to avoid or ignore emotionally arousing situations, through reassuring self-talk, by obtaining further information about the situation, and in other simple ways (Braungart & Stifter, 1991; Calkins & Johnson, 1998; Grolnick, Bridges, & Connell, 1996). Developing skills of emotion regulation are built on slowly maturing brain regions that also contribute to the young child’s capacities to inhibit impulsivity and that enable rule-governed behavior (Diamond, Werker, & Lalonde, 1994; Rothbart, Posner, & Boylan, 1990). Moreover, individual differences in temperamental “inhibitory control” emerge early and are related to conscience development (Kochanska, Murray, & Coy, 1997). Not surprisingly, therefore, the growth of emotion regulation is part of a constellation of developing capabilities that are related to social competence and behavioral self-control, and successful emotion regulation, within a cultural framework, is seen as a central developmental task of early childhood.


Caregivers assume a significant role in supporting the development of these features of socioemotional competence that enable young children to enlist their emotions constructively to accomplish social goals (Saarni, 1999). Unfortunately, for some children temperamental vulnerability combined with poor caregiver support can contribute to the growth of emotion-related difficulties in the early years, including problems related to sad, depressed affect (Cicchetti & SchneiderRosen, 1986), anxious fear (Thompson, 2002), and angry behavioral problems (Shaw, Keenan, & Vondra, 1994). Often, these are conceptualized as relationship problems rather than difficulties of the individual (Zeanah & Boris, 2000; Zeanah, Boris, Heller, Hinshaw-Fuselier, Larrieu, Lewis, Palomino, Rovaris, & Valliere, 1997), reminiscent of Winnicott’s maxim about infants existing within a social system. The presence of clear disturbances in emotion regulation during infancy and toddler years is a reminder of the importance of establishing the social and emotional competencies that are a foundation for psychosocial health in the years that follow.

Relationships: The Development of Attachments

Freud (1940/1963) described the infant-mother relationship as “unique, without parallel, established unalterably for a whole lifetime as the first and strongest love-object and as the prototype of all later love-relations.” (p. 45) Although the typical conditions of early care in Western cultures have changed significantly since Freud’s day (i.e., fathers, childcare providers, babysitters, and extended family members now share infant care with mothers), Freud’s famous assertion draws attention to the importance of the initial attachments a baby develops to caregivers and to their potentially enduring significance. An attachment can be described as an enduring affectional bond that unites two or more people across time and context, and the development of attachment relationships between infants and their caregivers is one of the hallmarks of early socioemotional growth (Ainsworth, Blehar, Waters, & Wall, 1978; Bowlby, 1969/1982; Cassidy & Shaver, 1999).

Developmental Aspects of Attachments

Except in highly unusual conditions of neglect or abuse, virtually all infants develop close emotional ties to those who care for them. These initial attachments are as biologically basic as learning to crawl and talk because they have been crucial to the protection, nurturance, and development of infants throughout human evolution (Gould, 1977; Tobach & Schnierla, 1968). Bowlby (1969/1982) placed special emphasis on the role of distress-relief sequences as key interactions for the development of attachments, with attachment behaviors eliciting caregiver proximity and care for a vulnerable, dependent infant.

Attachment theorists believe that these infant-caregiver relationships address two fundamental needs of the infant (see Ainsworth et al., 1978; Cassidy & Shaver, 1999). First, a caregiver’s support reduces a young child’s fear, distress, or anxiety in novel or challenging situations and enables the child to explore with confidence and to manage negative emotions (Ainsworth, 1967; Emde & Easterbrooks, 1985). This is commonly reflected in secure base behavior, by which an infant maintains reassuring psychological contact with the caregiver (through looks and smiles from a distance and occasionally returning to the adult for affection) while exploring and playing. Second, the caregiver’s sensitive and prompt responding to the baby’s needs and signals strengthens the child’s sense of competence and efficacy, especially for obtaining assistance from others. Attachment relationships begin to develop very early on and become consolidated between 6 and 12 months of age as infants become gradually aware of the psychological qualities of other people, acquire expectations for their behavior, and develop trust in certain caregivers upon whom they rely for this kind of assistance and support (Ainsworth et al., 1978; Colin, 1996).

