Journal Issue: Caring for Infants and Toddlers Volume 11 Number 1 Spring/Summer 2001
The Growth of the Person
Individuality flourishes during the early years. This is because the temperamental qualities that make each newborn unique become elaborated in the development of close attachments, the unfolding of emotional life, and the growth of self-regulation, self-awareness, and social understanding. Studies of early personality development show that the relationships a young child shares with caregivers are crucial to these accomplishments. For this reason, this is a period of great opportunity or vulnerability for psychosocial health, depending on the quality and stability of these relationships.11Attachments: Secure and Insecure
The first attachments of a baby to its caregivers are as biologically basic as learning to crawl and walk.12 Throughout human evolution, close attachments have ensured species survival by keeping infants protected and nurtured. The development of emotional attachments by age one is preceded by months of animated social interaction during which infants and their caregivers exchange playful smiles, gazes, touch, and laughter together. In the life of an infant, secure attachments provide a sense of security that enables confident exploration and offers reassurance in the face of stress.
A secure attachment reflects the warmth and trust of early caregiver-child relationships. It provides a foundation for positive relationships with peers and teachers, healthy self-concept, and emotional and moral understanding. However, although virtually all infants become attached to their caregivers—including fathers, regular child care providers, close relatives, and others, as well as mothers—not all infants develop the secure attachments that arise from sensitive, responsive care. The effects of insecure attachments can be observed in the distrust or uncertainty that young children feel with their caregivers, as well as negative self-image and difficulties in coping adaptively with stress.
A secure attachment early in life does not guarantee healthy psychosocial outcomes, however, any more than an insecure early attachment ensures later difficulty. Attachment security and its outcomes can change in childhood in response to changes affecting family interaction, such as marital stress, parental job change, or a sibling's birth. Sensitive, responsive care thus remains a continuing need of young children throughout the early years at home and in child care.13Self-Regulation and Social Understanding
The early years provide lessons in relationships, including lessons in conflict management and cooperation. As they mature, toddlers become increasingly active, assertive, and goal-oriented, and their caregivers increasingly set limits and expect compliance. Throughout early childhood, adults "up the ante" in their expectations for the child's cooperation and consideration for others. Adults increasingly guide a young child's behavior by using indirect strategies like explanation and bargaining that rely on the child's developing capacities for self-control. At the same time, young children become much more competent at exercising self-regulation, especially when this skill is enlisted for achieving personally meaningful goals (like getting dessert).14 Although young children do, in fact, become increasingly compliant with adult expectations as they mature, they also show a growing tendency to refuse before they comply, and to negotiate, compromise, and assert their own preferences in other ways. At the same time that attachment security is taking shape, therefore, caregiver-child relationships are also influenced by the behavioral expectations of adults and the willingness of young children to comply. This means that conflict—as well as warmth and security—becomes part of the parent-child relationship.
Beneath the surface of these difficulties of the "Terrible Twos," however, milestones in social understanding are emerging. Nothing focuses a young child's attention on what other people are thinking or feeling more than the realization that a conflict must be resolved. And because toddlers are acquiring a more sophisticated awareness that others' feelings and desires can be different from their own, the caregiver-child interaction becomes a laboratory for exploring these differences and their consequences.15 For instance, a two-year-old whose hand inches closer to the forbidden VCR while carefully watching her parent's face is testing her best guess about the adult's expected reaction.
Other features of psychological understanding also curb the young child's misbehavior, including a growing capacity for empathy with another's feelings and a developing understanding of how adult expectations for behavior apply to specific situations. Caregivers contribute to this understanding when they firmly, but warmly, focus a toddler's attention on the consequences of misbehavior or the child's responsibility for causing harm to another.16 A three-year-old, whose indoor roughhousing has resulted in a crying younger sibling, can learn from an adult about the connections between exuberant running and inadvertent collisions with a smaller person. Equally important, these encounters between a young child and an adult strengthen the child's understanding and concern for others' feelings and needs, which is one of the most important developing curbs on impulsivity and violence.Self-Awareness
One of the most charming features of personality growth is how young children learn to answer the question, "Who am I?," in ever more insightful ways. Developing psychological understanding provides avenues toward greater self-awareness. Infants gradually learn that there is a difference between "self" and "other." During the second year, children develop visual self-recognition (in a mirror) and verbal self-reference ("Andy big!"). This is followed by the period when an assertive three-year-old refuses assistance and insists on "doing it myself" to assert competence and autonomy. During the preschool years, the child's self-correction in drawing, tying shoelaces, and performing other everyday activities reflects developing capacities for self-monitoring and the motivation to succeed.17 Beginning at age three, moreover, preschoolers begin to remember events with reference to their personal significance, constructing an autobiographical memory that helps to establish a continuous identity throughout life's events.18 Self-awareness and self-understanding are highly dependent on the evaluations of others, of course, especially those to whom the child is emotionally attached. Consequently, the two- to three-year-old's emotional repertoire broadens beyond the basic emotions of infancy to include emotions like pride, shame, guilt, and embarrassment that are elicited in social situations in response to the evaluations of others.19 A young child's relationships with others thus establish the cornerstone of self-concept through the image reflected in the eyes of another.Temperament and Emotional Growth
Young children vary, of course, in their temperamental qualities. Inborn characteristics like mood, soothability, and adaptability affect young children's behavioral tendencies (for example, to approach or withdraw from unfamiliar peers), their emotional qualities, and their capacities to tolerate stress. As infants mature into young children, they begin to learn strategies for managing their emotions because doing so contributes to social competence, self-confidence, and feelings of well-being.20 Their strategies may be simple—such as looking away from a scary TV show, or saying, "Mommy will come soon," during a lonely first day at preschool; or retreating to an adult when threatened by a peer—but they begin the lifelong process of learning to regulate emotions consistently with one's temperamental qualities.
Unfortunately, the close relationships with caregivers that ordinarily support and constructively guide emotional growth in the early years can also put young children at risk when these relationships are disturbed or dysfunctional. Sadly, some children are so buffeted by conflicted family environments, chaotic child care settings, or unpredictable challenges in daily experience that their capacities for managing their emotions quickly become taxed, and healthy personality development is imperiled. Emerging research in the field of developmental psychopathology reveals the surprisingly early origins of emotion-related disorders like depression, conduct problems, anxiety disorders, and social withdrawal. These studies also show how relationships with caregivers who are emotionally neglectful, physically abusive, or psychologically inconsistent can (especially when combined with risk factors like temperamental vulnerability) predispose certain young children to the emergence of psychopathology.21 Thus, the conclusion that relationships are central to healthy psychosocial growth in the early years is a double-edged sword. It highlights how sensitive caregiving provides many opportunities for enlivening early social and emotional capacities, but also how markedly inadequate care renders young children vulnerable to psychosocial harm.