Social bonds are a vital component of healthy growth and development, and children are engaged with those around them from the very beginning, responding to touch, smiling when they see a face, and playing with others. Social and emotional development encompasses a child’s ability to interact and form relationships with other people, including such skills as cooperation, sharing, paying attention, communicating emotions, and responding appropriately to others. These abilities help children become more self-aware and better able to control their behavior, aiding them in school and throughout life. A delay in this area of development could indicate certain health conditions, including autism spectrum disorders, mental retardation, and problems with hearing and vision.
As with other developmental areas, a delay in social or emotional development does not in and of itself indicate that a child faces a larger developmental issue. Children develop in different ways and at different rates, so the milestones and delays listed below should only be used as a guide. If a child begins to show several delays in one area, or delays across several different areas of development, then it may be time to contact a pediatrician.
Social and Emotional Milestones:
3 months - The child smiles in response to social interaction, enjoys playing with other people, may cry at the end of a play session, becomes more expressive and begins to communicate using the face and body, imitates the movements and facial expressions of others.
7 months - The child enjoys playing with other people, is intrigued by mirror images, responds to the facial expressions of others, appears to be happy much of the time.
1 year - The child is shy around strangers, shows a definite preference for his parents or regular caregiver, will cry when his parents leave the room, imitates others while playing, tests his parents’ response to specific actions and behaviors (for instance, how do his parents react if he doesn’t eat during feedings?), displays fear during certain situations, prefers specific people and toys, makes the same sounds or gestures repeatedly to gain attention, can feed himself using his fingers, helps his parents by moving arms or legs while being dressed.
2 years - The child imitates others, particularly adults and older children, is more aware of himself as distinct from other people, is excited about being with other children, acts more independently, demonstrates some defiant behavior, may have separation anxiety, which increases until the middle of the second year and then begins to diminish.
3 years - The child imitates adults and other children, shows spontaneous affection toward playmates, can take turns while playing games, understands “mine” as opposed to “his” or “hers,” displays many emotions, can be separated from parents, doesn’t like large changes in routine.
4 years - The child acts more independently; is interested in new experiences; can cooperate with other children; can role-play as “Mom” or “Dad;” engages in increasingly inventive fantasy play; can dress and undress himself; can come up with solutions for conflicts; believes that unfamiliar images may be “monsters;” views himself as a whole person with a body, mind, and feelings; sometimes has trouble differentiating between fantasy and reality; may be aware of sexuality.
5 years - The child wants to make friends happy; tries to be similar to friends; more often agrees with rules; likes singing, dancing, and acting; wants to act independently (for instance, may want to visit a friend by himself); has an awareness of gender; can now differentiate fantasy from reality; may be demanding at some times and cooperative at others.
Possible Signs of Social and Emotional Delays:
3 months - The child does not smile at people, ignores new faces, seems frightened by new faces and new environments.
7 months - The child does not show affection for main caregiver, does not enjoy being around people, cannot be comforted at night after 5 months, does not smile on his own by 5 months, refuses to cuddle by 7 months.
2 years - The child does not imitate the actions or words of others.
3 years - The child has little interest in other children, is extremely reluctant to be parted from his parents or primary caregiver, has poor eye contact, is not very interested in toys.
4 years - The child clings or cries whenever his parents leave, is not interested in interactive games, disregards other children, doesn’t respond to people who are not part of his family, doesn’t engage in fantasy play, displays no self-control when angry or upset, tries to avoid dressing, sleeping, or using the toilet.
5 years - The child is very fearful or timid; is very aggressive; cannot be separated from his parents without making a scene; is easily distracted and can only concentrate on an activity for short periods of time; is not interested in playing with other children; does not respond to others; rarely engages in fantasy play; rarely imitates others while playing; appears to be unhappy much of the time; does not engage in a variety of activities; avoids other children or adults; does not express many emotions; has trouble sleeping, eating, or using the toilet; cannot differentiate between fantasy and reality; acts very passively.