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What is Social Emotional Development

Why is social emotional development important | Risk factors | How to help children develop social emotional skills | Social-emotional don’ts

What is social emotional development

Social emotional development is developing the ability to form and maintain positive relationships with adults and peers by understanding, expressing, and regulating emotions in a way that is appropriate for one’s age socially and culturally​1​

It involves various interpersonal and intrapersonal skills that are necessary for navigating challenges and adapting to diverse social situations.

Social-emotional development (SED) includes both self-directed and other-oriented emotional skills. However, the exact skills and dimensions of the development remain to be determined​2​.

Although theoretical analysis is complex, the following core skills are necessary for SED:

  1. Understanding and balancing one’s own emotions and those of others.
  2. Self-regulation skills such as emotional regulation and self-control.
  3. The ability to express emotions in a socially and culturally appropriate way.

Children develop social competence and emotional competence through acquiring these skills. They are predictive of many positive outcomes from infancy to adulthood​3​.

mother talks to crying toddler

Why is social emotional development important

Social emotional development is at the core of human development​2​.

It serves as a protective factor, preventing children’s mental health issues from arising. Children’s ability to regulate their emotions plays a crucial role in their psychological well-being.

Children who lack social-emotional competence are at risk not only for psychopathology but also for behavior problems, poor school performance, delinquency, and addiction.

Conversely, successful development can lead to resilience under stressful conditions.

Importance of social competence

Social competence is the ability to engage in developmentally appropriate social interactions. It is the ability to meet one’s own needs while maintaining positive relationships with others​4​.

Understanding one’s own feelings and balancing them with those of others is a vital skill in social interactions.

Those who are socially competent are more confident in developing peer relationships, resolving conflicts, regulating their emotions, and persevering when facing challenges. They often show more positive behavior and fewer signs of mental illness than children who lack the skills.

Importance of emotional competence

Emotion competence is the ability to understand, regulate and express emotions that are accepted in a given culture.

The expression of emotion and management of emotions is central to developing emotional competence. 

The ability to regulate emotions appropriately reduces disruptive behavior, aggression, and other maladaptive behavior. It promotes social competence, mental health, and academic success​5​.

Emotional expression, whether positive emotions or negative emotions, is also highly correlated with adolescent social skills, prosocial behavior, and popularity.

Statistics on childhood social emotional competence

The development of social-emotional skills is an essential foundation for a child’s success and well-being in later life.

Across the US, up to 14.2% of children under the age of five suffer from social-emotional problems that adversely affect their development, functioning, and school readiness​6​.

In 2008, Yates and colleagues reported that only 40% of kindergarten-aged children had the social-emotional skills they needed to be successful​7​.

Risk factors

A child can be vulnerable to social-emotional problems due to specific family and environmental contexts. Child outcomes worsen as the number of risk factors increases​8​.

Here are some of the known risk factors in child development​9,10​.

  • Poverty
  • Exposure to community violence
  • Domestic violence
  • Inconsistent and harsh disciplinary practices​11​
  • Recent traumatic events
  • low parental education
  • Limited social support for mother
  • Parent substance use
  • Parent mental health​12​
  • Child abuse or neglect​13​
  • Very preterm children (gestation <30 weeks or birthweight <1250 g)​14​
  • Maternal insensitivity​15​
  • Touch deprivation

How to help children develop social emotional skills

Emotional learning and social learning begin with regulating children’s emotions. 

Regulating emotions requires monitoring, facilitating, and inhibiting elevated levels of feelings, both positive and negative. It allows a child to cope with stress, focus on learning, and achieve optimal functioning.

Responsive parenting

Babies are not born with the ability to regulate their emotions. They do not develop regulating skills in a vacuum.

Developing self-regulation involves a gradual transition from interpersonal regulation (co-regulation) to intrapersonal regulation (self-regulation).

Parent-child co-regulation is the process in which parents and children interact and mutually regulate (co-regulate) to form optimal emotions together​16​

It is through this interpersonal process that children learn to regulate themselves​17,18​.

Physical touch

For babies and young children, touch or physical contact is an effective way to help them regulate.

Research has shown that in stressful situations, such as physical separation or emotional unavailability, touch mitigates the distress and dysregulation caused to infants​19​.

When preterm infants received skin-to-skin contact during their time in the incubator, their thresholds for negative emotions were higher. Their heart rates were lower and their crying was reduced significantly​20​.

Emotion coaching

Parents’ own beliefs and approaches to their own emotions affect the ways they interact with their children​21​.

Parents with an emotion-coaching mindset use their children’s negative emotions as teaching opportunities. They help older kids become aware of their emotions and figure out how they relate to the situation through emotion coaching.

In emotion coaching, parents listen and empathize with their children, validate their emotions, teach them how to name those feelings, and teach them how to solve the problem.​22​

Developing emotional awareness allows children to distance themselves psychologically from a current emotional episode and reflect on what they are feeling.

Coping strategies

As the child grows, they can gradually apply what they learn in co-regulation to regulate themselves. The shift from co-regulation to self-regulation occurs gradually, not abruptly.

Here are four effective strategies to add to an older child’s repertoire of coping with emotions. Parents can also use them to co-regulate their children.

  • Distraction – e.g. find an attractive alternative activity
  • Reappraisal – e.g. look at the issue from a different angle
  • Soothing – e.g. take a deep breath
  • Response modification – e.g. reflect on the situation and come up with possible strategies

Pretend play

Imaginative play has been found to be associated with better emotion regulation skills and social competence. 

When a child engages in role-playing, they get to practice perspective-taking skills (pretend to be another person), relationship skills (imagined relationships), conflict resolution skills (pretend to deal with everyday life issues), and social skills (make-believe social situations).

However, no clear causal relationship or mechanism has been identified.

Though it is not clear whether pretend play leads to greater emotional competence in children, it does not appear to be harmful to them and even increases their creativity​23​.

Also See: Still Face Experiment – Why Parenting Matters for Child Development

Social-emotional don’ts

Several traditional parenting practices that our ancestors considered effective have been proven to be false by research. Here are some of the don’ts in helping our children develop their social-emotional capacities.

Letting them “self-soothe”

Studies show that parenting is critical to the development of children’s social and emotional skills.

By adopting a warm, responsive parenting style, parents can become a secure base and help children form secure attachments.​24​

For example, a toddler may be happily solving a puzzle until she finds out that the remaining two pieces don’t fit together. Her primary caregiver might offer a solution or try to ease her negative feelings in response to her frustration. 

Parents responding consistently to the child’s emotional stress can enhance her sense of security in the relationship and her ability to regulate her emotions​25​

Children will eventually learn to soothe themselves through the co-regulation process. The ability to self-soothe however does not come out of thin air. 

“Learn to self-soothe on their own” is like leaving a child to “learn to swim” without guidance. They may learn to swim, or they may drown.

Toughening them up using authoritarian parenting

When used as the preferred mode of discipline, power-assertive parenting has adverse effects on children’s social-emotional competence.

Harsh discipline has a negative impact on a child’s behavior and emotional development, while more authoritative but less authoritarian patterns are associated with better outcomes for the child​26​.

In addition to not helping a child learn to self-regulate, harsh parenting can also lead to negative outcomes, including deteriorating physical and mental health​27​.

Neglect own mental health

The mental health of parents directly impacts their children’s social emotional development.

If parents are stressed or suffering from mental health issues, it might be difficult for them to provide responsive, sensitive parenting and support for their children’s emotional regulation.

Those who struggle with psychological problems or who are having difficulty dealing with their child’s emotional problems should seek professional help as soon as possible.


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