Skip to Content

Social Competence in Children

Jason is a 4 year old boy in preschool. When he sees a group of his friends in the sandbox, he wants to play, too. But how should he approach them? Should he walk up and ask? Should he sit down next to the group and start playing without being invited? Should he grab the truck toys to scoop the sand? What if the kids ask him to build a castle but he doesn’t know how to? 

Initiating contact with peers is a key social situation Jason is about to tackle. Developing social competence will depend on how successfully he interacts in specific situations like this.

What is social competence

Social competence is one’s ability to interact effectively with other people in a social setting. It involves being able to read social cues, respond appropriately, and resolve social conflicts when they arise.​1​.

In social situations, competence involves interacting with others, influencing them, engaging the environment, or using personal resources to achieve social goals in appropriate ways. It is also the ability to solve social problems in complex interpersonal interactions while maintaining a positive relationship​2​.

three kids play tug of war

Why is social competence important

Peer relationships

As a child grows, social relationships and interpersonal skills with peers become increasingly important.

Social activity involving other children rises from about 10% at the age of 2, to 20% at age 4, to slightly over 40% between ages 7 and 11​3​

Children’s social competence is directly related to peer acceptance in early childhood. Socially appropriate behaviors usually distinguish popular children from unpopular ones​4​.

In contrast, externalizing behaviors such as disruptive and aggressive behavior are more likely to result in peer rejection, especially for boys.

Over time, the antisocial behavior becomes reinforced by negative and biased treatment from other children​5​.

Opportunities for constructive interactions with other children that enhance prosocial behavior decline. 

It becomes increasingly likely that the child will remain trapped in an antisocial position as they slip to the extremes of social incompetence and antisocial dispositions.

Academic performance

Psychologists have long discovered the strong correlation between social competence in childhood and life outcomes​6​.

Social competencies in preschool children are often a powerful predictor of their academic achievement later.

Socially adept children tend to have social acceptance by their peer group and do well in school. Those who are socially rejected are especially at risk for academic failure​7​.


Children lacking strong social skills tend to have lower self-esteem.

With lower self-esteem and unsuccessful social interaction, a disliked child may avoid others and strike out when angry to further sabotage their social relations.

Mental health

A lack of important social skills and positive interactions can impede psychosocial and social development leading to mental health issues in late adolescence, such as depression, anxiety, social withdrawal​8​, substance use​9​, etc.


Children with poor social behavior are typically disagreeable, impulsive, aggressive, and disruptive. They are often disliked and avoided by other children. Eventually, they may end up with deviant peers who are equally aggressive and rejected, or display delinquent behavioral problems. 

Children who are influenced by these peers are at risk of delinquency, crime, and other negative outcomes​10​

How to develop social competence in children

A child’s social competence can be improved by developing a set of social-cognitive skills with their parents’ help.

Parenting style

Despite the seemingly wide range of specific skills required, they all revolve around parenting. In fact, parent-child relationships and the quality of interactions play an important role in a child’s social experiences.

Children with parents who are warm, responsive, and supportive are more likely to be socially competent​11​. They develop better emotional skills and communication skills.

Conversely, children with authoritarian parents who are cold, unresponsive, and unsupportive tend to have poorer behavioral skills, lower self-esteem, and higher levels of depression​12​.


Very young children see themselves as the center of the world. As the child develops, they begin to realize other people may not view an action or a situation the same way they do.

A child’s ability to take another person’s perspective enables them to understand what others are feeling and saying. 

For a more mature and advanced level of relationships to form, having social awareness and being able to see others’ perspectives is essential​13​.

Parents can help their children develop perspective-taking skills by encouraging them to look at things from different angles.

Social problem-solving skills

The social world is encouraging and welcoming to children who can solve interpersonal dilemmas successfully. But children who lack interpersonal problem-solving skills may feel unwelcome in this environment​14​

Supportive parenting, which encourages children to resolve conflicts, helps them develop conflict resolution skills​15​.

Taking on the perspective of others to find solutions that are mutually satisfactory also enhances one’s conflict management skills​16​.


Being able to empathize with others is one of the most important social competence skills.

