Psychosocial Developmental Milestones from Birth to Age 2

This is the third of a series of articles on child development from birth to 2 years. To read the second article click here. Child development is not an exact science. Every infant grows and develops at its own pace. However, the information about psychosocial development provided in this article are a useful reference for every new parent.

Traditional psychological theories suggest that a child’s personality is shaped by how children are raised in infancy, with particular regard to maternal care. Below are a few pointers and key concepts to better understand the development of young children from 0 to 2 years.

1. Emotional development

Feelings contribute greatly to the interaction between parents and children. Even newborns are able to express multiple feelings such as joy, anger, surprise, fear, sadness, disgust and interest.

One of the first reactions that can be observed in newborn babies are anguish and sadness that usually present with crying. With regards to positive emotions, on the other hand, babies can feel amazement very early on and are able to smile.

By 8 months, babies’ emotions become more specific and distinct. Between 6 and 12 months, babies start feeling fear in response to meeting strangers.

By 10 months, babies begin to suffer from separation anxiety, which can be regarded as the fear of being abandoned by the mother or other parental figures. This fear reaches its peak at 14 months and then decrease.

  • Emotion and cognition

Emotional changes are interconnected with cognitive and intellectual changes in the brain. By 10 months, babies begin to explore social cues to interact with their surrounding environment. In situations of uncertainty babies begin to regulate their emotional response to external stimuli based on how their trusted adults react.

In the first months of life children have not yet developed the ability to be self-conscious. They acquire the awareness of having a sense of self only after the first year of life. Researchers in the field of developmental psychology believe that there is a link between the emerging awareness of having a sense of self and the emergence of emotions such as embarrassment and shyness.

2. The origins of personality

In this section we will consider two major theories of the origin of personality: psychodynamic and behavioural approaches.

Behavioural theorists believed that personality is shaped by the way parents reinforce or punish the child's various spontaneous behaviours; consequently, what a child’s personality is largely dependant on the actions performed by his parents or carers.

One of the most important psychological approaches to understanding personality is based on the theories of the Austrian physician and psychologist S. Freud, who argued that personality is developed through a series of psychosexual stages, each focusing on pleasure from a different part of the body. In the first of Freud’s proposed stages of psychosexual development, which begins at birth and lasts until about 18 months of age, the focus is on the mouth. During the oral stage, the infant obtains sexual pleasure by sucking and drinking. Infants who receive either too little or too much gratification become fixated in the oral stage, and are likely to regress to these points of fixation under stress, even as adults. According to Freud, children who were underfed or neglected will become ‘orally dependent’ as adults and be likely to manipulate others to fulfil their needs. On the other hand, children who were overfed or overly gratified will resist growing up and try to return to the prior state of dependency by acting helpless, demanding satisfaction from others, and acting in a needy way. The anal stage, lasting from about 18 months to 3 years of age is when children first experience psychological conflict. During this stage children desire to experience pleasure through bowel movements, but they are also being toilet trained to delay this gratification. Freud believed that if this toilet training was either too harsh or too lenient, children would become fixated in the anal stage and become likely to regress to this stage under stress as adults. If the child received too little anal gratification, for example if the parents had been very harsh about toilet training, the adult personality will be ‘anal retentive’, stingy, with a compulsive seeking of order and tidiness. On the other hand, if the parents had been too lenient, the anal ‘expulsive’ personality will develop, characterised by a lack of self-control and a tendency toward messiness and carelessness.

  • Erikson: trust and autonomy

According to Erikson, psychological evolution takes place through a series of fundamental psychosocial crises along the lifespan. Erikson's first psychosocial crisis occurs during the first year of life. The first crisis is about basic trust or mistrust and during this crisis children learn that the world is or is not a secure place where their basic needs will be met. If the care the infant receives is consistent, predictable and reliable, they will develop a sense of trust which will carry with them to other relationships, and they will be able to feel secure even when threatened. Success in this stage will lead to the virtue of hope. Autonomy versus shame and doubt is the second stage of Erikson's stages of psychosocial development. This stage occurs between the ages of 18 months to approximately 3 years. The child is developing physically and becoming more mobile, and discovering that he or she has many skills and abilities. Such skills illustrate the child's growing sense of independence and autonomy.  The child wants to govern his actions and his body. It is crucial that parents allow children to explore their environment independently during this phase.

