by Amanda Iheme
Bio: Amanda is a psychotherapist and an architecture photographer. She has a bachelor’s degree in psychology and a master in abnormal and clinical psychology from Swansea University. Amanda works with private clients suffering from depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and existential crisis & provides psychotherapy for the staff of corporate firms.
To learn more, visit ndidi.me. You can also find Amanda on Instagram: @amandaiheme & @ndidihealth
The emotional development of humans begins from the moment we are born. As an infant, we form emotional bonds with our primary caregivers based on how they treat us and our responses to their actions. In simpler terms, how we learn to relate with our parents from infancy constructs the system of how we relate with ourselves and others in our adult life.
If you were raised in a family environment that was dysfunctional with the presence of violence and abuse (physical, sexual, verbal), neglect (physical, emotional), divorce or addiction, you will create internal processing systems that reflects these negative experiences. You’ll find that you struggle with regulating your emotions and responses to certain stimuli. You may also struggle with forming and sustaining healthy secure attachments, or suffer from depression, anxiety, and body dysmorphia.
It is therefore important that you have a good understanding of the stages of human emotional development when you decide to have children of your own or if you already do. It is important that you can identify defining periods in your children’s lives and manage them well. This will reduce the chances of them developing faulty belief systems about themselves and the world.
Emotional Developmental Stages In Children
Infancy To 2 Years
From infancy to the age of 2, our reactions are reflexive and in response to stimuli from the environment we occupy. We learn to grasp objects in our hands, change positions, hold our heads up on our own and sit up. At this same time, we are learning how to self-soothe, regulate our reactions to the stimuli in our environment, and are significantly reliant on our care-givers to provide us support during stressful situations.
It is during time that we learn how to trust through the close-bonds we form with our caregivers. At this age, we need care-givers who are warm, present and responsive during our times of need. If we are not shown adequate care, affection and attention, we struggle with trusting and forming secure attachments as we age. Early childhood emotional neglect causes children to feel lonely and empty, struggle with expressing their emotions and feel like their needs are not important. It teaches them that their feelings do not matter and that they should not ask for help because no one will be responsive to their needs.
2 Years To 5 Years
At this age, children can walk without help, climb the stairs and scribble. They become self-aware and begin to explore their emotions. They begin throwing tantrums, saying no to others, exercising independence (I want, I like) and showing possession (mine, mine, mine). They learn more words to discriminate and communicate their feelings and desires and can experience feelings of shame and pride. Parents and caregivers with children at this age can begin to teach them acts of empathy, healthy ways of expressing and communicating their feelings and desires, and the benefits of delayed gratification.
It’s an important stage where children learn self-control and personal responsibility. Children should be provided with opportunities to exercise their independence and supported with words of reassurance when they make choices. Parents and caregivers who are negative and critical, punish for simple mistakes or for choices that do not align with their own views are harmful to the children as their actions impair the children’s ability to make decisions for themselves causing them to begin to believe that their mistakes are failures thereby creating a sense of shame and self-doubt within them.
5 Years To 7 Years
Children have now begun to develop their ability to think abstractly and conceptualize. They are better able to create logical structures to communicate their physical and emotional experiences. This is usually the age when schooling starts. Their motor skills are refined and they have good hand-to-eye coordination. They can ride a bike, play basketball, get dressed alone and draw. They become self-conscious and experience emotions such as embarrassment and guilt. They become aware of how they feel about themselves and other people’s reactions to them. It is at this age that they begin to understand what the generally accepted emotional behaviours are in their core social environments – family and school.
It is important that at this stage, parents gently and lovingly enforce healthy boundaries and begin to teach their kids through modelling. This can be done by what they (parents) do and by reinforcement of good behavior. Children at this age are eager to engage in playing (both physical and imaginative) alone and with peers. It is important for parents and caregivers to not control children’s behavior by dictating what they should be doing. Rather, they should allow them the freedom to initiate play, and social relationships. Children who are restricted begin to lack in their ability to take initiative because they have been made to feel that the initiatives they have taken in the past were wrong. They become increasingly dependent on adults and have poor social skills. They struggle with decision making and develop a low self-esteem.
7 Years To 13 Years
School and social interactions are important in the child’s life at this age. Going to school begins to expand their social realm from just immediate family members and care-givers. Through school work and healthy competition among schoolmates and friends, the child begins to develop a sense of confidence and competence. They are capable of undertaking complex tasks and are eager to master new skills. They become aware of how their behaviour can influence the dynamics of their relationships with others. They learn to accept what is considered the norm for emotional expressions and how to form close relationships.
