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Wednesday, 24 February 2021
Emotional Development; An Outline of Normal Function Print
By Susan Scott, NW Neurodevelopmental Training Center

We One

This is not a typographical error, but a pun. When a child is born, his emotional perceptions are entirely based on the experience of being in the uterus. Consequently, he perceives that he and the mother are one and the same. (In this discussion 'mother' refers specifically to the biological mother who carried the child in utero.) Even thought the baby now exists physically independent from the mother, its experiences have not yet caught up. The relationship of mother and baby is one of identity. Newborn babies are dependent on their mothers for regulating both their physical and emotional stasis. Proximity to the mother regulates the baby's respiration and heart rates. The baby is dependent on the mother to regulate its emotions as well. At this time in the baby's development, he has not yet fully developed the perceptual, expressive, or autonomic functions that would allow him to begin to evaluate his surroundings, act on that information and regulate his own body accordingly. For now, the baby still experiences the world through the mother. Therefore, her emotions are his emotions.

This deeply intimate relationship, in which the baby is not yet aware that he and the mother do not share the same identity, forms the foundation for the child's future relationship to the world and others in it. If the mother is contended, the baby will experience the world as a receptive and welcoming place to be. If the mother is anxious, depressed, or fearful, the baby will conversely view the world as hostile and threatening. The neurochemical responses of the mother to her environment and experiences are echoed in the developing central nervous system of the baby.

Thee and I

As the baby grows, and his neurological functions become more well developed, so too do his emotional functions develop. At about two months of age, as the baby enters the pons stage of development, one of the first steps on the path of his emotional development is the "discovery" that he and the mother are not identical. It is important to note that this "discovery" is not conscious in the same sense that adults experience new realizations. Rather, as the baby's perceptual awareness increases, its personal awareness also increases, providing the knowledge that his experiences are not at all times the same as the mother's; therefore, he and the mother are not the same.

This discovery at first brings with it a great deal of anxiety for the baby. This anxiety is based on a rather basic experience that most of us can relate to in our current lives. That is, we all have an intuitive, if false, sense that we have personal control over what happens to us ("I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul"). In the same way, a newborn baby has a sense of being in control of the baby/mother entity. Upon realizing that he and the mother are not identical, the baby must also realize (again, not consciously) that he does not have control over the mother. Yet he still depends on her for his survival; without her, he will die.

Fortunately, mothers are well equipped to deal with his crisis of anxiety. In responding to the baby's cries and providing food, nurturing, and tenderness, the mother reassures the baby. (The reader should note that this article addresses normal emotional development; the article that follows will introduce issues that arise when the baby is separated from the birth mother.) The mother and baby now form what is to be the baby's first "relationship" with another. This will be the basis or model for all of the baby's future relationships.

Recall that the pons is the part of our brain that is largely concerned with life preservation functions. While the pons is developing, the baby experiences a world of extremes and absolutes (hungry/not hungry, cold/not cold, hurt/not hurt.) The baby's relationship with the mother at this stage is also one of absolutes, and primarily for the purpose of life preservation. Mother is present or not present. If she is not present, in fact, the baby will die. Through fulfilling her "life and death contract" with the baby the mother allows the baby to develop the function of trust. If she does not fulfill this "contract" the baby will have no neurological or emotional basis on which to form any other trusting relationship. Fulfillment of this "contract" includes tender nurturing, as well as providing basics of food, clothing, and shelter.

We Are Family

Just like the song that says, "We are family," we do not live out our lives in a single relationship with our mother. When a baby reaches about six months of age, and begins to develop at the midbrain level, his emotional development reaches a new level of complexity. The child's perceptual functions become sophisticated enough to discern nuances in his environment; he becomes increasingly aware of siblings and other adults in the household. At this point the child begins to implement the give-and-take of this first relationship with others besides the mother.

The basic element of baby's first relationship, mutually supportive interaction, is the core of all the new relationships that the child forms. Now, however, instead of being based on life and death, relationships with siblings, the father, and other members of the household now can be based on subtler issues. At the midbrain stage of development, children are exploring details in their environment, such as sights, sounds, and tactile sensations. Awareness of these details allows us to interpret such non-verbal expressions of communication as facial expression, body language and tone of voice. These are important means of expressing and understanding emotion. With these new tools, the child now has the ability to explore relationships based on satisfaction and displeasure, rather than life and death.

