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7 Ways to Encourage Social and Emotional Development

By staff
Read Time: 8 Minutes

What Is Social and Emotional Development?

Healthy eating, exercise and good sleep go a long way toward making your child grow up physically strong. But how can you help your child become stronger when it comes to dealing with emotions, making friends, and handling new situations? Those skills are called social and emotional development.

Parents want their children to develop socially and emotionally because it helps them grow up to be good friends and partners. They will be kind to themselves and others, know how to manage stress and anxiety, bounce back faster from tough times, and feel comfortable in their own skin. Social and emotional well-being will help children now, and later as adults, to be happier and more successful in life, and you can help!

What Affects a Child’s Social and Emotional Development?

A child’s social and emotional development begins from the moment he (or she) is born and placed in his mother’s arms. This is how newborns become emotionally attached to their parents and anyone who is caring for them. With every feeding, every diaper you change, every song you sing before bedtime, and each time you respond to his cries, your child learns that he is loved, safe, and secure.

This feeling of security and attachment to other people causes brain cells to grow and change in healthy ways. Your child starts to make connections and draw conclusions about people and relationships that will shape his social and emotional development for the rest of his life.

A child’s environment affects his social and emotional development. For example, a child born in extreme poverty may be shaped in negative ways, including his social and emotional development. On the other hand, a nurturing, loving environment will have a positive effect.

And, it’s not just parents or external factors that affect a child’s social and emotional development. Children are born with all sorts of traits and characteristics that make them as unique as their tiny fingerprints. Biological factors such as their temperament, and any physical or mental differences they are born with, help shape a child’s social and emotional development.

Parents interacting with their newborn baby lay the foundation of a strong emotional attachment that will shape her emotional development.

What Does All of This Mean for You?

Your kid’s personality is as unique as his eye or hair color. You can’t change your child’s personality any more than you could change his eye color or smile. What you can do is show him what it means to care about others, to help him explore his feelings and offer a safe space for him to express himself.

What Does Healthy Social and Emotional Development Look Like?

A child’s social and emotional development sets the foundation for his entire life. Research has shown that having social and emotional skills helps children to persist when things get tough. These skills will give them the confidence to ask for help when they need it and think before they act—all qualities that will serve them well throughout life.

Children and adults with strong social and emotional skills:

  • Are confident.
  • Are better at resolving conflicts.
  • Manage stress and anxiety better.
  • Make friends and keep friendships.
  • Understand what is and is not acceptable behavior.
  • Make better decisions.
  • Resist negative social pressure.
  • Learn their own strengths and weaknesses.
  • Are sensitive to what others are feeling.
Although she looks worried, a little girl with social and emotional skills feels confident asking for help.

Is My Child’s Social and Emotional Development on Track?

From ages 3 to 5, kids start becoming more aware of other people’s feelings, want to be more independent, and begin making friends. Even when parents set a good example, kids may not start to show signs of social and emotional development until they are around 3 years old.

Here are some key milestones that can help you know whether your child is on track with his social and emotional development.

By age 3 to 4, children should:

  • Use words to communicate why they are upset instead of screaming or whining.
  • Show signs of more independence, such as picking out their own clothes or choosing what they want to eat.
  • Get along with others by sharing and playing together.
  • Work out conflicts with other children.

By age 4 to 5, children should:

  • Understand the difference between real life and make believe.
  • Make lots of friends.
  • Follow rules more often.
  • Understand others’ feelings and be more sensitive to them.
School is another place where children can learn to cooperate and become more empathetic.

How Can I Encourage Social and Emotional Development?

Everything you do with your child brings opportunities for social and emotional development. Here’s a list of a few activities that can help you nurture your child’s social and emotional development.



Sharing can be hard for young children. Looking out for their own best interest is something that served them well as infants, when they were completely dependent on caregivers for everything. As children grow up and begin to imagine life from someone else’s perspective (around 3 years old), they can be taught to share.

Make sharing a game. Give your child a cookie and ask him to break it in half and share it with a friend or sibling. When he experiences the joy of sharing and making someone else happy (and enjoying half a cookie for himself), he’ll be more likely to share again.

Be careful to never shame a child for not sharing or call him selfish. Instead, praise him when you see him sharing. When he is going to be in a situation that will require sharing, talk about it ahead of time and suggest ways to share. For example, "John is coming over today, so let’s talk about ways to have fun together and share toys." Sharing teaches empathy, a core behavior associated with healthy social and emotional development.

