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September 26, 2013

Theories of a Child’s Selfhood & Emotional Development

by Angel Pumila

Theories of a Child’s Selfhood & Emotional Development

According to Erickson (1950), early childhood development consists of a new sense of self found from engaging with the world with initiative. Through play and social interactions, children learn about activities that they can master without adult assistance. These lessons aid to create a sense of self and purpose within the child’s personality. “They begin to develop a self-concept, the set of attributes, abilities, attitudes, and values that an individual believes defines who he or she is.

A self-concept also influences emotional development in children. If he/she experiences positive interactions that make up the definition of self, he/she will be more likely to face the world with a positive emotional skills. Likewise, a negative self-concept can bring about a negative effect. Erickson’s theory finds that due to issues with their superego, children that receive excessive criticism from caregivers experience a large amount of guilt that deteriorates their self-concept.

Attachment also plays a role in this equation. “In one study, 4-year-olds with a secure attachment to their mothers were more likely than their insecurely attached agemates to describe themselves in favorable terms at age 5-with statements that reflect agreeableness and positive affect” (Berk, 2012, p 365). This relationship extends to include the impact of parent-child communication. For example, if a parent continually tells a child that they are bad, they begin to identify themselves as such. The same applies to personal defining likes/dislikes. The child will learn to categorize activities that they enjoy by connecting the activity to a parents verbal communication when told he/she enjoys the park. These elements lay the foundation for a sense of self emerging within this age group.

A view within social learning theory finds that behavior is established through reinforcement and modeling (Berk, 2012, p 380). This theory is based upon the concept of operant conditioning- reinforcement of behavior through reward. One such theorist in this school is thought is Albert Bandura. He finds that “human functioning is a product of the interplay of intrapersonal influences, the behavior individuals engage in, and the environmental forces that impinge upon them” (Bandura, 2012). Bandura (2012) explains that the uncontrollable force of the environment influences behavior. Yet, the reaction that is presented as a response is dependent upon the characteristics of the individual both in cognitive functioning and emotional response.

Social learning theory also explains learning and expression of gender identity. They explain that these elements of individuality are directly correlated to the effects of reinforcement and modeling. For example, parents impose their viewpoint about what it is to be male or female through activities such as rough play with boys and more gentle activities with girls. As a result, children take on the persona of their expected role. Similarly, other areas of learning result from imitation of behaviors displayed within an environmental setting (Heyes, 2012).

By contrasting Erikson’s psychoanalytic theory to Bandura’s social learning, we can find that Erikson placed a larger emphasis on the impact of the individual with the outside world. On the other hand, Bandura emphasizes the opposite. Both note that the environment has a heavy influence on characteristics of the child. However, Erikson believes that the resolution of internal conflicts produce positive attributes in children. Whereas, Bandura outlines a complex interaction with the external environment through situational response and the underlying reinforcement that creates it.


Bandura, A. (2012). On the functional properties of perceived self-efficacy revisited. Journal Of Management, 38(1), 9-44. doi:10.1177/0149206311410606
Berk, L. E. (2012). Infants, children, and adolescents (7th ed.). Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon.
Heyes, C. (2012). What’s social about social learning?. Journal Of Comparative Psychology, 126(2), 193-202. doi:10.1037/a0025180


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