Individual Differences in Attachments

Although virtually all infants become attached to their caregivers, not all attachments exhibit characteristics that attachment theorists define as secure (Ainsworth et al., 1978). Whereas the markers of a secure attachment are the child’s confident exploration and secure base behavior in the caregiver’s company, as well as ready soothing of distress when the child is upset, infants sometimes develop attachments to caregivers that reflect uncertainty or distrust in the responsiveness of the parent, child-care provider, or other caregiver. Infants with insecure attachments are not so easily soothed by the caregiver, and their exploratory play may be better characterized either by independence or by anxious dependency on the adult (Ainsworth et al., 1978; Colin, 1996; Thompson, 1998). An insecure attachment is not, however, equivalent to no attachment at all. Even a young child who is uncertain about the caregiver’s nurturance derives important emotional support from the caregiver’s presence that would not be derived from the company of someone to whom the child had no attachment at all. Even so, as we shall see, attachment relationships characterized by insecurity provide young children with a weaker psychological foundation for the growth of sociability, emotion management, and selfunderstanding than do secure attachments. Insecure attachments do not presage or accompany the development of psychopathology. There is, however, some evidence of an association between one kind of insecure attachment—insecure disorganized attachment—and psychopathology in childhood and adulthood, particularly in the context of high psychosocial risk environments (Dozier, Stovall, & Albus, 1999; Greenberg, 1999; Lyons-Ruth & Jacobvitz, 1999; Sroufe, 1997). Although some of these data are cross-sectional, others are drawn from a handful of longitudinal studies following the development of infants into the childhood or adolescent—and now early adult—years.

Given the importance of secure attachment, what characteristics of care contribute to its creation?Although a child’s temperament is influential, the most important determinant of whether an infant develops a secure or insecure attachment is the caregiver’s sensitivity to the child’s needs and intentions (de Wolf & van IJzendoorn, 1997; Thompson, 1998). Sensitivity can be described as responding promptly and appropriately to the child and being available to help when needed, especially when the child is distressed. The word “appropriately” is key here because the quickest response is not necessarily the most sensitive, particularly beyond early infancy. Appropriate timing of sensitive responsiveness allows older infants opportunities to develop competent selfregulation of emotions and coping strategies. Sensitive responding thus addresses the two fundamental needs of the infant described earlier: It helps to manage the child’s distress to permit confident exploration, and it consolidates a young child’s sense of efficacy, both in the self and in soliciting the support of others and the expectation of an effective response.

Sensitive care—and its opposite, whether conceptualized as unresponsiveness, uninvolvement, rejection, or psychological unavailability—is influenced by many features of a caregiver’s life experiences (Berlin & Cassidy, 1999; George & Solomon, 1999; Isabella, 1995). The amount and nature of social stress and support that an adult experiences; the caregiver’s personality and childhood history, including his or her own attachment relationships; competing demands, beliefs, and values; and many other factors can influence the sensitivity shown to a young child at any moment (Bornstein, 1995; Easterbrooks & Graham,1999;Fonagy,Steele,&Steele,1991;Holden,1995). Sensitivity also is undermined by more severe circumstances, such as parental depression or other forms of mental illness (Seifer & Dickstein, 1993).Ababy’s temperamental difficulty, developmental delay, or other needs influence how sensitivity is expressed in the relationship with the caregiver (e.g., Brazelton, Koslowski, & Main, 1974) and can also affect the child’s perceptions of the adult’s responsiveness (Easterbrooks, 1989; Seifer, Schiller, Sameroff, Resnick, & Riordan, 1996; van den Boom, 1989). Thus, the sensitive care leading to secure attachment is affected by the psychobiological and familial contexts of infant development discussed earlier, reflecting the view that attachment relationships are the product of an integrated developmental system.

Multiple Attachment Relationships

In typical conditions of contemporary care, infants develop attachments to many caregivers, including mothers and fathers at home, child-care providers, preschool teachers, and sometimes also grandparents and other adults (Berlin & Cassidy, 1999; Howes, 1999). Infants’attachments with these caregivers can be secure or insecure based on their experience with each person, largely independent of the security of their relationships with the other people who care for them. This means that a child can be insecurely attached to the mother but securely attached to the father or a child-care provider, or the reverse may be true. This has important implications for early socioemotional development because it means that young children are affected by relationships with a variety of caregivers, each of whom provides opportunities to develop the social skills, emotional understanding, and self-confidence that are offered by a secure attachment. Secure relationships with each are optimal, but a secure attachment to one may support healthy psychosocial growth even if relationships with others are insecure. Early socioemotional development is, in short, affected by a variety of relationships, not just the mother-infant bond, although the mother-infant relationship remains most significant for most children (Easterbrooks & Goldberg, 1990; Main, Kaplan, & Cassidy, 1985; Suess, Grossman, & Sroufe, 1992; NICHD Early Child Care Research Network, 1997).

