Social Development in Children

Ask any parent about their child’s development, and they’ll often talk about speech and language development, gross motor skills or even physical growth. But a child’s social development—her ability to interact with other children and adults—is a critical piece of the development puzzle.

What is social development?
Social development refers to the process by which a child learns to interact with others around them. As they develop and perceive their own individuality within their community, they also gain skills to communicate with other people and process their actions. Social development most often refers to how a child develops friendships and other relationships, as well how a child handles conflict with peers.

Why is social development so important?
Social development can actually impact many of the other forms of development a child experiences. A child’s ability to interact in a healthy way with the people around her can impact everything from learning new words as a toddler, to being able to resist peer pressure as a high school student, to successfully navigating the challenges of adulthood. Healthy social development can help your child:

Develop language skills. An ability to interact with other children allows for more opportunities to practice and learn speech and language skills. This is a positive cycle, because as communication skills improve, a child is better able to relate to and react to the people around him.

Build self esteem. Other children provide a child with some of her most exciting and fun experiences. When a young child is unable to make friends it can be frustrating or even painful. A healthy circle of friends reinforces a child’s comfort level with her own individuality.

Strengthen learning skills. In addition to the impact social development can have on general communication skills, many researchers believe that having healthy relationships with peers (from preschool on up) allows for adjustment to different school settings and challenges. Studies show that children who have a hard time getting along with classmates as early as preschool are more likely to experience later academic difficulties.

Resolve conflicts. Stronger self esteem and better language skills can ultimately lead to a better ability to resolve differences with peers.

Establish positive attitude. A positive attitude ultimately leads to better relationships with others and higher levels of self confidence.

How can parents make a difference when it comes to social development?
Studies show that everyday experiences with parents are fundamental to a child’s developing social skill-set. Parents provide a child with their very first opportunities to develop a relationship, communicate and interact. As a parent, you also model for your child every day how to interact with the people around you.

Because social development is not talked about as much as some other developmental measures, it can be hard for parents to understand the process AND to evaluate how their child is developing in this area. There are some basic developmental milestones at every age, as well as some helpful tips a parent can use to support their child.

Infants & Toddlers: During the first 2 years of life, huge amounts of development are rapidly occurring. You can expect your child to:
– Smile and react positively to you and other caregivers
– Develop stranger anxiety—though it can be frustrating, this is a normal step in development
– Develop an attachment to a comfort object such as a blanket or animal
– Begin to show anxiety around other children
– Imitate adults and children—just as a child develops in other ways, many social skills are learned simply through copying what a parent or sibling does
– Already be affected by emotions of parents and others around them

As a parent, you can:
– Respond to your baby’s needs promptly—your child is learning how to trust someone
– Make eye contact with your baby—get down to their level and connect visually when you interact with them
– Babble and talk to your baby, always pausing to allow them to respond
– Play copycat with words and actions
– Play “peekaboo”—this teaches your child that even if you “disappear” you will come back, and sets the stage for less stranger anxiety in the future
– Involve your baby in daily activities such as running errands or visiting friends—this shows them how you interact with others in a respectful, positive way
– Begin to arrange playdates so that your child can interact with peers

Preschoolers: By this age, the stage has been set in the earliest years (mostly by parental and other family interactions) for a child to branch out. As preschool begins your child can:
– Explore independently
– Express affection openly, though not always accurately—there can still be much frustration for your child as language development is still happening
– Still show some stranger anxiety
– Perfect the temper tantrum—it can be stressful, but tantrums are a normal part of child development
– Learn how to soothe themselves
– Be more aware of others’ emotions
– Cooperate with other children
– Express fear or anxiety before an upcoming event (such as a doctor visit)

As a parent, you can:
– Demonstrate your own love through words and physical affection—which is a great way to begin teaching a child how to express other emotions as well
– Help your child express their emotions by talking through what they are feeling
– Play with your child in a “peer-like” way to encourage cooperative play—this is helpful when they are in a group environment and have to share toys and cooperate
– Continue to provide play dates and opportunities to interact with other children
– Provide examples of your trust in others, such as your own friendships or other relationships

School children: By 5 and older, a child’s social development begins to reach new levels. This is a point in time when most children will spend more hours in a day with other children than with their parents. It is normal for them to:
– Thrive on friendships
– Want to please friends, as well as be more like their friends
– Begin to recognize power in relationships, as well as the larger community
– Recognize and fear bullies or display bully-like behavior themselves
– As early as 10, children may begin to reject parents’ opinion of friends and certain behaviors—this is a normal step, but can be especially frustrating for parents

As a parent, you can:
– Talk with your child about social relationships and values by asking them about school and friends every day
– Allow children the opportunity to discuss social conflicts and problem-solve their reactions/actions
– Discuss the subject of bullying and harassment, both in person and on the Internet
– Allow older children to work out everyday problems on their own
– Keep the lines of communication open—as a parent, you want to make yourself available to listen and support your child in non-judgmental ways

Your child’s social development is a complex issue that is constantly changing. But the good news is that parents can have a big impact on how it progresses. By modeling healthy relationships and staying connected with your child, you can help them relate to the people around them in positive, beneficial ways. By encouraging them to engage with other children and adults, you’re setting them up to enjoy the benefits of social health—from good self esteem to strong communication skills to the ability to trust and connect with those around them.