Infancy and the Preschool Years

In infancy and the preschool years amazing growth occurs in the child's capacity for self-control and self-regulation and in the internalization of standards for behavior. In his important book Emotional Development, Alan Sroufe noted that there is wide agreement among developmental psychologists about the role that a parent or caregiver plays in helping the child achieve self-control and self-regulation. The parent or caregiver helps the child develop her own self-regulation by soothing distress, enhancing alertness, and allowing the child the experience of self-regulation by sensitively responding to the child's signals of need for soothing or increased stimulation. Children who have experienced chaotic and inconsistent parenting do not have the experience of regulation to guide their own efforts, nor the confidence in the caregiver (and consequently in themselves) required for self-regulation. Additionally, children who have been pushed to independence at too early an age because the parent is emotionally unavailable or too strict tend to adopt rigid regulatory strategies, which they attempt to use on their own. They do not learn to turn to parents or others to help them with regulation. Sroufe noted that children whose interactions with their parents have been characterized by sensitive, responsive care from the parent—as opposed to overstimulating, intrusive care—have been found to be better able to handle frustration, be less hyperactive, have longer attention spans during the preschool years, and do better academically and emotionally in the early elementary years. In toddler-hood, willing compliance with parents is associated with parent interaction behaviors that are well coordinated with the child's. Children who have a secure, trusting relationship with their parents (having experienced responsive care) show greater self-reliance in the classroom, and less inclination to fall apart under stress, a greater curiosity and willingness to make a strong effort in the face of challenge, and greater flexibility and complexity in their play. Additionally, children with secure relationships with their parents have peer relationships characterized by greater commitment and emotional closeness, and by more positive emotions such children are also more empathic and supportive with other children when the partner is injured, distressed, or less able, but are assertive with aggressive partners.

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