Issues of Stability and Continuity in Attachments

Relationships are not static. They change and grow in concert with the developing child and the changing social contexts in which the child lives. Parents and the quality of care that they provide also change over time (Holden & Miller, 1999). This means that the security of attachment can change in the early years when changes occur in the caregiver’s sensitivity, in family circumstances, or for other reasons (Thompson, 1998). Longitudinal studies have found, for example, that changes in attachment security occur because of common changes in family circumstances such as alterations in child-care arrangements, the birth of a new sibling, or family stress (like marital discord) that causes a reorganization of familiar patterns of interaction with caregivers (Belsky, Campbell, Cohn, & Moore, 1996; Cummings & Davies, 1994; Teti, Sakin, Kucera, Corns, & Das Eiden, 1996; Vaughn, Egeland, Sroufe, & Waters, 1979). A child with an insecure attachment in infancy, therefore, may later have opportunities to develop greater confidence in the same caregiver, and a child who begins with a secure attachment is not safeguarded against the possibility of later insecurity if the caregiving context and quality should change toward insensitivity. There is no guarantee that the influence of early attachment security will endure, unless that environmental caregiving support and ensuing security are maintained in the years that follow through the continuing sensitivity of parental care and a supportive developmental context.

Therefore, one of the most important long-term consequences of a secure attachment in infancy is that it inaugurates a positive relationship with a caregiver that heightens the child’s receptiveness to the adult and that supports, but does not ensure, continuing parental sensitivity (Kochanska & Thompson, 1997; Waters, Kondo-Ikemura, Posada, & Richters, 1991; Thompson, 1999). If this positive relationship is maintained over time, it contributes to the development of mutual trust and responsiveness between parent and child in which young children are motivated to accept and adopt the parent’s instruction, guidance, and values. Such a relationship provides not only a secure base for confident exploration in infancy but also support, in early childhood, for a young child’s emerging conscience and sense of moral responsibility, emotional understanding, positive sense of self, and motivation to achieve (Kochanska & Thompson, 1997; Laible & Thompson, 1998, 2000; Thompson, 2000a; Waters et al., 1991). A secure attachment in infancy is important, in short, because it reflects a positive parent-child relationship and inaugurates processes of mutual positive regard that can support healthy socioemotional growth in the years that follow.

A secure attachment in infancy also supports other socioemotional competencies (see Thompson, 1998, 1999, for reviews). Longitudinal studies report that children with secure attachments to parents (typically mothers) develop more positive, supportive relationships with teachers, friends, camp counselors, and others whom they come to know well. Their positive social skills and friendly approach to those with whom they develop new relationships seem to evoke closer friendships with others. There is also evidence that securely attached infants have stronger social skills in their initial encounters with unfamiliar adults, perhaps because they generalize the positive sociability that they acquire in their relationships with caregivers.

Attachment relationships are important also because of how they influence young children’s emergent understandings of who they are and of what other people are like. Secure or insecure attachments are associated with a child’s developing conceptions of self, others, and relationships that constitute some of their earliest representations (or, in the parlance of attachment theory, internal working models) of the social world (Bretherton & Munholland, 1999; Thompson, 2000a). Securely attached infants have been found, for example, to have a more complex and sophisticated understanding of themselves and their mothers compared to insecurely attached infants (Pipp, Easterbrooks, & Brown, 1993; Pipp, Easterbrooks, & Harmon, 1992; PippSiegel, Easterbrooks, Brown, & Harmon, 1995; SchneiderRosen & Cicchetti, 1984).

In early childhood, when representations of self and the social world begin to develop more fully, the influence of secure attachments on the “self” becomes more apparent (Thompson, 2000a). Securely attached young children have been found to have positive views of the self (Cassidy, 1988; Verschueren & Marcoen, 1999), a moreeasily-accessed or balanced self-concept (Cassidy, 1988; Easterbrooks & Abeles, 2000), a more sophisticated grasp of emotion (Laible & Thompson, 1998), more positive understandings of friendship (Cassidy, Kirsh, Scolton, & Parke, 1996; Kerns, 1996), and more advanced conscience development (Kochanska & Thompson, 1997; Laible & Thompson, 2000) compared with insecurely attached young children (see review byThompson, 1999). Attachment theorists argue that this arises not only because of the continuing influences of sensitive parental care, but also because attachment security provides important lessons about what people, including the self, are like in close relationships, including how rewarding or painful they might be. Positive notions lend confidence in the self and guide young children’s understanding and expectations in their encounters with new relational partners (Sroufe & Fleeson, 1986).


