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Social & Emotional Development in Children and Adolescents

Social/Emotional development starts with the bond between the child and its caregivers.  The primary bond is usually with the mother and with increasing participation of fathers in the care of infants, co-bonding is seen more frequently.  Bonding starts with the first gaze between the mother and child after delivery.  That starts the process that forms an attachment between a child and primary caregiver(s).  Healthy attachment is essential in that it provides the child with a sense of safety and security.  It was previously thought that this bond must be formed during the first months of life, but we now know that this bond can form at later stages of development as has been observed in the bonding between adoptive parents and children who were adopted later in life.

When a child is hungry, has a dirty diaper or feels insecure, he communicates by crying.  When the parent figures out what the child needs and meets that need, a sense of basic trust is built and the child feels safe and secure.

Gradually parents begin to understand the differences between the ways a child cries and can respond more quickly and calmly to the child’s physical or emotional need.  This indicates that the parent is becoming attuned to the child.  As children grow and develop, it is vital that parents remain attuned to the unique needs and characteristics of a child so they can respond to the child appropriately with understanding, reassurance, and guidance and help them learn how to be able to cope and regular their emotions independently.  Children vary in their ability to regulate emotions due to their temperament but when they experience empathy and soothing from their parents and are taught how to self-soothe and coping skills they will become better at this skill and as this happens their brain will actually be “re-wired” so that they will now automatically respond to situations more appropriately.

Another aspect of social/emotional development is the formation of self-concept and self-esteem.  Early on children are very attuned to the reactions of others.  Smiling comes naturally.  If a parent laughs at something the child does, they smile and usually repeat it over and over.  If children and see frowns or are yelled at, they will withdraw.  When children struggle to learn a new skill, and they receive encouragement and assistance, they feel supported and keep trying until they master the skill.  They will spontaneously praise their accomplishment.  They then feel confident and are more likely to try new things.  If on the other hand, the child is given negative feedback such as “this is easy, what’s wrong with you?” and do not receive any assistance, they will most likely experience frustration and will feel defeated and think they are incompetent.  A child who has had this experience will most likely easily give up on new tasks and show anger towards themselves.  They may even refuse to try.  Thus, one child develops a positive self-concept and the other a negative self-concept and low self-esteem.

Social/emotional development also includes the development of a moral code.  Children gradually learn what behaviors are acceptable in their environment and what behaviors are seen as unacceptable.  Children will learn quickly when feedback includes why the behavior is unacceptable and what the expected behavior should be in a given situation.  The ability of children to develop these skills changes as they grow and develop.  Parents should know what is considered age-appropriate for their child so that they don’t expect too much or possibly too little.

Finally, humans are most definitely highly social.  Children are naturally social.  Some seem to be better at picking up social cues than others.  Parents should not only encourage social interaction but frequently engage in social interactions with their children.  Parents may need to help some children develop age-appropriate empathy for the feelings of others.  They should prepare children for new social situations and teach them how to interact appropriately.  To be socially accepted children need to learn the manners expected in their social environment.  For some children, these come almost naturally while others will need help and encouragement.

Tips for Parents

A Few Things Parents Can Do To Promote Social/Emotional Development

  • Spend time in social engagement with your child frequently from infancy to adolescence
  • Provide empathy and encouragement when they are upset
  • Find/make time to listen and talk to your kids 1:1
  • Make it possible for them to spend time with same-age kids
  • Play with your children and have fun
  • Prepare your child for new social situations, providing coaching on appropriate social behavior
  • If they are socially inappropriate in a situation, take them aside and calmly explain how they are affecting others and coach them on appropriate skills
  • Affirm positive behavior
  • Let them know you love them unconditionally
  • Eat together as a family and share your day (what went well as well as not so well)
  • Play games both outdoors and indoors
  • Have family game nights
  • Watch family situation comedies together and comment on the interaction
  • Teach manners
Recommended Books for Parents

Ages and Stages: A Parent's Guide to Normal Childhood Development Ages and Stages: A Parent’s Guide to Normal Childhood Development  By Charles E. Schaefer, Theresa Foy DiGeronimo  Written in an engaging, practical style, Ages and Stages offers you the benefits of the most current research on child development, featuring helpful tips and techniques to foster your child’s maturation.


