Emotions, behaviour & play

What you need to know:

This section refers to the development of your child’s personality and formation of relationships with people that they interact with. Children mostly learn this through play and by observing your interactions with other people in a range of situations, e.g. if they see you are angry and shout at the, they will learn to shout when they are angry, whilst if they see you pause to calm yourself down, they will learn to deal with challenging situations in a more positive manner. 

What might my child be doing?
  Emotions Behaviour Play
Newborns 0-3 months From 6 weeks of age, your baby will smile back when you or another familiar adult smiles at them.  Your baby knows and recognises your voice. Once they start to smile, usually fro the age of 6 weeks, they will respond to your voice with smiling.  At and soon after birth, your baby can only see about 20cm away, which allows them to see your face as you are feeding them. This means that they find your face very interesting. It is important to show them toys with contrasting colours, but within short distance from their face
Babies 3-12 months

As your baby grows up, they are starting to show more emotions: laughing, smiling and showing excitement when happy, and grimacing or crying when frustrated or upset. 

By the age of 9 months your baby might show signs of separation anxiety: crying when away from you or another person close to them; and stranger anxiety: being upset when there are people around that they do not know. 

By the age of 6 months old, your baby knows and recognises other people that regularly look after them. Your baby can show excitement when spending time with them, indicating that they enjoy other people looking after them.  From around the age of 6 months old your baby will explore different objects by reaching out for them, holding them, looking at them and putting them in their mouth. They will also show excitement and joy when you play with them, or sing to them. .
Toddlers 1-3 years Over those 3 years your toddler is developing their emotions and they may have difficulty expressing how they feel. This can manifest as temper tantrums when they feel frustrated, sad or angry. It is important to be patient, set clear boundaries and model positive behaviour.  From 2 years old, separation anxiety should settle, as your toddler will understand that you will come back when you leave them.

By the age of 12 months your child will be exploring their surroundings under your supervision. They will crawl, pull up to stand, cruise and start walking. They will be interested in everything and try to get things out of cupboards.

From about 18 months of age, your toddler may start to pretend play with toys, such as pretending to drink out of a cup or talking on the phone. 

By the age of 2 years, your toddler will be staring to play games with other children and forming friendships. 

Preschool 3-5 years At 5 years old, children develop a sense of awareness such as worrying about not being liked and knowing how to be funny in order to make people laugh. By the age of 4 years, your child’s pretend play develops further and they might enjoy trying to trick you, e.g. by pretending to be asleep when they are not.  By the age of 4 years, your child understands how to share and take turns. Their imagination is developing and their play becomes more involved and elaborate, e.g. by playing mums and dads. .

  • give your child lots of hugs and kisses to provide your child with a sense of comfort, safety and confidence.
  • being nearby when they are trying new things out, to help them develop their independence and self-confidence.
  • play together and give them your full attention when doing so by smiling at them, giving eye contact, e.g. messy play, outdoor play, art-based play and roleplay.
  • if changing your child's activity is regularly met with protests, try giving successive warnings to your child that an activity is going to stop imminently e.g. 'we are going to turn off the TV in 10 minutes', followed by 'we are going to turn off the TV in 5 minutes/when the cartoon ends'.
  • Be your child’s role model on how you would like them to behave with others, e.g. if you have a child who interrupts persistently, by mindful of actively listening to them and allowing them to finish what they want to say before getting your own point across or focusing on something else. 
  • Be more aware of how you speak to your child. If you are struggling with a child who says “no” to everything, try to avoid using it yourself and explain in short sentences why you are not giving permission now and when you would reconsider their request. Tell them what you would like them to do, e.g. “please use kind hands” instead of “don’t hit it” or “please use your quiet voice” instead of “don’t shout” 
  • encourage your child's imagination by reading together, telling stories, singing songs etc.

If your child stops doing something they could already do, or stops progressing through different stages of emotional development, this is of great concern. 

When your baby:

  • cries persistently without you being able to settle them
  • doesn't appear to like cuddles
  • doesn't pay attention to faces
  • doesn't smile back from 6 weeks old

By 2-3 years old, when your toddler:

  • seems to be in their 'own world' with very little interest in their general surroundings
  • can be very particular and infatuated about certain things
  • when they persistently and continuously can not listen or pay attention to adults requests/instructions

By 4-5 years old, when your pre-schooler:

  • doesn't look you in the eye to communicate with you
  • isn't interested in other children
  • doesn't do any pretend or imaginative play
  • enjoys obsessive, repetitive things e.g. lining things up, wanders around aimlessly, throws things
  • Does not have a strong bond with those close to them. Behaviours that you might notice include (but are not exhaustive to): not looking for comfort when upset but expecting you to approach them, not appearing to enjoy praise for doing good job, not running up to you after a period of separation, having routines that are near impossible to break, having purposeless rituals to do in order to avoid meltdowns. 


If you have any concern about your child’s behaviour or ability to express or deal with emotions, or you are finding it difficult to know how to play with them, please seek help via your health visitor, a nurse, school/nursery teacher or GP. 


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