Important social development milestones for children of all ages

We all want our children to thrive, but it can be difficult – especially for new parents – to know exactly what qualifies as Ordinary when it comes to development stages.

To learn more about important milestones in social development, how to foster good social skills, and how to spot if your child is falling behind, we spoke with Leanne Sherred, MS, CCC-SLP, President, CCO and co-founder of the online speech therapy platform, Expressable.

Momtastic: What are the milestones in social development that parents need to watch out for?

Leanne Sherred: Humans are incredibly social creatures! Our ability to make changes in our environments depends on our ability to communicate an idea to another individual. Social and emotional development plays an extremely crucial role in a child’s well-being, and it’s about much more than making good friends – although that’s also very important.

Social development begins with the arrival of our toddlers. As parents see their children becoming themselves, there are early stages that can be monitored to gauge if they are on the expected path:

Birth to twelve months

  • Shows interest in interacting with adults
  • cry for attention
  • Maintain eye contact
  • Mimics facial expressions
  • Vocalizes in response to vocalizations
  • Established joint or shared attention to objects
  • Vocalize to call others
  • Indicates a desire to change activity or protest
  • Imitates gestures and playful actions of others

12 years

  • Imitate other children
  • Take turns taking part in activities
  • Gives, shows or points to objects
  • Engages in vocal talk with adults and children
  • Uses words to interact with adults and children

35 years

  • Plays with other children, rather than alongside them
  • Begins to name simple emotions (happy, sad, crazy) but demonstrates more complex emotions (frustration, shyness, jealousy)
  • Engages in pretend play
  • Shows interest in others without being prompted
  • Likes to tell jokes, do silly things, and do things (even things they know they shouldn’t) to see what other people’s reaction will be
  • May still throw tantrums, repeat favorite activities often, or start telling “little lies” to get out of trouble

6+ years old

  • Likes to show off, may feel jealous of others hanging out with friends, and begins to act like peers
  • Follows rules most of the time and seeks approval from others
  • Able to discuss why it is important to get along with others, to help others, to share, etc.
  • Becomes more aware of other people’s feelings and more aware of how others may see them
  • May have own feelings hurt more easily
  • Has growing independence

Momtastic: What strategies should parents keep in mind to promote good social development?

Leanne Sherred: Families can get off to a good start by interacting with their young infants and toddlers often. Children learn to socialize by observing the actions of those around them, so modeling positive interactions goes a long way in promoting healthy social-emotional development. Likewise, allowing children to witness adults’ emotions and how we deal with them helps develop empathy and coping skills.

Here are some key tips for fostering good social development in young children:

  • Show affection to your child – engage in reading, play activities, mealtimes and daily routines together
  • Support and encourage your child to try new things – praise them often when they engage in a new activity, but try to avoid forcing activities when they show fear or anxiety
  • Provide them with opportunities to engage with their peers – playtime at the park or playground, play dates, daycare and other activities provide new opportunities to make friends and learn from others
  • Recognize your child’s emotions – help them identify and label their emotions, and provide support and comfort when these feelings have been calmly discussed
  • Help them understand the consequences of their behavior – tracking consequences helps children understand the connection between their actions and how others react
  • Put yourself on their level – when discussing emotions and behavior, it helps to get physically on their level, make eye contact, be an active listener, and teach them new ways to help them manage their big emotions

Momtastic: What are the warning signs that a child may be falling behind?

Leanne Sherred: Social communication difficulties can often be noticeable before the age of 2 years. Noticing these early signs can help families make positive decisions to seek help from their pediatrician, who may refer to a certified speech-language pathologist, developmental therapist, behavioral therapist, or other professional.

Some of the first signs that a child may be falling behind include:

  • Respond inconsistently when their name is called
  • Avoiding interactions with adults, children, or both
  • Prefer independent play or be easily frustrated by others interrupting their activity
  • Difficulty maintaining eye contact
  • Limited imitation of gestures, actions, or vocalizations

For social skills that develop later, some warning signs that can be seen include difficulty with the following:

  • Regulating or expressing own emotions
  • Using language for a variety of purposes, such as asking or answering questions, greeting others, or making comments
  • Stick to a topic of conversation or take turns talking
  • Make new friends or maintain friendships
  • Show concern or empathy for others around them

Momtastic: When should a parent consider seeing a specialist?

Leanne Sherred: As with most things, the earlier the intervention, the better the results. Development happens in stages and stages, and if a particular area falls behind, it can have consequences not only for the future growth of that skill, but also for many other areas that develop alongside it. Social skills grow with the development of communication as a whole, and both impact each other as children learn to engage with those around them.

If you have any concerns about your child’s social development milestones, it’s best to talk to their pediatrician who can recommend an assessment with a specialist. These professionals will be able to assess your child’s strengths and needs in relation to their age and expected level of development. If support is needed, a personalized treatment plan designed specifically for your child will be the best way to help them move to the next level and beyond. With this growth, your child can continue to blossom in personality and independence!

Learn more about child development:

Joel C. Hicks