What Are Social-Emotional Skills?

Social-emotional skills help us manage emotions, build healthy relationships, and show empathy and understanding.

Social-emotional skills allow kids and adults alike to understand and recognize our thoughts and feelings in order to connect with others. They help us communicate and express ourselves in the appropriate way in different environments and with different people. For example, a child may see her friend is upset and ask if he is okay.

Kids start learning these skills from the time they’re born! Babies learn early social-emotional skills by caregivers consistently meeting their needs, providing a safe and healthy home, and modeling emotions through communication and play interactions. It’s important for parents to nurture social-emotional skills so kids develop healthy relationships with friends and family members.

How Do Social-Emotional Skills Impact Daily Life?

Kids with healthy social-emotional skills are more likely succeed in school, work, and life. Social-emotional skills help kids:

  • Make friends and maintain friendships
  • Gain confidence
  • Resolve conflicts
  • Manage stress and anxiety
  • Learn social norms
  • Make appropriate decisions
  • Resist negative social pressure
  • Learn strengths and weaknesses
  • Gain awareness of what others are feeling

Social-emotional growth takes time and even continues throughout adulthood. Early experiences with family, caregivers, and peers greatly impact this type of development.

Encouraging My Child’s Social-Emotional Development

There are endless ways to help your child understand their thoughts and feelings. The best part? You can easily incorporate these tips into your family’s daily life.

  • Model the emotions and behaviors you want your child to show. You are your child’s first teacher and they look up to you as a role model.
  • Be responsive to your child’s emotions and behaviors. Respond quickly to basic needs to develop trust, e.g. feeding, playing, soothing, and comforting them.
  • To help your child work through negative emotions, ask them simple questions, offering choices and avoiding power struggles, e.g. “Would you like to brush your teeth or take a bath first?”
  • Ask open-ended questions, such as “What would you do?” to help develop problem-solving skills.
  • Point out and talk about your child’s emotions and how to cope.
  • Use stories to talk about different social situations and how each person might be feeling.
  • Encourage kids to try new things and learn how much they can do if they simply try.
  • Play games to teach kids how to take turns, win and lose, share, and negotiate.
  • When using screens (not recommended before 18 months), sit with your child and make it a social activity, e.g. asking them questions or playing turn-taking games.

Social-Emotional Abilities

Every child is unique, especially when it comes to social-emotional development. If you think your child may be behind in their social-emotional development, contact your healthcare provider.

0-3 Monthsmom_smiling_at_baby

  • Begins to smile in response to their caregivers, also called a social smile
  • Develops more facial and body expressions
  • Can briefly calm themselves, e.g. sucking on thumb
  • Recognizes they are having fun and may cry when playing stops
  • Makes eye contact and looks at people while interacting

4-6 Months

  • Is usually happy when surrounded by cheerful caregivers
  • Responds to and copies some movements and facial expressions
  • Develops an awareness of their surroundings and expresses a desire to engage, e.g. banging objects or toys

7-9 MonthsBaby Looking at Self in Mirror

  • May show anxiety around strangers
  • Plays social games, e.g. peek-a-boo
  • Learns the meaning of words when they’re used consistently
  • Enjoys looking at self in a mirror
  • Becomes more “clingy” when leaving caregiver, e.g. reaches for caregiver when being held by someone else

10-12 Monthshappy boy and girl playing together

  • Attempts to display independence, e.g. crawling for exploration or refusing food
  • May show fear around unfamiliar people and objects
  • Tries to get attention by repeating sounds and gestures
  • Enjoys imitating people in play

1-2 Yearsswinging_at_park

  • Shows defiant behavior to establish independence, e.g. having tantrums
  • Does not understand what others think or feel and believes everyone thinks as he does, e.g. gets upset when no longer the center of attention
  • Enjoys being around other children, but not yet able to share easily
  • Can play independently for brief periods of time

2-3 Yearsclapping-and-singing-songs

  • Copies others in more complex tasks, e.g. cleaning, cooking, self-care
  • Shows affection towards friends
  • Shows an increasing variety of emotions
  • Upset when there are major changes in routine
  • Seems concerned about personal needs and may even act “selfishly”

3-4 Yearskids_playing_with_bubbles

  • Starts cooperating more with others during play, e.g. sharing toys
  • Can sometimes work out conflicts with other children, e.g. taking turns in small groups
  • Uses words to communicate needs instead of screaming, grabbing, or whining
  • Becomes more independent in daily activities, e.g. may choose own clothes to wear

4-5 Yearspreschoolers_sitting_during_storytime

  • Has more developed friendships and maybe even a “best friend”
  • More cooperative with rules
  • Understands and is sensitive to others’ feelings
  • Understands the difference between real life and make believe
  • Has changes in attitude, e.g. is demanding at times and cooperative at times

Developing social-emotional skills can boost your child’s confidence and help them succeed in school, work, and life.

What If My Child is Struggling?

The sooner your child receives help in developing their social-emotional skills, the better off their health and well-being will be. Your healthcare provider may be able to help you address the issue or refer you someone who can help. Here are a few examples of specialists who may be able to help your child:

  • Child psychologistbaby_being_held_up_my_mom
  • Social worker
  • Neuropsychologist
  • Psychiatrist
  • Occupational therapist
  • Speech-language pathologist
  • Developmental and behavioral pediatrician

Visit Understood.org or Child Mind Institute for more information and resources on social-emotional development.