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Social and Emotional Development

Social and emotional skills refer to the ability to recognise emotions in oneself and others.

The skillset also includes the ability to regulate your own emotions.

It is important and critical to nurture emotional development.

Sometimes, adverse childhood experiences can have an impact on this set of skills.

These can be negatively impacted by adverse early childhood experiences.

As a result, social-emotional skills may require therapy to improve.

Defining Social and Emotional Skills

Social-emotional development involves a child’s development of the self, or temperament; and a child’s relationship to others, or attachment.

Temperament can be defined as a child’s style or personality – a set of attributes and characteristics that are unique to the child. In addition, it influences their behaviour and how they interact with the people around them, like family and friends. You can describe temperament by examining its nine “dimensions.”

  • activity level
  • distractibility
  • intensity of emotions
  • regularity
  • sensory theshold
  • the tendency to approach versus wihdraw
  • adaptability
  • persistence
  • mood quality

Social-emotional development is thought to begin with a parent bonding with their child, as it occurs in a child’s first few days of life with their mother. The availability of a caregiver fosters basic trust and confidence in the infant for the caregiver. This bonding enables the child to seek their parent or caregiver during times of stress, which is known as attachment.

Attachment lays the foundation for:

  • a child’s sense of security
  • self-esteem
  • the building of emotional regulation and self-control skills

Understanding Social and Emotional Development

In healthy children, social and emotional development happens according to a trajectory where milestones can help predict how they grow. These milestones are useful markers that describe how a child is likely to develop, as compared to what has been observed as typical in other children. In terms of social and emotional development, having a sensitive and available caregiver is important. At birth, three emotions are obvious: anger, joy and fear – which are revealed to us as even infant’s make use of universal facial expressions.

At this age, a child will begin to:

  • Return a mother’s gaze and explore her face
  • Smile in response to cooing or a smile
  • Recognise a parent or caregiver’s scent, voice and gentle touch
  • Use facial expressions to express emotions
  • Desire routine
  • Learn to calm themselves and respond to calming
  • Take part in turn-taking conversations
  • Show they are happy or upset in varying contexts
  • Recognise a parent or caregiver by sight
  • Establish effective attachment relationships
  • Feel anxious around strangers and show distress when separated from a parent or caregiver
  • Look in the same direction as a parent or caregiver or follow their gaze

At this age, a child will begin to:

  • Explore their environment
  • Start pointing at objects of interest
  • Point their eyes at objects of interest
  • Bring an object to show or give to a caregiver
  • Take part in peek-a-boo and pat-a-cake
  • Show empathy and self-consciousness
  • Imitate the environment, like helping with household chores

At this age, a child will begin to:

  • Show their temperament (see above)
  • Learn to pretend-play and imitate
  • Change emotions into something socially-acceptable
  • Learn to exaggerate or minimise emotions when in the company of others
  • Refer to themselves as “I” or “me,” start becoming possessive and use “no”

At this age, a child will begin to:

  • Test their limits to learn what behaviour is acceptable
  • Use objects as something different, like using a block as a telephone
  • Engage in more imaginative play
  • Start to control their anger and aggression
  • Learn cooperation and sharing
  • Take turns and establish joint goals with others
  • Enjoy playing tricks on others but may be worried about being tricked themselves

At this age, a child will begin to:

  • Follow simple rules and directions
  • Learn more adult social skills, like giving praise
  • Spend more time in peer groups
  • May have a group of friends
  • Engage in more imaginative play

At this age, a child will begin to:

  • Understand rules and regulations
  • Understand relationships and their responsibilities in them
  • Continue their moral development
  • Explore new ideas and activities
  • Identify with children of a similar age and find a best friend

At this age, a child will begin to:

  • Prioritise peer and friend groups above family
  • Make decisions more independently
  • Barter chores for more time with friends

At this age, a child will begin to:

  • Possibly indulge in riskier behaviours to explore unstable emotions
  • Try to impress peer groups
  • Engage in relationships that are more complex in terms of disagreements and long-lasting relations

Improving Social and Emotional Skills

Children who are emotionally socially and emotionally healthy tend to demonstrate the following behaviour (McClennan & Katz 2001 and Blimes 2012). They usually:

  • Demonstrate a positive mood
  • Listen and follow directions
  • Are able to have close relationships with peers and caregivers
  • Show interest in others
  • Recognise, name and manage their own emotions
  • Understand others’ emotions and show empathy
  • Express their needs
  • Access play and activities
  • Can play, negotiate and comprise with others

If a child doesn’t follow the expected trajectory of social-emotional development, this can unfortunately lead to undetected mental and emotional health problems. This could occur due to adverse childhood experiences that have impacted social-emotional development.

In order to ensure a child is thriving in this developmental domain, establish a healthy, nurturing environment for children:

  • Show warmth and affection consistently
  • Respect and care about your child
  • Teach social and emotional skills intentionally
  • Give effective praise
  • Model good behaviour

From a clinical standpoint, where family dysfunction is evident (in cases of abuse or neglect), it’s important to actively screen for these situations so that interventions can be introduced.

Supporting Your Child

If you’re concerned about your child’s development, consult your pediatrician.

Discover our resources on child development for specific milestones that indicate typical growth across all developmental domains, including social-emotional skills. In addition, check out our article on activities that encourage social-emotional skill development in children. If you suspect that your child is experiencing difficulties or challenges attaining their developmental milestones, it might be worth visiting your GP or community pediatrician for more information.