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9 Ways to Strengthen Social Development in Children

What is social development in children

Social development in children involves learning to relate to others and express feelings to develop social interaction that can enable them to build and maintain relationships.​1​

Healthy social development in kids includes learning prosocial behavior, regulating emotions, and resolving conflicts.

During this process, children gradually develop the skills to interact effectively with their environment. 

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

three kids play jenga together social development examples

The importance of social development

Human beings are social animals.

In society, developing prosocial behavior facilitates positive relationships and benefits others.​2​

Social competence is strongly associated with child development, 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.

Poor social functioning in childhood is strongly associated with adverse adult outcomes, including unemployment, behavioral problems, criminal activity, substance use, and mental health.​4​

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

children play blocks together

How does social development begin

Infants are born with only a sense of self.

Social development in childhood begins when babies connect their inner world with their outer one and learn about the existence of others.

By 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 other people’s behavior.​5​

child with friends

Social development factors

Several factors can influence a child’s development in social interactions.​6​

  • Individual characteristics such as the child’s temperament
  • Parenting style
  • Home environment
  • Social environments and friendship quality

Ways to enhance social development

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

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.

For 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 younger 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 in a peer group and adopt the group identity.

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 can express their meanings and listen to each other.

In the process, the two parties seek mutual understanding to compromise cooperatively.

Children try to take on different social roles in this form of socialization.

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 with 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.

parent teach children socialization

How parents can facilitate social interactions

There are several ways parents can facilitate a child’s social development.

Positive home experiences

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

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

Through positive everyday experiences, children develop a secure attachment and form a positive internal working model of others to approach social situations confidently.​8​

Teach social rules

Start teaching clear standards and social rules in the early years of life.

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 problem 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 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 in daily activities

Children learn best by observing and imitating the behavior of others around them.

During 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 polite parents who 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 to play with other children, especially in pretend play or social play in small groups.

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, you can guide them to resolve the problem among themselves rather than intervening and offering a solution as an authority. 

Show them how to see things from another’s perspective and find common ground.

These are excellent opportunities to practice responding to challenging 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 significantly impact 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, low levels of conflict, rivalry, antisocial behavior, peer pressure, and other negative qualities.

Low-quality friendships can damage a child’s self-esteem, social adjustment, and future close relationships.​14​

Help them develop strong emotional functioning

A child’s emotional skills are 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 essential.

For instance, temper tantrums are common in young children during the preschool years.

Focus on teaching them new skills to manage emotions during tantrums rather than stopping them at all costs.

Regulating the parents’ own feelings even when the child cannot regulate theirs is also a great way to set a good example.

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


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