What Social-Emotional Development Looks Like

Many parents have heard the term “social-emotional development,” but what does it mean in the real world?

Put simply, social-emotional development refers to children’s ability to “experience, manage and express” their feelings, build relationships and actively explore their environment, according to a 2005 report from the nonprofit Zero to Three.

Managing one’s behavior, expressing emotions appropriately and developing empathy are all part of the journey.

It’s “understanding how our bodies and minds feel and think in relationship to the world around us,” says Mary Hadley, a speech-language pathologist in Texas who has spent 15 years helping adults and children communicate.

Children record many physical and mental milestones, especially in their first few years of life. Likewise, social-emotional skills grow throughout childhood and adolescence – also with milestones – and can be just as important.

Dr. Toya Roberson-Moore, a child and adolescent psychiatrist, says that social-emotional development relates to brain health, making it an element of both physical and mental health. Human development takes place simultaneously across many related areas, and it can look different for each child.

Social-emotional development changes as a child grows. A mother providing a feeling of safety for her baby begins the child’s process of healthy social-emotional development. Toddlers engage in pretend play and learn how to interact positively with others. As children enter school, they develop the ability to regulate their emotions and work well with others.

Just as children never stop learning, social-emotional development doesn’t stagnate. It builds as youngsters progress through school, allowing them to relate to others and handle challenges in healthy ways. For example:

  • Elementary school. In elementary school, social-emotional development often focuses on executive functioning skills, Hadley says, such as memory and self-control. Students engage in play-based skills, learn to advocate for themselves and practice empathy for others. When children feel safe and calm, Hadley says, parents can work on helping them recognize how their emotions feel and how to regulate themselves.
  • Middle school. Development in middle school looks similar, Hadley says. “We can teach students to be aware that the way their body and minds feel will affect their social communication,” she says. The goal is to help children understand that everyone experiences emotions, both good and bad. Yet, while middle-schoolers can verbalize their feelings, they also sometimes hide their concerns, Roberson-Moore says. They may feel ashamed of their emotions or want to avoid burdening others. This can raise additional challenges.
  • High school. “At the high school level, relationships with peer groups become very important,” says Kelly Oriard, a family therapist and co-founder of Slumberkins, a company that makes emotional learning products. As teenagers figure out where they fit in the world, it is normal and healthy for them to establish an identity outside of their family. That often means managing friendships, dating, workplace colleagues and other more complicated relationships.

Building Social-Emotional Skills at Home

When it comes to social-emotional development, parents are a primary resource for children, and experts say there are many ways to help. Here are some suggestions:

Label feelings

Label your feelings for your children, and acknowledge their feelings as well, Hadley says. For example, you can say to a child, “Your voice is loud, and you just threw your toy. You must be really mad that it’s time to turn off the TV.”

Prioritize family time

Even as children grow older, they can benefit from family time. Eating meals together and maintaining routines and traditions can support your child’s emotional health, Oriard says. Children in middle school and high school may need more time to be with friends, but Oriard says they need time with parents, too. Brainstorm things you enjoy doing together, such as baking or working on a project. These activities can open up time for conversation.

Encourage your child’s interests

You may not be particularly invested in your children’s video games or lacrosse practice, but try to listen and take interest in the activities they value. This can lead to a healthy connection.

Take time for rest

Roberson-Moore encourages parents to make time for mindfulness and to include their children. “Studies show that even 5 minutes a day of relaxation and mindfulness can help reduce stress, decrease inappropriate behavior and improve concentration and sleep,” she says.

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