Pooja, a year-old baby, smiles when she catches her mother’s eyes. Rohit, a two-year-old, frowns when his favourite toy is taken away from him. Harsh, a four-year-old, runs and hugs his best friend during playtime. Just like singing the alphabet song or naming the colours in the workbook shows children’s readiness to learn; these acts of smiling, frowning, and hugging indicate their socioemotional growth.
We often use the words ‘social’ and ‘emotional’ together or in a related manner, even though they are two different concepts altogether. Social development is the learning of skills, values, and knowledge to relate with others and contribute positively to society, including family and school. For example, Harsh hugging his best friend during playtime shows his social development. Whereas emotional growth is an individual’s understanding of emotions, recognizing one’s and others' emotions, and regulating them effectively to form and maintain relationships. For example, Pooja’s smile when she looks at her mother shows how infants express their feeling—through facial expressions.
Similarly, children, as they grow with time, get better at understanding and regulating their emotions. A four-year-old may feel angry when his parents don’t buy his favourite chocolate from the grocery store and start throwing a tantrum! (We all know how it goes!) After a few years (say when he turns seven), the same child will show his anger, or rather a disappointment, at home and not in the grocery store.
This chapter will look at the milestones in children’s socioemotional growth and how we can also contribute towards their development.
Fun Fact: Did you know that according to some researchers, babies can show facial expressions indicating interest, distress, and disgust (in addition to joy and sadness)?!
Even before picking up languages, babies start communicating through emotions. Some researchers even say that emotion regulation, other than intelligence levels, decides a child’s later success in life. The early emotional growth in babies is because of the faster development of the brain areas responsible for socioemotional development (amygdala and limbic system). This rapid development of the brain happens in the first 18 months of life.
Parental bonding is also very important for the child’s socioemotional growth. In fact, the child’s development begins with the bond we share with our kids! The mother’s response to her child’s timely needs leads to the child’s feelings of trust and confidence. According to the developmental psychologist Erickson, this trust is the first psychosocial stage that makes children look for comfort from us (or their other caregivers) in times of stress. Similarly, nurturing activities like feeding them, hugging, or even reading stories can lead to positive attachments between the caregivers and their children.
The more developed the child becomes socially and emotionally, the better they manage their emotions in the later years of their lives. Their socioemotional development affects their future relationships and even overall wellbeing. For instance, children’s success in school or their respective careers, problem-solving skills, coping mechanisms, impulse-control and regulation, and trust in future relationships can all be affected by their socioemotional development. There is no doubt about how socioemotional development in the children’s early years set the stage for their future academics, professional, and personal lives. But how do we know when our children achieve these social and emotional milestones? How can we help them to achieve these milestones easily?
These milestones mainly depend on the children’s physical age. But their maturity levels can also moderate these milestones. Before we proceed, let us first understand what these milestones are.
You may have noticed a baby smile at you. Does this mean that the baby is happy? Maybe or maybe not. Researchers say that at birth, babies do not understand emotions to reciprocate them. When they are alert, they may look at the mother and explore her face. It is only when they complete a month or two, they start smiling and recognizing their caregiver’s smell, touch, and voice.
When they turn around four months, they start vocalizing. By vocalizing, we mean that the baby will giggle if given a toy or will cry if taken that toy away. So, they start expressing their emotions through vocalizations. They may also show emotional stress, and our responses can help them manage this stress. Responses can be as simple as feeding the baby when they seem hungry (emotional stress).
Attachments are formed when the baby turns six to twelve months old. These attachments depend on the caregiver’s responses to the child’s emotional needs. Take the previous example of feeding; when the caregiver attends to the baby’s hunger, the baby will be satisfied and develops an attachment with the caregiver, and vice-versa. This is also the period when they develop ‘stranger anxiety.’ As a result, they seek comfort from their caregivers and start crying when picked up by a stranger!
