The Importance of Social-Emotional Development in Children

Our babies seem to grow up in the blink of an eye. One day, they are a tiny, snuggly little infant relying on us for everything, and then suddenly, they turn into a big kid who can navigate the world independently. Watching our children develop is amazing and bittersweet, looking on as they grow and transform. Many parents want to keep a close eye on or monitor their child’s social-emotional development to ensure they are on track.

Some key milestones are easy to observe, like watching your child learn to roll over and then building on this skill until they crawl and eventually walk. Other areas of development are a little more hidden, as it’s about the transformation of their invisible, internal world — how their thoughts, emotions, and social skills shift and change over time. With that in mind, let’s take a closer look at social-emotional development in children.

What Is Social-Emotional Development?

As mentioned, there are different domains of child development, including social-emotional development. It is a gradual process that starts from birth and is a lifelong journey. It covers two distinct areas — one refers to how our children develop an understanding of their emotions (emotional development), including how they express and manage them. The second relates to how they create meaningful relationships with people in their world (social development).1

Social-emotional skills typically cover five core areas:2

  • Self-awareness: This involves recognizing your emotions, as well as the connection between your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors (action/reaction).
  • Self-regulation (or self-management): Use the information about emotions to self-regulate.
  • Responsible decision-making: This refers to being able to make good decisions when it comes to your behavior and interactions with others.
  • Social awareness: This involves an element of empathy or being able to understand others’ perspectives (their needs, wants, emotions, etc.).
  • Relationship skills: This means having the right skills to develop and maintain healthy relationships.

Why Does Social-Emotional Development Matter?

Now that we know more about social and emotional development, it’s essential to understand why it’s such a key element of development. Social-emotional skills help children better understand themselves and others around them. When they have this knowledge, they can use it to help manage their emotions, meet their needs, and make and achieve goals.3,4 This can, in turn, help children persist when they experience challenges or seek support and help in healthy and adaptive ways. Their social and emotional development in early life has a direct impact on them emotionally, socially, academically, and professionally in later life.3

Direct benefits from having highly developed social-emotional skills include:3,4

  • Higher educational achievement
  • Professional success (more likely to be employed)
  • Less likely to become involved in crime or use substances
  • Be more resilient and better able to manage challenges
  • Experience better and more positive relationships with others
  • Manage stress
  • Have higher empathy
  • Be able to make more informed decisions
  • Have better self-control and self-regulation skills

How Family Can Help With Social-Emotional Development

Although we are naturally social creatures and need relationships to feel safe and secure, social-emotional skills are still something we need to actively learn.3 Social skills are taught through interactions, relationships, and repetition (over time and through practice). So, families must support their child’s social-emotional development. Strategies to help include:

Use Correct Language

Talk about emotions, name them when you see your child express them, name your feelings, and give them a variety of words . . . it’s all about exposure. The more words your child has or exposure to different terms, the more likely they will be able to match their experience to an emotion word (i.e., I feel frustrated versus I feel rage). The closer the match, the easier it is to seek help or support and manage the feeling appropriately.5

Be Accepting of Feelings

Life doesn’t come with a manual, it comes with mom. Rearview shot of a young woman and her daughter having a conversation on the porch.

It shows acceptance when you are comfortable talking about and exploring your child’s feelings. This means your child will likely feel more comfortable sharing their feelings with you and will not be fearful or avoidant of their emotions (which can cause issues down the line).

Model the Skills

Show them your social-emotional development skills by sharing your emotions. While we don’t want to make our kids feel responsible for our feelings, we must name our emotions and share how we will manage them. It’s also crucial we show how we understand the problem at hand and how we problem-solve, get our needs met, regulate or manage the feeling, etc. Our children are little sponges; we must “walk the walk” and show them how it’s done.5

Teach Them To Manage Feelings

This includes naming them and finding appropriate ways to cope with or manage the emotions they experience.5 For instance, if they are angry, can you teach them to redirect their energy and squeeze some playdough instead of breaking their toys? Or, if they are sad, can they ask for a cuddle or read a book that makes them feel good instead of retreating?

Reading About Situations

Speaking of books, get your child to read various books with plots centered on social-emotional situations. Reading is a great, no-pressure way of exposing children to different situations. They can safely consider the perspectives of others and develop a knowledge bank on various scenarios to apply to their own life/circumstances.6

Practice makes perfect! Children need the opportunity to see social-emotional skills and have a chance to practice and develop them. Although these skills might be invisible, and you can’t observe or measure their progress in the same way you can measure height or see that first shaky step they take, they are just as, if not more, important to our children’s long-term health and well-being.

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