Social and Emotional Development

Every child goes through a process of social and emotional development. Young children have an attachment bond with their primary caretaker. Usually, this is their mother. Taking them away from their attachment figure too early disturbs the development process. This might result in serious and long-lasting emotional and social problems.

This article explains the social and emotional development stages a child has to go through. Furthermore, the importance of weaning and the effects of separation are discussed. Finally, some guidance is given for parents and other caretakers where to pay attention to when children are separated from their attachment figure.

Social development is the increasing ability to relate to others and to become independent.

Emotional development is the increasing ability to feel and to express a growing range of emotions.

Children up to the age of 6 are the most vulnerable for anything. The social and emotional development of children is at risk when their parents divorce.

Social and emotional development stages:

Up to 3 months:

  • Sleep most of the time
  • React to their caretaker(s)
  • Very basic responses to sound, smells, faces and voices
  • Start to smile to friendly persons

Up to 9 months:

  • Sleep less, they are longer periods awake
  • Very much attached to their caretaker
  • Like to play and learn from that a lot
  • Distinguishes familiar faces and people
  • Uses cries and own voice for attraction

Up to 15 months:

  • Show anger by throwing with things
  • Show interest in other children
  • Are emotionally unpredictable
  • Can point to other persons in the family
  • Afraid when separated from their caretakers

Up to 3 years:

  • Wide range of emotions
  • Certain control over their emotions
  • More independent
  • Play with other children
  • Some are anxious and fear, however unrealistic
  • Seek confirmation and approval from others

Up to 6 years:

  • Self confident
  • Friendly
  • Try to be the best
  • Co-operate with adults
  • Children of their age become more important
  • Rebellious
  • Possessive

During these first 6 years, being attached to the caretaker is very important for the social and emotional development of a child. If the child is separated from his caretaker during in this period, later on the child might experience the negative consequences. For example:

  • not being able to establish deep emotional and enduring relationships
  • a low tolerance to unsatisfied personal needs
  • a low motivation to making progress in life
  • unwillingness to collaborate

Parents fighting over child custody hurts the children of divorce the hardest. Fighting over money, alimony, the house, the car and other material possessions hurts too, but by far not as much as fighting over the custody of the children.

The following topics should be considered:


The child should not be separated from the parent(s) to which he is emotionally attached. Usually, this is the mother.

Isabella and Belsky - 1991, Ainsworth and Bell - 1970, David and Appell -1969, Yarrow - 1963, and others, found out how these attachments come in existence:

  • creating an atmosphere where the child develops a sense responsibility for what he does
  • loving physical contact between caretaker and child
  • soothing the child by holding
  • the sensitivity of the caretaker to the signals of the child
  • the interventions from the caretaker on the rhythm of the child
  • the feeling of happiness of the adult and child when being in each other's company

These elements are the basis for a healthy social and emotional development of the child. In the future, they will be able to deal with all kind of problems and challenges in a successful way.


Weaning has been controversial for a while. Growing up children were regarded as being too childish if they continued weaning. It turns out that children wean on average to the age of over 4. They need it. It is called comfort sucking by Ruth Lawrence.

Breastfeeding is equally important to weaning. It enforces the attachment with the primary caretaker. Breastfeeding has been considered unfashionable and unneeded for a long time. Children that had breast feeding for 2 or 3 years are often less afraid and have more self confidence.

Into the recent past, courts have decided in favor of fathers that stated that breastfeeding a child of 4 is abnormal. This statement was supported by some 'experts' / psychologists. The child custody was given to them.


Ainsworth, Bowlby, and others have researched the effects of separation from the primary attachment figure on young children. They conclude from their studies that the social and emotional development of children up to six years of age may be harmed when they are separated from their primary attachment parent.

These children may become anxious and distressed in response to even brief separations. Bowlby states that there have been clinicians and other professionals interested in children that did not accept that the separation from the attachment person are an important cause of emotional problems later in adult life.

Young children should also stay close to their attachment figure – their mother – when they are asleep and during the night. For them, sleep is a separation. If they wake up and the mother is not around, they can become very terrified.

Shared custody

When young children spend a few nights a week away from the attachment figure, they might loose self confidence and confidence in the attachment figure. They might start to dislike and distrust the parent who forces them to leave.

They might start to distrust the attachment figure, because they were put into an unwanted situation. When the attachment is damaged, it can cause long-lasting social and emotional problems.

Parents, mediators and judges should wait with shared custody arrangements until the children are ready for it. When the children of divorce start to sleep in the house of the other parent, the parents should carefully monitor the effects of the visitation on the children.

If separated too early, the behavior of the children will show a fall back. For example, they become very quiet, they become aggressive. They get physically hurt more often. Or they loose interest. Defiant or naughty children can become obedient instead.

To overcome these problems, the attachment with the primary caregiver should be reinstated and quickly.

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