The body of research just summarized adds credence to traditional views, expressed in Freud’s famous maxim, that the mother-infant relationship has enduring effects on early psychosocial development. Especially when the sensitivity that initially led to a secure attachment is maintained into early childhood, attachment security contributes to the growth of a positive orientation toward others, emotional and moral awareness, and self-understanding that are crucial aspects of healthy psychological development. However, the dynamic changes that can occur in the quality of caregiving, and thus attachment security, remind us also that the effects of early attachment are provisional, that is, contingent on the enduring quality of these relationships in the years to come. Moreover, early attachment does not solely determine the course of later socioemotional growth and is only one of the complex influences on early psychological development (Sroufe, Carlson, Levy, & Egeland, 1999; Sroufe, Egeland, & Kreutzer, 1990).

This means that in understanding the course of early development, it is important to take a developmental contextualist view (Lerner, 2002; Lerner & Kaufmann, 1985) and to consider, along with the security of attachment, the influences of a child’s temperamental attributes, biological characteristics, intellectual capabilities, the parent’s stresses and supports, the marital relationship, the demands or opportunities associated with socioeconomic status, and other influences on early socioemotional growth (Belsky, 1981; Easterbrooks, Davidson, & Chazan, 1993; Lyons-Ruth, Easterbrooks, & Cibelli, 1997). Security of attachment is important for its direct influences on early socioemotional development, but it is also important as it buffers (or heightens) the impact of risk factors that can undermine healthy psychosocial growth, and enhances (or undercuts) the benefits of other supports that exist in the child’s world.

Relationships and Representation

The Transitions of Toddlerhood

As attachment theorists have shown, and as developmental scientists concerned with cognitive development also have recognized, early relationships are important for the growth of social representation. From their experiences in close attachment relationships and interactions with others, infants acquire a sense of who they are, what people are like, and the qualities of close relationships in the form of internal working models that encompass provisional understandings of the self and social world. These rudimentary representations are continuously revised in the years after infancy with advances in conceptual understanding and experience in new and different relationships. As infancy evolves into toddlerhood and early childhood, a young child’s working models of self and relationships change significantly as parent-child relationships become forums of mutual understanding and disagreement and as the child develops more complex forms of psychological self- and other-awareness.

The Role of Conflict in Relationships

Although the emphasis of attachment theory is on the development of warm, nurturant relationships with parents and other caregivers, we have already noted that conflict and its resolution are also part of these early relationships. In fact, even securely attached dyads experience affective errors or mismatches in emotional communication (Lyons-Ruth et al., 1999); the repair of these missed communications is key to successful emotion regulation and secure attachments. From the dyssynchrony experienced in early face-to-face play to the testing of wills evoked by the toddler’s independent locomotion, parent-child differences in behavior, goals, intentions, and expectations provide some of the most important early catalysts to the young child’s growing awareness of the subjectivity inherent in interpersonal relationships. Nothing focuses a young child’s attention on what others are thinking, feeling, and expecting better than the realization that disagreement with that person must be resolved. As a consequence, conflict as well as security in early relationships helps to shape emergent representations of self, others, and relationships. Conflict, then, may be development enhancing (Turiel, 1978, 1997).

The second and third years of life are marked by significant changes in parent-child relationships. Young children are developing the cognitive skills to understand parental expectations and apply them to their own behavior, and they are becoming increasingly capable of regulating their own actions according to internalized standards of conduct (Kopp, 1982; Kopp & Wyer, 1994). At the same time, parents “up the ante” in their expectations for the behavior of offspring to incorporate consideration for others, basic skills at self-care, safety concerns, and compliance with family routines and manners (Campos et al., 2000; Erikson, 1950; Gralinski & Kopp, 1993). The strategies used by parents to elicit compliance also change to build on the young child’s maturing capacities for self-control, and they begin to make greater use of explanations, bargaining, indirect guidance, and other nonassertive strategies (Belsky, Woodworth, & Crnic, 1996; Crockenberg & Litman, 1990; Kuczynski, Kochanska, Radke-Yarrow, & Girnius-Brown, 1987). In response, young offspring cooperate but also assert their own independent judgment by refusing before they comply and by negotiating, compromising, and displaying other indicators of self-assertion (Kuczynski & Kochanska, 1990; Kuczynski et al., 1987; Vaughn, Kopp, & Krakow, 1984). As a consequence, parent-child interaction in the toddler period is a psychologically more complex process of mutual understanding than it was in early infancy. This affords young children frequent opportunities to expand and elaborate their understandings of self and social relationships because of their experience of shared and conflicting intentions, feelings, and beliefs in their interactions with caregivers.

