Health Encyclopedia

Your Child's Social and Emotional Development

Your child starts to develop socially and emotionally from birth and should reach social and emotional developmental milestones at certain ages. These milestones are the age at which most children develop abilities such as smiling, playing, and interacting. Although some children are a little faster or slower than others, delayed social and emotional milestones could be an early warning of future problems. Talk to your health care provider if you have concerns.

About 17 percent of children have a developmental delay. Most of these delays are not discovered before children start school. Although your pediatrician is an expert at spotting a social or emotional delay, you are the one who spends the most time with your child. Knowing when to expect social and emotional milestones, and alerting your pediatrician if you suspect a delay, is the best way to prevent future problems and help your child reach his or her full potential. Many early intervention services are available if you are concerned about developmental delay.

Your child's first year

If you are like most parents, the first thing you look for is your baby's first real smile. Most babies start to develop a social smile by age 3 months.

Here are other milestones to watch for: 

  • By 3 months. At this point, your baby should enjoy playing with caregivers and may cry when play stops. Your baby will communicate with face and body and may imitate your facial expressions.

  • By 7 months. Your baby may respond to his or her name at this age, should respond to the emotions in your voice, and enjoy seeing his or her reflection in a mirror.

  • At 12 months. By the end of the first year, your baby may start to be shy around strangers and show preferences for certain people and toys. Your baby may test your patience by refusing to eat. Your baby should be able to repeat some sounds and gestures.

Let your pediatrician know if your baby is not socially active. Other warning signs include not using single words, not pointing to objects, or not using simple gestures such as waving or shaking his or her head.

The toddler years

From the age of 1 to 3 years, your child will start to show his or her own little personality. During the so-called terrible twos, your child may decide he or she is the master of a new and exciting world. You may start to have trouble keeping up.

Here are milestones to watch for:

  • By age 2. At this age, your child will imitate the behavior of others, but also starts to recognize himself or herself as separate.

  • After age 2. During the toddler years, your child should start to enjoy the company of other children and look forward to playing with them.

  • After age 3. By the end of the third year, your child should be able to play simple games, take turns, and recognize concepts such as "yours" and "mine."

Let your pediatrician know if your child does not speak at least 15 words, use two-word sentences, follow simple instructions, or play games with other children.

The preschool years

From age 4 to 5 your child may become increasingly independent, imaginative, inventive, and sometimes impossible. He or she may be bursting with energy, bossy, belligerent, and adorable. You may be amazed at the ideas that spring from your child's mind and mouth.

Here are milestones to watch for:

  • Age 4. By the end of the fourth year, your child should play interactively with others, often assuming the role of "Mommy" or "Daddy." Play may start to involve fantasy and games that have made-up rules. Your child should have enough self-control to negotiate through conflicts.

  • Age 5. By the end of the fifth year, your child may be concerned more about friends than Mommy and Daddy and know the difference between boys and girls. Your child should enjoy activities such as singing, dancing, and acting.

Let your pediatrician know if your child has extreme difficulty separating from you or seems sad or withdrawn, fearful, or overly aggressive. Other warning signs include a loss of previously achieved social skills, the inability to concentrate on a single activity, or the inability to distinguish fantasy from reality.

Social and emotional milestones are only guidelines, but they may also be important warning signs. If you think your child may be behind on any of these milestones, talk to your pediatrician. Early intervention for a social or emotional delay is the best way to prevent any disability that might affect your child's future.

Watching your child's social and emotional development is one of the greatest joys of being a parent. From birth through the preschool years, your child starts to become the special and unique person that you will send out into the world. From the first smile to the first day of school, this time is a constant and amazing adventure for both of you. 



Medical Reviewers:

  • Bass, Pat F. III, MD, MPH
  • Finke, Amy, RN, BSN