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9 Ways to Strengthen Social Development in Children

| The importance of social development | How does social development begin | Social development factors | How do children develop social skills | How parents can facilitate social interactions |

What is social development

Social development is the process a child learns to relate to others and interact with them. It allows the child to develop and maintain friendships as well as other relationships​1​

Healthy social development involves learning prosocial behavior, regulating emotions, and resolving conflicts. During this process, children gradually develop the skills they need to interact effectively with their environment. 

It is through interacting with primary caregivers, family members, peers, and other adults that children become socialized and their personalities take on socially adaptive characteristics.

three kids play jenga together

The importance of social development

Human beings are social animals. In society, developing prosocial behavior facilitates positive relationships and benefits others​2​

Social competence has been found to be strongly associated with a child’s academic achievement and learning skills​3​.

The ability of a child to get along with other children is also one of the best predictors of their adaptation and general well-being in adulthood.

Key adult outcomes including unemployment, criminal activity, substance use, and mental health are also strongly associated with poor social functioning in childhood​4​.

Therefore, being able to adapt socially impacts not only their own lives but also the lives of their families and society as a whole.

How does social development begin

Infants are born with only a sense of self. Social development begins when they connect their inner world with their outer one and learn about the existence of others. Through observing their own actions in relation to others, babies find connections with them.

Over time, they learn how to understand the thoughts, actions, feelings, and motives of others. 

Therefore, interaction is at the core of social awareness. A child learns how to adapt socially through interpersonal interactions and makes inferences about the behavior of other people​5​.

Social development factors

There are several factors that can influence a child’s development in social interactions​6​.

  • Child temperament
  • Parenting style
  • Home environment
  • Social environments and friendship quality

How do children develop social skills

Two types of socialization influence a child’s social development strategy, according to psychiatrist Harry Stack Sullivan and psychologist Jean Piaget.

The first is a passive form of socialization in which children are taught by an adult or high-status peer preexisting social norms and how to conform to them. Children will move toward and adopt these rules for social integration.

As an example, if a child takes a toy from another child without asking, a close adult is likely to point out the violation of etiquette and ask the child to return it.

This type of socialization is immediately beneficial for children to adopt the teachings of adults to act and think in socially acceptable ways. The more they behave according to adults’ social expectations, the more they can accomplish through social interaction in a peer group.

Despite this, passive interactions limit the possibility of mutual understanding. 

The second type of socialization is active participation and cooperative play, usually with a peer. The child and the peer are both able to express their meanings and listen to each other. In the process, the two parties look for mutual understanding in order to reach a compromise in a cooperative manner.

In this form of socialization, children try to take on different roles. They step out of their own perspective and try to adopt the other person’s point of view. This is more likely to occur in older children who have more advanced cognitive development​7​.

In peer relationships, children learn that behavior can be tested and defined mutually. As a result, social behaviors and interpersonal context gain new meaning.

How parents can facilitate social interactions

There are a number of ways parents can facilitate positive youth development.

Positive home experiences

Both early childhood experiences with parents and current experiences in healthy relationships are important to a developing child.

Sensitive parenting and positive family relationships are protective factors that are highly correlated with healthy social development in children.

Children develop a secure attachment and form a positive internal working model of others so that they will approach social situations with confidence​8​.

Teach social rules

Start teaching clear standards and social rules in the early years. Provide clear rules and expectations about behavior. 

Explain the reasons for these rules and how their behaviors can affect others, just as the actions of others can affect them. 

Praise desirable behavior for reinforcement. When you notice undesirable behavior, gently point it out. Show them the proper action and help them practice it.

Pay attention to nonverbal communication

Besides explicitly teaching prosocial behavior, teach young children how their tone of voice, voice volume, gestures, facial expressions, and eye contact can also affect their social outcomes.

The importance of nonverbal communication cannot be overstated.

Deficiencies in decoding facial expressions and tone of voice are associated with lower relationship well-being and more depression in adults​9​.

Model prosocial behavior

Children learn best by observing and imitating the behavior of others around them. Through this process, they develop an understanding of how social behaviors are formed and can use this knowledge to guide their own actions and social skills.

Studies have shown that modeling or demonstrating desirable behaviors by adults helps to promote positive behavior in children​10​.

For example, children of parents who are polite and use “thank you” a lot are more likely to use these phrases with their friends, too.

Let them play

Encourage your child to make friends by providing ample opportunities for them to play with other children, especially in pretend play.

Children develop language skills, learn social rules, and form emotional ties through mutual and reciprocal interactions with peers​11​.

Social relationships foster the development of social concepts such as cooperation, mutual respect, and interpersonal sensitivity. 

Guide them in problem-solving

Developing cognitive problem-solving skills is essential for resolving social conflicts and gaining peer acceptance. To be successful, a child must have interpersonal sensitivity, consider others’ needs, and think means-ends instead of just ends.

When your child has a conflict with peers, rather than intervening and offering a solution as an authority, you can guide them to resolve the problem among themselves. 

Show them how to see things from another’s perspective and find common ground. These are excellent opportunities to practice responding to difficult situations with your help​12​.

Practice communication

Strong communication skills are vital in developing social competence.

Practicing social responses under your guidance benefits children’s language development as well​13​.

Help them make good friends

The quality of children’s friendships can have a significant impact on their success in the social world. The opinion of friends will become increasingly influential as your child grows.

Characteristics of a high-quality friendship include prosocial behavior, intimacy, as well as low levels of conflict, rivalry, and other negative qualities. Low-quality friendships can directly damage a child’s self-esteem, social adjustment, and future close relationships with others​14​.

Help them develop strong emotional functioning

A child’s emotional functioning is strongly associated with their social behavior. Behaving prosocially during distress requires low emotional reactivity and good emotion regulation​15​.

Providing sensitive care and emotional support is important. Regulating the parents’ own emotions to set a good example also plays a vital role.

For more on regulating emotions, check out this article: A Complete Guide to Emotional Regulation in Children

References

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