A young boy shares orange slices with his dad and learns to see life from someone else’s perspective.


Cooperation is working together for the common good instead of competing against others to try to win. What does cooperating look like for a young child? It could include patiently waiting in the grocery checkout line, putting away bath toys without complaining, or picking up a dropped pacifier for a sibling.

When you see your child cooperating, praise his kind behavior. Pointing out the positive behavior will encourage future cooperation. It’s also a chance to explain why cooperating and helping are important. For example, "Michael, thank you so much for helping me pick up your bath toys. Now the tub is ready for me to take a bath tonight." Helping a child understand that his actions matter is all a part of social and emotional development. Being able to cooperate with others will help him get along with others.

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Listening is a key component of social and emotional development. You need to be a good listener to be aware of how others are feeling and be a good friend.

Listening may seem like a passive activity, but it actually takes effort. To listen well, children (and adults) may need a few reminders.

Listening requires giving full attention. It isn’t always easy to put down the cell phone or pause the task at hand—but when you do it shows the importance of listening and being present. It’s also important to make sure your child is engaged before you try to communicate something.

"I have something I want to tell you. Are you ready to listen?"

If a child has a hard time with listening, there’s a chance there could be a medical issue, which could affect his social and emotional development. Talk to his pediatrician about whether it might be necessary to have a hearing test. When a child is unable to process what he hears it could lead to challenges with social and emotional development for years to come. The sooner any medical problems are discovered and resolved, the better it will be for a child’s social and emotional development.


Following Directions

Cooking together is a great way to practice following directions. A fun way to do this is to talk about what might happen if the recipe isn’t followed correctly. "What do you think would happen if we didn’t add the sugar? What if we added too much sugar?"

Find fun and positive ways to show that following directions is important. For example, "We follow directions because we want to have the cookies turn out just right!" Explain to your child that as he grows up, it’s important to follow directions. He will need to follow directions at school, home, and work. Being able to follow directions will help him develop positive relationships with others, which is a key indicator of healthy social and emotional development.

By helping mom fold the laundry, a young boy is both cooperating and following directions.

Understanding and Respecting Personal Space

Personal space? What’s that? For parents of young children, the idea of having personal space may sound like a fantasy, but it is possible to help a child become familiar with the idea of personal space.

To work on this social and emotional development skill, dedicate a special chair or space in the child’s room for playing quietly or reading. Explain that this is his personal space. Parents can also have a personal space in their bedroom, which shows how to have quiet time to rest, think, or read.

A child should be encouraged to ask for privacy when he’d like to be alone. Being alone in the bathroom is a common way to model asking for privacy. It is a great opportunity to explain why privacy is important and why people sometimes might want personal space.


Making Eye Contact

Looking someone in the eyes is an important way to show respect and that you are giving them your full attention. Making eye contact with others is a sign of healthy social and emotional development, confidence, and empathy.

Parents can help teach this skill by looking in their child’s eyes when talking and encourage the child to do the same. He may look away when he is upset or thinks he’s in trouble. Ask your child to try to name what he’s feeling when he looks away and let him know he is always safe sharing all his feelings. A child’s ability to manage and express positive and negative emotions is all a part of his social and emotional development. Learning to respect boundaries will help him have healthy relationships and a respect for his body.

Grandparents can also help with social and emotional development by encouraging eye contact with their grandchildren.

Good Manners

Reminders to say "please" and "thank you" are great ways to reinforce good manners. While teaching good manners is not a new parenting tip, helping your child understand why good manners are important will hopefully help him adopt this great behavior.

Explain that manners are how we show others we appreciate and respect them. You can model small acts of kindness, such as holding the door open for others or smiling and saying hello to people at school. If he sees you doing these things, he is more likely to do them too. And be sure to thank your child when he uses good manners.

Social and Emotional Development Is Ongoing

The best way to help a child’s social and emotional development is to love him and demonstrate how to be kind, respectful, and loving to others. Encourage him and help in developing friendships by arranging playdates and helping him meet other children through pre-school, play groups, the park, or other social settings. Encourage him to talk about his feelings and emotions. Listen and be supportive.

Social and emotional development can be a lifelong process for all of us. The good news is that we can learn right along with our kids! That’s the beauty of parenting! It’s hard work, but it’s the kind of work that makes life richer and challenges everyone to be their best.

Have a question about ways to encourage social and emotional development?

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This article was written by staff.

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