Developments in Self and Social Understanding

These changes in parent-child interaction arise because of the growth of psychological self-awareness in the second and third years. Self-understanding grows rapidly in infancy and early childhood (Stern, 1985, 1995). Early in infancy, a rudimentary subjective self-awareness emerges from the infant’s experience of the self as a causal agent in social interaction and a volitional agent in play, especially when accompanied by the strong emotions that are often experienced in these situations. Somewhat later in the first year, as noted earlier, a new form of self-awareness arises as infants become aware of subjective states in others that can be accessed and altered, contributing to the realization that differences exist between another’s feelings and intentions and one’s own.

By the middle of the second year, another form of selfawareness develops with the growth of physical selfrecognition. Toddlers who catch sight of their mirror images after a spot of rouge has been surreptitiously applied to their noses begin to respond with self-referential behavior (e.g., touching their noses) and other self-conscious acts (e.g., smiling, looking away) that indicate that they recognize the mirror image to be themselves (Lewis, 1993). By the end of the second year and during the third year, young children become more psychologically self-aware. They begin to use their names and personal pronouns more frequently, describe them selves and their experiences to others, and assert their competence, independence, and responsibility as autonomous agents by insisting on “doing it myself” (Bullock & Lutkenhaus, 1990; Heckhausen, 1988; Stipek, Gralinski, & Kopp, 1990). This emergent psychological self-awareness also contributes to the defiance and obstinacy that can occur with parents (leading to the charming description of this period as the “terrible twos”); but beneath a young child’s assertion of self-will is a newly discovered self-conscious sense inspiring reflection and requiring expression and respect from others.

Because of these changes in the parent-child relationship and the child’s psychological self-awareness, the end of infancy and the beginning of early childhood also witness rapid advances in social awareness. The initial, provisional working models of infancy change considerably as the young child acquires growing insight into the feelings, intentions, and (at a somewhat later age) thoughts of other people and into the nature of human relationships. The child’s developing sensitivity to the violation of behavioral standards and emerging capacities for self-control, for example, together with the incentives to cooperate with the parent that arise from a secure attachment relationship, provide the foundations for conscience development in early childhood as young children adopt and comply with the expectations of parents (Dunn, 1987; Emde et al., 1987; Kochanska & Thompson, 1997). The emotional repertoire of infancy expands considerably to include self-referential emotions like pride, guilt, shame, and embarrassment that reflect the young child’s growing awareness of and sensitivity to the evaluations of others (Lewis, 1993; Tangney & Fischer, 1995). And with a developing understanding of the mental states of others, young children begin to enlist this understanding in more competent social interaction, whether this consists of negotiating with parents, teasing a sibling, or achieving personally meaningful goals (e.g., having dessert after dinner).


The close of infancy and the beginning of early childhood brings, therefore, remarkable advances in psychological growth that arise, in part, from the flourishing representational capacities of the second and third years of life. As a consequence, young children perceive themselves and regard others much differently and become capable of understanding relationships and interacting with others in ways that take into account the perspectives, emotions, and intentions of other people. Throughout this period, a young child’s close relationships with caregivers remain central to the growth of these representational working models through the warmth and sensitivity of adult care. When caregivers focus a young child’s attention on the human consequences of misbehavior, exuberantly applaud a child’s accomplishments, help a young child understand a sibling’s actions, or talk about the child’s own emotions, they contribute to the growth and refinement of a young child’s early representations of who they are, what other people like, and how relationships are negotiated. These relational catalysts to social and emotional understanding begin to be influential at the same time that children’s representational abilities unfold (Thompson, 1998, 2000a), providing a reminder that although caregiving relationships change significantly from infancy to early childhood, the sensitivity of care—expressed in age-appropriate ways— remains important throughout.