How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk   By Adele Faber, Elaine Mazlish  This is one of my favorite books to recommend to parents.  Communication is so important in establishing and growing cooperative and loving relationships.  The advice will help you develop a strong bond with your child as well as mutual respect.  This is definitely parenting 101.  amazon-button


Raising An Emotionally Intelligent Child The Heart of Parenting Raising An Emotionally Intelligent Child The Heart of Parenting  By Ph.D. John Gottman, Joan Declaire  There are many skills a child needs to develop.  The ability to regulate emotions can be learned.  This approach helps the child learn to understand and accept their feelings as well as express them appropriately.  This changes the game of parenting from how to control your child to teaching them self-control.  amazon-button


The Whole Brained Child The Whole-Brain Child: 12 Revolutionary Strategies to Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind  By Daniel J. Siegel, Tina Payne Bryson This book is based on the latest brain research and provides easy to use strategies that foster healthy brain development, leading to calmer, happier children. The authors explain—and make accessible—the new science of how a child’s brain is wired and how it matures.  amazon-button


The Parent's Handbook: Systematic Training for Effective Parenting The Parent’s Handbook: Systematic Training for Effective Parenting  By Don Dinkmeyer Sr., Gary D. McKay, Don Dinkmeyer Jr. One of the country’s most popular parenting guides. Helps parents meet the challenges of raising a family today. The Parent’s Handbook shows parents how they can become more knowledgeable, confident and successful in relating to their children. Discusses misbehavior, communication, encouragement, natural and logical consequences, family meetings, drug and alcohol abuse prevention.  amazon-button


Parenting Teenagers: Systematic Training for Effective Parenting of Teens Parenting Teenagers: Systematic Training for Effective Parenting of Teens  By Don Dinkmeyer Sr. PhD, Gary McKay PhD, Joyce L. McKay, Don Dinkmeyer Jr.  Parents know the challenges of raising teenagers. This popular STEP (Systematic Training for Effective Parenting) guide is filled with easy-to-understand-and-apply skills that helps parents connect with teens and deal with their “issues.” From the STEP/teen program, with practical guidance on social pressure, dating, grades, career plans, and alcohol, tobacco, and drug abuse prevention. This handbook is an excellent choice for parents who want to improve their relationship with teens.  amazon-button

Videos on Social/Emotional Development


Social/Emotional Developmental Mile Stones:

Infant (0 to 18 m)Toddler (18 m - 3y)Preschooler (3y - 5y)School Age (6y - 12y)Teens (13-18)

Birth to Six Months

  • Expresses affection.
  • Shows interest in human faces.
  • Has a sense of humor.
  • Becomes excited when played with.
  • Stares at strangers.
  • Smiles at familiar faces.
  • Develops attachment to the primary caregiver.
  • Becomes trusting when needs are met; fretful when needs are not met.
  • Shows displeasure when he loses contact with a person.
  • Smiles and babbles at people and toys.
  • Reacts to discomfort and pain
  • Recognizes parent’s voice
  • Makes eye contact
  • Shows affection by looking, waving, kicking and smiling
  • Shows feelings of security when held or talked to
  • Expresses delight
  • May form attachment to one special object
  • Laughs when tickled
  • Builds trust when cries are answered
  • May begin to cling to primary caregiver

Six to 12 Months

  • Becomes more emotionally attached to the caregiver.
  • Protests at separation from mother.
  • Shows some negative reaction to strangers.
  • Seeks approval; doesn’t want disapproval.
  • Plays simple games with adults.
  • Enjoys being the center of attention.
  • Enjoys communicating with others.
  • Smiles, pats and plays with her image in a mirror.
  • Expresses pleasure and displeasure.
  • Enjoys being with other children
  • Has an increased drive for independence
  • Expresses anger more dramatically
  • Has a fear of strangers
  • Is aware of social approval or disapproval
  • Performs for others
  • Has pride in personal accomplishments