Have you ever noticed a baby endlessly staring at a particular toy? They do so because around 12 to 18 months of age, they learn to explore their environment and start communicating through eye contact. They use ‘eye-gaze-coordination’ to show that they are interested in something. Infants, around 12 months of age, also participate in interactive games, for example, peek-a-boo. They develop feelings of empathy and self-awareness by the time they are 15 months old. You will often see them comfort a crying friend or an acquaintance and standing in front of the mirror looking at themselves.
When infants turn 18 to 30 months old, their sense of independence grows stronger.
This independence is mostly because of the initial attachment they had with their caregivers. Of course, continued authoritative parenting also gives them extra confidence in exploring their environment by making new friends, meeting strangers, or adjusting to a new place. They also start developing certain temperaments--from cooperating nature to aggressive behaviors. During their preschool time, they even learn to steer their emotions into a socially acceptable expression. For example, they may use ‘poker face’ to express that they are not happy about something, instead of crying about it.
Controlling impulses or rash decisions, social relationships, and understanding gender roles are important milestones that infants show when they are between 30 to 54 months old. Caregivers need to balance ‘limits’ and ‘choices’ to encourage the child’s sense of initiative. This sense of initiative or the first step towards taking one’s own decisions empowers them to think critically about a situation.
When they turn three-years-old, they become better at controlling their aggression and participate in interactive games with one or two friends. They learn to take turns and form a collective goal. For example, they may play hide-and-seek, and everyone takes turns to be the ‘catcher’ and form the game's rules collectively. At 5 and 6 years of age, they learn social skills like apologizing after a mistake or praising someone for good work. Children develop a deeper understanding of relationships when they are seven- and eight-year-olds. A sense of moral values also grows at this stage. They understand the societal conceptions of ‘right’ and ‘wrong.’
Friends often become a priority over the family when they turn nine and ten-year-old, which stays throughout adolescence. They crave more independence in their decisions. Many of us may have experienced challenges in handling our children at this stage. One thing that can help is to develop a positive nurturing relationship with children by balancing both ‘house rules’ and their ‘need for independence.’ This practice can promote self-confidence and assurance in children.
Adolescents often participate in risky behaviors and explore social groups and identity. This stage is often bumpy in terms of socio-emotional development, as most of them face relationship issues, new friendships, heartbreaks, outpouring academic stress, and parental expectations. Caregiver’s continuous patience, support, and guidance can help the adolescents’ transition to adulthood smoothly. Caregivers need to be careful about not burdening their children with their over-achieving expectations and responsibilities. Keep in mind that the initial attachments during childhood can help the adolescents pass this bumpy phase easily.
Now that we have discussed the milestones in a child’s socioemotional development let’s see what we can do to nurture them further. These activities (depending on the age) throw some light on our role in their socioemotional development.
Hold, comfort, talk, sing, interact with your child whenever possible. Please talk about your childhood stories to make them relate to you and your childhood experiences.
Empower your child with new skills and responsive care. Let the child explore what she or he is interested in.
Support your child’s skills that are still developing. Do not perform activities on their behalf; just help them accomplish those activities to build their self-confidence.
Teach social and emotional skills through your childhood stories. For instance, talk about failures and resilience, conflict dissolution tactics, effective listening, etc.
Watching our child develop into a responsible and mature individual over the years is one of the greatest joys of being a caregiver. Your knowledge about their developmental milestones and your role in establishing and nurturing them socially and emotionally is extremely important as you help them become unique and ready to face the world’s challenges.
Darling-Churchill, K. E., & Lippman, L. (2016). Early childhood social and emotional development: Advancing the field of measurement. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 45, 1-7.
Kirk, G., & Jay, J. (2018). Supporting kindergarten children’s social and emotional development: Examining the synergetic role of environments, play, and relationships. Journal of Research in Childhood Education, 32(4), 472-485.
Malik, F., & Marwaha, R. (2018). Developmental stages of social emotional development in children.