  • Mahler: separation-individuation theory of child development

Mahler is regarded as one of the main contributors to the field of ‘ego psychology’, a school of thought that evolved from S. Freud’s Structural Model (id-ego-superego). According to Mahler, successful completion of the developmental stages in the first few years of life results in separation and individuation. Separation refers to an internal process of mental separation from the mother, while individuation refers to a developing self concept.

  • Temperament: the importance of nature

Temperament is defined as the set of fundamental and constant innate predispositions that modulate the expression of activity, reactivity, emotions and sociability. Temperament is rooted in the multitude of genetic codes that drive brain development and is influenced by numerous prenatal experiences. Elements of temperament are evident from birth and within the first months it is clearly outlined. There are at least nine major characteristics that make up temperament.

  • Activity level: the level of physical activity, motion, restlessness or fidgety behavior that a child demonstrates in daily activities (and which also may affect sleep).
  • Rhythmicity or regularity: the presence or absence of a regular pattern for basic physical functions such as appetite, sleep and bowel habits.
  • Approach and withdrawal: the way a child initially responds to a new stimulus (rapid and bold or slow and hesitant), whether it be people, situations, places, foods, changes in routines or other transitions.
  • Adaptability: the degree of ease or difficulty with which a child adjusts to change or a new situation, and how well the youngster can modify his reaction.
  • Intensity: the energy level with which a child responds to a situation, whether positive or negative.
  • Mood: the mood, positive or negative, or degree of pleasantness or unfriendliness in a child's words and behaviours.
  • Attention span: the ability to concentrate or stay with a task, with or without distraction.
  • Distractibility: the ease with which a child can be distracted from a task by environmental (usually visual or auditory) stimuli.
  • Sensory threshold: the amount of stimulation required for a child to respond. Some children respond to the slightest stimulation, and others require intense amounts.

3. Parent-child interaction

The way parents raise children and the child's innate characteristics are not the only determinants of psychosocial development. It is the parent-child interaction that is crucial. This interaction is influenced by the parent's personality and the child's temperament, as well as by the stage of development of the latter.

  • Synchrony

Even children of a few weeks communicate emotionally through sounds, movements and facial expressions. Many parents watch their baby carefully, trying to interpret what he or she needs and respond accordingly. This tendency to act reciprocally begins to emerge in episodes of synchrony, or coordinated interaction between the child and their important adults, and consists of a harmony of gestures, expressions and rhythm that can make the first non-verbal games a fascinating interaction.

  • Attachment

The attachment between parents and their children has been the subject of extensive research. Attachment can be defined as an emotional bond that a person forms between himself and another specific human being, who is a source of care and attention.

  • How to measure attachment

Ainsworth studied attachment and found that all children develop a special attachment to their caregivers. In addition, the author has discovered that some children feel much safer than others in their attachment.

A secure attachment is characterised by a sense of protection and trust. Children with a Secure attachment show some distress when their caregiver leaves but are able to compose themselves knowing that their caregiver will return. 

An insecure attachment, on the contrary, is characterised by emotions of fear, anger or apparent indifference towards the parent. Some children may show an insecure attachment that gives rise to three distinct reactions.

  • Some children are anxious and oppositional: they cling nervously to their mother even before she leaves for the first time and show no desire to explore the playroom.
  • Other children are elusive: they entertain little interactions with their mother, show no apparent sign of tension when she goes away;
  • Finally, some children are disoriented, or disorganised, and present an inconsistent mixture of behaviours towards the mother.
The International Psychology Clinic

The International Psychology Clinic