Feelings are with us from birth, perhaps even before. In their purest form emotions such as frustration, joy, sadness, disgust etc don’t change much over the years. What does change, however, and what we think of as “emotional development” is how people come to understand and manage their feelings.
Most people are familiar with the idea that emotional development can be influenced by life events. Developmental psychologists and theorists often describe emotional development in a series of stages, tasks or lessons. In early development toddlers, for example, are learning how to walk, speak and use the potty. With the physical stages come emotional lessons – toddling shows children how to venture out on their own, potty training teaches them to delay their natural urges and discipline forces them to deal with the frustration of being told “no”.
In these models, emotional development is affected when something prevents a person from completing a particular stage and its tasks constructively. It could be due to difficult conditions, upheaval, trauma or illness, but it leaves the individual with soft, emotionally undeveloped spots that can continue to be an area of vulnerability or struggle.
Emotional development doesn’t, of course, stop with adulthood. There are the challenges of choosing a career and mate, settling down with a partner and coping with the responsibility of parenthood. Later on we have to deal with a decline in physical abilities and the prospect of our own mortality. Added to this are all of the unique personal experiences and challenges we encounter along the way. These factors could be described as “task-orientated” or “instrumental” because we develop the emotional skills necessary to manage what happens to and around us.
But not all emotional learning and development comes from first-hand experience. Modelling is learning by observing and copying someone else’s example, like an apprentice learns from a master. So the second factor in emotional development is who’s around you, what they value and what they are (or aren’t) able to pass on. A child whose parents have difficulty verbalising their feelings won’t have their examples to draw on so may find this aspect of emotion quite a challenge. On the positive side, we also can meet people we admire and use their example more consciously as inspiration.
Influences from other people and life events come together when we’re part of a working group like a family, social circle, classroom or workplace. In these social units or “systems” individual members adopt certain roles or functions to keep the system working smoothly, like the different parts of a machine. In a large family, for example, older children are often deputized as their parents’ helpers which accelerates their development of adult traits like responsibility and authority. The babies of the family, by contrast, are sometimes encouraged to stay young longer than their siblings. In a systems model, the emotional behaviours which are rewarded or discouraged are determined by one’s role or position in the group, and different emotional roles can be found in nearly all groups.
At first it would seem that society is little more than a backdrop for personal emotional development. But society is rarely that passive. Development and stages of development in particular, assume that we’re progressing along a path to goal. In these models, if the world was ideal and nothing’s impeded, we’d reach full emotional maturation or fulfil some ideal emotional potential. But what exactly would that be? What is “emotionally developed”? This is where social factors and cultural values come into play. They determine the kind of emotionality people are encouraged to develop. Not so long ago, to be emotionally developed was to be able to keep a tight reign on one’s “beastial” passions and stiff-upper-lip stoicism was valued above self-awareness and self-expression. Today we’re more likely to think of someone as well-developed emotionally if they can understand and work with their feelings.
These different factors are sometimes at odds with one another but each is important in its own way. When it comes to emotional development, social groups and cultural values tell us what is desirable, role models show us what is possible and life events decide what is necessary.