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, self-understanding, 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 maladap-tive 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.
Because infancy is a period of origins, the study of so-cioemotional development also addresses some of the most significant questions of contemporary developmental psychology. How are nature and nurture processes fused in shaping developmental pathways (cf. chapter by Overton in this volume)? 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 influ ences 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 National Academy 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 chapter.
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 chapter (see, too, chapter by Overton in this volume).
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.
Was this article helpful?