Children who, at younger ages, developed a healthy sense of trust, independence and security in relationships and were supported well by their parents or caregivers, will tend to confront tricky social situations with a problem-solving attitude while those who did not will tend to distance themselves from tricky social situations. As they learn and master new skills in their school work and social interactions, it is important for parents and caregivers to provide words of encouragement, attention and praise. This period is important in the development of a child’s self-confidence. Children who received less encouragement when they wanted to attempt difficult tasks or after they failed at a task; experienced more criticism and punishment for mistakes or whose caregivers withheld affection whenever they did not meet their standards develop feelings of inferiority and shame. The self-confidence levels are low and they doubt their ability to succeed. They give up easily with tasks or do not try at all and constantly feel that no matter how much they try, they will not be good enough.
13 Years To 19 Years
The teenage years from age 13 to 19 can be stressful for both the children and their parents or caregivers. Children are now capable of deductive and hypothetical reasoning, and abstract thinking much like that of an adult. Puberty sets in with many bodily changes that affects the child’s sense of self causing them to ask the question: who am I?
It is the period of searching for an identity. They want to spend more time with their peers as their ability to form and sustain relationships, and understanding how they fit in the world are important at this age. They learn new ways of coping with stressful situations at home and among their peers and how to make decisions for themselves. The teenage brain is working towards independence and individuality. They are seeking to establish a strong sense of self so they try out many activities, roles and lifestyles which oftentimes come across as unpredictable and impulsive. Parents still play a role in enforcing a sense of self within the teenager but societal trends, friends, peer groups and popular culture have more influential power.
What they need from their parents or caregivers at this age are their patience, reflective listening, encouragement and reinforcement through their personal exploration. They need adults who can help them understand their world better and make better decisions for themselves. Not adults who make decisions for them. Children who receive positive support end up forming a strong sense of self, independence and self-control. They begin to understand the value of commitment through committing to a social group, a career path or personal style. Those who do not receive adequate encouragement and support at this age or that are not allowed to explore their personality end up being confused about who they are and what they want. They end up going from job to job, relationship to relationship unsure of themselves well into adulthood.
Mental Health of Teenagers
Many teens develop body image issues and mental health issues at this age, especially when they have poor family support and have developed poorly in their younger years. It is easy to ignore the mental health of children, especially in this part of the world where children are seen and not heard. Where when they express sadness, it is dismissed with the common question,” what do you have to be sad or worried about?”
Teenagers do have issues to be worried about, especially those who were raised in a household where there was violence and abuse either between parents, parents to children, or poverty. This is a time when they begin to form healthy habits that will guide them in adult life like healthy sleeping & eating habits, emotional regulation, problem-solving and interpersonal skills. When exposed to adverse experiences such abuse and violence, it impairs their ability to form these skills and habits thus affecting their adult life negatively.
Factors that can affect the mental health of a teenager are:
- Sexual violence
- Media influence and gender norms
- Domestic violence
- Physical abuse
- Verbal abuse
- Emotional abuse
- Desire for independence
- Peer pressure
- Sex and sexuality
- Gender identity
- Poor living conditions
- Poor schooling conditions
- Community violence
- Living with a chronic illness
- Living with an intellectual disability
- Social Exclusion
WARNING SIGNS OF MENTAL ILLNESS IN TEENAGERS
- Changes in sleep pattern: sleeping too much or too little
- Feelings of sadness or withdrawal
- Drastic changes in personality or behaviour: fighting or acting out etc.
- Difficulty concentrating
- Drastic weight loss or gain
- Having low energy
- Isolation and avoiding social interaction
- Loss of interest in regular activities
- Major changes in academics
- Thoughts about suicide
- Decreased interest in personal hygiene
- Pronounced mood swings
- Drug abuse
How to Help Mentally Ill Teenagers
- If you suspect that your child might be struggling with a mental illness, do not be afraid to reach out and ask for help. Learning all you can about mental health is an important first step. Speak to a psychotherapist or counsellor, and read about the mental health of teenagers online.
- Speak to your teenagers about your observations. If you have developed a healthy open channel for communication with your teenagers over the years, having this conversation will not be difficult. However, if you do not have that type of relationship with your teenager, help them to identify adults that they trust and can be open to talk to
- Get them help with a clinical psychologist for evaluation and treatment. Mental illnesses are treatable. It does not mean that your teen is crazy or trying to hurt you. They just need medical assistance to help them feel better.
- Seek support for yourself by getting into therapy or talking to trusted friends and family members who can help you cope positively