Your Social Baby

Mom using finger puppets with her toddler who is in a high chair

On a beautiful Thursday morning, Sonja took her daughter, Mia, to the park. Mia had just turned 2, and Sonja couldn’t wait to watch her interact with other toddlers.

But when they arrived, instead of heading toward the other kids and making new buddies, Mia made a beeline to a patch of sand, picked up a stick and began digging a hole with the intensity of an oil driller.

While Mia was clearly having fun, Sonja couldn’t help but notice some of the other children laughing and playing together. Is Mia behind in her social development?Sonja wondered. Should I be worried?

Maybe you’ve asked similar questions. Social development is important in every stage of childhood. Knowing the basics of how young children develop may help you better understand the social challenges of your child’s first few years and also help you develop reasonable expectations as you guide her toward healthy social interactions. (The suggested ages below are approximate. Some children reach these stages on a slightly faster or slower timetable.)

From Birth to 18 Months

The majority of a child’s first social lessons come from interactions with family members. Parents, siblings and grandparents interact with children on a regular basis, providing them with their first experiences of safe and loving social interactions. Through family, children are exposed to a variety of facial expressions, words and sounds, and comforting and playful touches that introduce them to other people and the world.

Thinking abilities. Babies and young toddlers learn about the world through their senses and repeated experiences. Gradually, they will develop object permanence, which is the ability to view others as objects separate from themselves but who remain permanent even when the child is not looking. Notice the delight they experience from a simple game of peekaboo — you were gone, and now you are back!

Social challenges. Developmental researcher Erik Erikson labeled this stage “basic trust versus mistrust.” The goal is for the child to develop a sense of trust and to learn that the world is a safe place. This sense of trust forms the foundation for later stages of development.

Social activities. Here are age-appropriate ways you can promote healthy social interaction with your child. (Age categories build on the previous activities in each category, adding to them, not replacing them.)

0- to 6-month-olds

  • Promptly meet your child's physical and emotional needs.
  • Talk to your child, provide warm physical touch and make eye contact.
  • Play peekaboo.

6- to 12-month-olds

  • Sing to your child.
  • Read to your child.
  • Look at touch-and-feel books and other board books.

12- to 18-month-olds

  • Go on outings, such as to the zoo or park.
  • Look at children's books that have pictures of faces.
  • Encourage simple social interactions (saying hi or waving bye-bye).

From 18 Months to 3 Years

At my office’s Christmas party, three extremely cute little girls in this age range were running around, showing their latest dance moves and putting on a show for all to see. At first they stayed close to their parents, but once they were comfortable, they began to explore their surroundings. The two older girls, who were 2, looked at each other, smiled and occasionally handed an item to each other (early stages of sharing). Their interactions with each other were brief but friendly and showed how those who are 18 months to 3 years begin to develop "friendships" with each other.

Thinking abilities. During this time, children increase their ability to use language to communicate, with a noticeable increase in vocabulary before age 3. They still see the world only from their viewpoint and are not able to reason logically or consider the consequences of their actions.

Social challenges. With increasing mobility and abilities, toddlers are learning to do many things on their own that previously had to be done for them. They are more aware of themselves as individuals and desire more independence. This stage is a building block for the development of self-confidence — not only with motor activities such as walking and playing, but also in social interactions.

As children experience positive give-and-take with other children, they begin to develop a positive expectation for future social exchanges. If they occasionally experience a negative interaction with a peer or sibling, they will begin to learn that Mom and Dad are there to help, and they will be OK even when another child makes a poor choice.

Social activities. Here are age-appropriate ways you can promote healthy social interaction with your child. (Age categories build on the previous activities in each category, adding to them, not replacing them.)

18- to 24-month-olds

  • Read books to your child.
  • Play simple taking-turns games.
  • Express a positive can-do approach: "We can find a way to fix that."

2-year-olds

  • Teach and model sharing.
  • Do puppet plays together.
  • Put your child's feelings into words: "You seem upset that Bobby is using the red crayon right now." Suggest positive social solutions: "Maybe you can use another color right now and then use the red crayon when Bobby is finished."

3-year-olds

  • Do art projects together, and ask the child for creative ideas as you do them together. 
  • Look at a book with feeling "faces," and talk about times your child has had different feelings.
  • Make feeling statements about others: "Emma must be excited about her birthday party."
  • Set up play dates. Require friendly play: "We need to play with the blocks in a friendly way, otherwise we will have to put them away."

Understanding the developmental stages and the social tasks that your child faces can help you respond in a caring and effective way that empowers her to successfully be prepared for the next stage. As you engage with your little one in a loving way, you help her develop a healthy sense of self as well as build the skills she will need for positive interactions with others in the years to come. 

Todd Cartmell, Psy.D., is a child psychologist and author of several parenting books: Keep the Siblings, Lose the Rivalry, Project Dad.

Teach and model sharing.

A portion of this article first appeared in the August/September 2015 issue of Thriving Family magazine and was titled "Your Social Baby." If you enjoyed this article, read more like it in Thriving Familya marriage and parenting magazine published by Focus on the Family. Get Thriving Family delivered to your home by subscribing to it for a gift of any amount.

Copyright © 2015 by Todd Cartmell. Used by permission.

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