With siblings, the child begins engaging in common activities and play that utilize and practice more complex emotional relationships. When the child experiences the play as rewarding or pleasant his brain produces dopamine, a neurochemical that interacts with pleasure centers in the brain. If the child does not experience play or a common activity as pleasant, dopamine is not produced. Both the production of dopamine and many of the dopamine receptors are located in the midbrain.

It is at this stage that children practice both receptive and expressive communication skills that they will employ in future relationships later in life. The child learns to read the facial expressions, not only of mother, but of others in the household. In relationship to the mother, the child now learns that an expression of displeasure from her does not necessarily mean death. The child learns to express feelings more complex than "I'm hungry" or "I'm cold." Now he can giggle to show amusement or frown to show sadness.

In the still very sheltered and relatively safe environment of the family, the child has an opportunity to observe how different people express similar emotions, and to observe the effect of his own expressions on different people. Through this process, the child develops a spectrum of experiences or scale against which he can evaluate future interactions with others with whom he is not already familiar.

The family is the testing ground in which the child develops his skill at reading and expressing emotion. The development of function at the midbrain level equips the child with the neurological tools that he needs to further develop his emotional functions, by developing the areas of our brain that play active roles in our emotional responses.

The Debutante

After developing his experiences within the family as well as reaching the cortical stage of development, the child is ready to make his debut in the world. With some basic experience under his belt, and a sense of safety and self-confidence fostered by mother's nurturing and care and his society at home, the child now is ready to venture into society at large and develop emotional relationships with others outside the sphere of the family.

The child is aided in this task, both internally and externally. Internally, as he matures in his cortical development he begins to be able to apply reason to his emotional experiences. This is a balance that we depend on extensively as adults. The child can now begin to evaluate how extenuating circumstances may affect another's emotional response to him. For example, if a child meets a friend who is sad he will begin to be able to assess whether the friend is sad about something he did, or if the friend is sad about some experience the child did not witness. In other words, "my friend's experiences may be different than mine, and therefore his emotions may not be what I expect based on what I know of his experiences." If we do not develop this ability to mitigate our emotional experiences based on our reasoning ability, we live lives of emotional tumult.

Externally, the process of venturing out into society should be aided by the father. At the same time that the relationship between the mother and child is progressing from one of absolute dependence to one of increasing independence, the relationship between the father and child is progressing from one of fairly minimal engagement to one of increasing engagement. While the child works to achieve growing independence from the mother, the father can step in as a role model for wider social interaction. This is not to say that mothers should cut off relationship with their children as they get older and submit to fathers. On the contrary, the biological facts of the relationship of the child to each parent equip each with the ideal forum for fostering and nurturing their child in different ways which complement each other.

From this point on the child develops ever-increasing skill at using the emotional functions first established in infancy. He will form friendships, love relationships, marriage, and finally relationships with his own children, all based on the primal relationship of mother and baby developed and expanded.


This concept of emotional development has significant implications. First, it must be agreed that every effort, both individually and societal, must be made to preserve, support, and foster the strong and close bond between infants and mothers. This includes recognizing and honoring the irreplaceable contribution that mothers make to society through the act of mothering. It also includes providing resources to support mothers financially, emotionally and socially.

Also, it is clear that the role of father is not extraneous to the emotional development of the child. Children need male figures in their lives to complete their emotional development. Though this person need not be a biological father, he must be more than a nominal figure or a photo on the shelf. As a society, we are already paying dearly for our ignorance of these basic developmental facts. It is imperative that we begin to make wise and informed decisions about how we will foster our children's emotional, as well as neurological, development.


Suttie, Ian D., M.D., The Origins of Love and Hate, Agora, New York, 1966.

About the Author:

Susan Scott is Program Administrator at NW Neurodevelopmental Training Center in Woodburn, Oregon. Several families on A4everFamily credit Susan's skills with helping their children to recover from attachment problems.
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