12 to 18 Months

  • Is self-centered, demanding, stubborn and self-assertive
  • Imitates adults.
  • Is inconsistent in expressing emotions.
  • May become upset when adults place limitations on activities.
  • Expresses anger.
  • Engages in parallel play.
  • Rolls ball to adult.
  • Likes to show off for an audience.
  • Shows fear of strangers.
  • Is unable to share.
  • Responds to simple instructions.
  • Takes pride in accomplishments.
  • Increases negativism.
  • May show fear of storms and animals.
  • Is easily distracted.
  • Prefers to keep caregiver in sight while exploring his environment
  • Demands personal attention
  • May reveal stubbornness
  • Unable to share
  • Responds to simple requests

18 To 24 Months

  • Expresses love and affection openly.
  • Seeks approval and praise.
  • Is outgoing, friendly and less self-centered.
  • Continues to be easily distracted.
  • May show need for security object.
  • Expresses pride and jealousy.
  • Continues parallel play.
  • Is possessive; refuses to share.
  • Shows strong positive and negative reactions.
  • Shows strong desire for own way.
  • May exhibit aggressive actions (hitting, biting, pushing).
  • Pulls adults to show something or get help.
  • Tests limits set by the caregiver.
  • Is possessive
  • Begins to show empathy
  • Reveals a sense of trust
  • Begins to play next to children
  • Shows emotions of pride and embarrassment
  • May dawdle
  • Engages in imaginative play
  • Tests limits of behavior
  • Performs for an audience

Two to Three Years

  • Becomes less easily distracted.
  • Is self-centered, aggressive and temperamental.
  • Views situations in terms of their own needs.
  • See-saws between independence and dependence.
  • Wants to do things for self.
  • Desires consistency.
  • Desires approval; feels hurt when disciplined for actions.
  • Is unable to share.
  • Wants to be accepted by others.
  • Likes to play with adults and older children.
  • Is difficult to understand and control.
  • May continue to express negativism.
  • Has temper tantrums.
  • Resists naps but needs rest.
  • Has a strong sense of ownership May begin cooperative play
  • May show need for a security object
  • Is becoming more independent

Three to Four Years

  • Becomes less self-centered.
  • Is sunny and agreeable most of the time.
  • Displays feelings in a more acceptable manner.
  • Learns to take turns and share.
  • Shows new fears (animals, storms, dark and monsters).
  • Makes friends easily and may prefer one over another.
  • Engages in cooperative play.
  • Tries to please caregivers; desires praise and approval.
  • Usually follows requests and can be reasoned with.
  • Has strong likes and dislikes.
  • Is pleased with self.
  • Expresses anger physically (hitting, biting and pushing).
  • Seeks comfort from parents and caregivers.
  • Engages in imaginative play.
  • Has an imaginary friend.
  • Enjoys assisting in simple housekeeping and mealtime tasks.

Four to Five Years

Struggles for independence

  • Is moody.
  • Doesn’t want to be told what to do.
  • Accuses adults of being bossy and unfair.
  • Feels strong attachment to family and home.
  • Desires approval from parents and caregivers.
  • Brags on parents and home.
  • Enjoys cooperative play and simple competitive games.
  • Is often bossy and inconsiderate.
  • Increases interest in friends.
  • Shares personal belongings.
  • Has difficulty in taking turns.
  • Resents being treated like a baby.
  • Accepts changes in routine.
  • Shows concern and sympathy for others.
  • Expresses regret.
  • Enjoys being with other children
  • Has an increased drive
  • for independence
  • Expresses anger more dramatically
  • Is aware of social approval or disapproval
  • Performs for others
  • Has pride in personal accomplishments
  • Develops sex role identification
  • Begins taking turns and
  • negotiating

Five to Six Years

  • Is more cooperative and conscientious.
  • Desires support and approval.
  • Asks permission and follows instructions.
  • Likes to work and play with others.
  • Prefers friends own age; usually own sex.
  • Has a strong desire to please.
  • Is proud of and likes to assist parents.
  • May voluntarily help with younger siblings.
  • Forms sex-role identity (what it means to be male or female).
  • Respects other’s property.
  • Expresses anger more verbally than physically.
  • Boys quarrel more and use more physical force than girls.
  • Engages in elaborate and imaginative role play situations.