Conclusions: Applications to Policy and Practice and Imperatives for a Research Agenda

During the past decade or so, we have witnessed an explosion of interest in infancy, within the scientific and popular milieu. Technological advances in understanding the development and functioning of the infant brain have gone hand in hand with public engagement campaigns highlighting the importance of the early years of life for social and emotional, as well as cognitive, development. Very early child development has enjoyed currency in major media outlets and among politicians and entertainers. The market is filled with infant products (T-shirts, toys, videos, music) extolling the amazing skills of infants and is aimed at making babies “more stimulated,” “smarter,” or “better attached.” Researchers and academics now must ask the “so what?” question (Brady, Jacobs, & Lerner, 2002) and consider how best to translate advances in the scientific knowledge base about early social and emotional development into policies and practices that promote positive development (e.g., secure attachments, curiosity, self-confidence, cooperation, conflict resolution).

Although most researchers do not operate acontextually, it is important to bring these issues of dissemination, policy, and practice to the forefront, rather than the recesses, of scientific investigation (Brady et al., 2002; Shonkoff & Phillips, 2000). Thus far, the potential benefits of developmental science have yet to be realized. The reasons are complex, including (a) traditional academic or university structures that do not facilitate dissemination of applied work, (b) the natural tendency of academe toward scientific conservatism based on standards of scientific rigor, and (c) the occasional suspicion of academe by some policy makers and practitioners (Lerner, Fisher, & Weinberg, 2000). Efforts to bridge the divide between research and application may be enhanced by embracing broader definitions of the scientific enterprise, scientific rigor, and the surrounding context of scholarly and public policy endeavors (Easterbrooks, Jacobs, Brady, & Mistry, 2001; Thompson & Nelson, 2001).

The publication of From Neurons to Neighborhoods: The Science of Early Childhood Development (Shonkoff & Phillips, 2000) by the Committee on Integrating the Science of Early Childhood Development presents a compelling mandate for policy-makers, employers, and individuals to consider what we know to be the fundamental needs of infants and whether our social policies and practices facilitate positive infant social and emotional development for all infants. Several key questions accompany this directive, including those of the roles of culture and individual differences in biological predispositions and environmental context in shaping individual development.

The bulk of our scientific knowledge in infant social and emotional development is drawn from Western samples (primarily North American) that are not representative of diversity in race or ethnicity, family structure, or economic context. In fact, some have assumed that all infants are the same, echoing a bias that “babies are just babies,” not really conscious beings until the onset of language. Although all cultures have traditions that promote competence, in a heterogeneous society it is sometimes difficult to distinguish individual differences in typical social and emotional development from deviations requiring concern and intervention. How does an early intervention home visitor, for example, distinguish culture-bound caution and shy behavior from potentially problematic emotional inhibition? In addition, to what extent can particular individual, relational, or contextual strengths compensate for particular vulnerabilities or risks, particularly in the frequent context of double jeopardy (Parker, Greer, & Zuckerman, 1988) or multiple risks? The fact that we do not have immediate answers to many of the most pressing questions in early social and emotional development does not mitigate the responsibility to use the extant knowledge to ensure the best start for all infants.

The application of scientific research in infant social and emotional development spans disciplinary boundaries (e.g., interdisciplinary or transdisciplinary team approaches to early intervention). Earlier in this research paper we discussed recent significant developments in the knowledge base about infant socioemotional functioning that have emerged from neuroscience. This work in neuroscience crosses traditional notions of disciplinarity but is easily embedded in a developmental framework that includes social relationships. This research calls into question both the limits of developmental plasticity as well as deterministic views of early brain development. Future work needs to map this knowledge of early development onto the actual social ecology of infancy that considers not only the primary caregiving relationship but also the broader social networks and contexts in which infants develop.

Our understanding of the growth of social and emotional capacities in infancy highlights that although infancy is a period of origins, developmental processes early in life are complex and multifaceted. Nature and nurture are in dynamic interplay throughout infancy as caregivers respond to the psychobiological individuality of offspring but also alter temperamental qualities through the quality of care. Early influences can have an enduring effect on young children, but change is also evident. Continuity in early adaptation is apparent primarily when the developmental context is maintained as the child grows so that early influences are actually continuing ones that impact on psychosocial growth. The dispositions, understanding, and relationships of the first two years are important not because they may inaugurate unchanging developmental pathways, but because they provide a foundation for the emergence of new representational capacities and relational capacities in the years that follow. These underpinnings ideally set the stage for the transitions of early childhood to be approached with security, curiosity, and confidence in the self and in relationships.


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