It requires both affective empathy (responding to others’ emotions) and cognitive empathy (taking into account others’ perspectives).

Warmth, responsiveness, and support from parents contribute to a child’s development of empathy.

Emotion regulation

Interpersonal relationships can be greatly impacted by one’s emotional health.

Children’s ability to flexibly control their emotional reactions is central to their social-emotional development. 

Developing emotional regulation skills requires parental co-regulation through warm, responsive parenting​17​.


  1. 1.
    Rose-Krasnor L. The Nature of Social Competence: A Theoretical Review. Social Development. Published online March 1997:111-135. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9507.1997.tb00097.x
  2. 2.
    Waters E, Sroufe LA. Social competence as a developmental construct. Developmental Review. Published online March 1983:79-97. doi:10.1016/0273-2297(83)90010-2
  3. 3.
    Barker RG, Wright HF. Midwest and Its Children: The Psychological Ecology of an American Town. Peterson; 1955.
  4. 4.
    Hartup WW. Peer Relations in Early and Middle Childhood. Handbook of Social Development. Published online 1992:257-281. doi:10.1007/978-1-4899-0694-6_11
  5. 5.
    Price JM, Dodge KA. Reactive and proactive aggression in childhood: Relations to peer status and social context dimensions. J Abnorm Child Psychol. Published online August 1989:455-471. doi:10.1007/bf00915038
  6. 6.
    Foster SL, Ritchey WL. Issues in the assessment of social competence in children. J Appl Behav Anal. Published online 1979:625-638. doi:10.1901/jaba.1979.12-625
  7. 7.
    Wentzel KR. Relations between Social Competence and Academic Achievement in Early Adolescence. Child Development. Published online October 1991:1066. doi:10.2307/1131152
  8. 8.
    Bornstein MH, Hahn CS, Haynes OM. Social competence, externalizing, and internalizing behavioral adjustment from early childhood through early adolescence: Developmental cascades. Dev Psychopathol. Published online October 1, 2010:717-735. doi:10.1017/s0954579410000416
  9. 9.
    Jones DE, Greenberg M, Crowley M. Early Social-Emotional Functioning and Public Health: The Relationship Between Kindergarten Social Competence and Future Wellness. Am J Public Health. Published online November 2015:2283-2290. doi:10.2105/ajph.2015.302630
  10. 10.
    Simons RL, Whitbeck LB, Conger RD, Conger KJ. Parenting factors, social skills, and value commitments as precursors to school failure, involvement with deviant peers, and delinquent behavior. J Youth Adolescence. Published online December 1991:645-664. doi:10.1007/bf01537367
  11. 11.
    Spinrad TL, Eisenberg N, Gaertner B, et al. Relations of maternal socialization and toddlers’ effortful control to children’s adjustment and social competence. Developmental Psychology. Published online September 2007:1170-1186. doi:10.1037/0012-1649.43.5.1170
  12. 12.
    Darling N. Parenting Style and Its Correlates. ERIC Digest. Published online 1999.
  13. 13.
    Semrud-Clikeman M. Social Competence in Children. Social Competence in Children.:1-9. doi:10.1007/978-0-387-71366-3_1
  14. 14.
    Rubin KH, Rose-Krasnor L. Interpersonal Problem Solving and Social Competence in Children. Handbook of Social Development. Published online 1992:283-323. doi:10.1007/978-1-4899-0694-6_12
  15. 15.
    Leidy MS, Guerra NG, Toro RI. Positive parenting, family cohesion, and child social competence among immigrant Latino families. Journal of Family Psychology. Published online 2010:252-260. doi:10.1037/a0019407
  16. 16.
    Lenhart LA, Rabiner DL. An integrative approach to the study of social competence in adolescence. Dev Psychopathol. Published online 1995:543-561. doi:10.1017/s0954579400006684
  17. 17.
    Dollar JM, Stifter CA. Temperamental surgency and emotion regulation as predictors of childhood social competence. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology. Published online June 2012:178-194. doi:10.1016/j.jecp.2012.02.004


    * All information on is for educational purposes only. Parenting For Brain does not provide medical advice. If you suspect medical problems or need professional advice, please consult a physician. *