Six to Nine Years

  • Is more cooperative and conscientious.
  • Desires support and approval.
  • Asks permission and follows instructions.
  • Likes to work and play with others.
  • Prefers friends own age; usually own sex.
  • Has a strong desire to please.
  • Is proud of and likes to assist parents.
  • May voluntarily help with younger siblings.
  • Forms sex-role identity (what it means to be male or female).
  • Respects other’s property.
  • Expresses anger more verbally than physically.
  • Boys quarrel more and use more physical force than girls.
  • Engages in elaborate and imaginative role play situations.

Six to Nine Years

  • Becomes more settled and quiet.
  • Worries about many things.
  • Shows fear of imaginary creatures (witches, monsters).
  • Is fearful of being alone.
  • Girls show more fear than boys.
  • Questions adults’ ideas.
  • Resents being told what to do.
  • Wants adult approval and love.
  • Desires independence.
  • Understands right from wrong.
  • Wants to be free of guilt.
  • Offers excuses for wrongdoing.
  • Complains about anything unpleasant.
  • Shows increased interest in friends.
  • Begins to have boy and girl friendships.
  • Desires group acceptance.
  • Boasts constantly.
  • Tells secrets, whispers and giggles.

Nine to 12 Years

  • Becomes less self-centered.
  • Becomes excessively moody if puberty begins.
  • Quarrels more often.
  • Is sensitive and experiences hurt feelings in social situations.
  • Gets along well with others.
  • Engages in group activities.
  • Enjoys making new friends.
  • Shows loyalty to peers.
  • Acts and dresses like peers.
  • The child may be embarrassed to show affection to family members in front of peers.
  • Boys think girls are a nuisance and girls are tomboys.
  • Devises secret codes and practical jokes.
  • Resents being teased and criticized.
  • Develops a strong sense of right and wrong.
  • Is self-conscious of sexual development.
  • Exhibits hero worship.

12 – 15 years of age

  • Struggle with a sense of identity
  • Feel awkward about one’s self and one’s body; worry about being normal
  • Realize that parents are not perfect; increased conflict with parents
  • Increased influence of peer group
  • Desire for independence
  • Has the tendency to return to “childish” behavior, particularly when stressed
  • Moodiness
  • Rule- and limit-testing
  • Greater interest in privacy
  • Autonomy
    • Challenge authority, family; anti-parent
    • Loneliness
    • Wide mood swings
    • Things of childhood rejected
    • Argumentative and disobedient
  • Peer Group
    • Serves a developmental purpose
    • Intense friendship with same sex
    • Contact with the opposite sex in groups
  • Identity Development
    • “Am I normal?”
    • Daydreaming
    • Vocational goals change frequently
    • Begins to develop his or her own value system
    • Emerging sexual feelings and sexual exploration
    • Imaginary audience
    • Desire for privacy
    • Magnify own problems: “no one understands”

15 – 18 years of age

  • Intense self-involvement, changing between high expectations and poor self-concept
  • Continued adjustment to changing body, worries about being normal
  • Has the tendency to distance selves from parents, continued drive for independence
  • Driven to make friends and greater reliance on them, popularity can be an important issue
  • Feelings of love and passion
  • Autonomy
    • Conflict with family predominates due to ambivalence about emerging independence
  • Peer Group
    • Strong peer allegiances – fad behaviors
    • Sexual drives emerge, and teens begin to explore their ability to date and attract a partner
  • Identity Development
    • Experimentation – sex, drugs, friends, jobs, risk-taking behavior