During a child’s life, he or she goes from looking at emotions from an external point of view to an internal point of view. As children develop advanced language skills, they develop the ability to regulate emotions. Emotional self-regulation refers to children’s ability to monitor, evaluate, and modify their emotional reactions in any given situation. It is a skill that develops over time, and involves both responding to situations with emotions that are socially acceptable and developing the ability to withhold emotions or delay spontaneous reactions when necessary. A child’s temperament has a large impact on emotional self-regulation: children who are more negatively focused tend to have a more difficult time with regulation than those who are focused on the positive aspects of life.
The development of empathy is a crucial part of emotional and social development in childhood. The ability to identify with the feelings of another person helps in the development of prosocial (socially positive) and altruistic (helpful, beneficent, or unselfish) behavior. Altruistic behavior occurs when a person does something in order to benefit another person without expecting anything in return. Empathy helps a child develop positive peer relationships; it is affected by a child’s temperament, as well as by parenting style. Children raised in loving homes with affectionate parents are more likely to develop a sense of empathy and altruism, whereas those raised in harsh or neglectful homes tend to be more aggressive and less kind to others.
Play is one way in which children develop relationships with others. Several types of play exist, and each type builds upon the last in a three-step process. Non-social or solitary play occurs in the beginning of childhood, when children spend most time alone with preferred playthings. It then shifts to parallel play, when children begin to take an interest in other children but prefer to play alone and side-by-side. Children engaged in parallel play will sit next to one another during a play session, but each will engage in his or her own activity. Finally, there is associative and cooperative play in which children begin to engage with one another, exchanging and sharing toys and creating games together.
Intersubjectivity refers to the psychological relation between people; in child development, it refers to the very rapid cultural development of newborn infants. Research suggests that as babies, humans are biologically wired to coordinate their actions with others; this ability to sync with others facilitates cognitive and emotional learning through social interaction. Additionally, the most socially productive relationship between children and adults is bidirectional, where both parties actively define a shared culture. Emphasis is placed on the idea that children are actively involved in how they learn, using intersubjectivity.
Between 3 and 5 years old, children come to understand that people have thoughts, feelings, and beliefs that are different from their own. This is known as theory of mind. Children can use this skill to tease others, persuade their parents to purchase a candy bar for them, or understand why a sibling might be angry. When children develop theory of mind, they can recognize that others may have false beliefs (Dennett, 1987; Callaghan et al., 2005).