Social and Emotional Development: How Does This Relate to Anxiety?
Written by Emily Habelrih/ Clinical Psychologist
Social and emotional milestones are important to keep track of. They allow us to determine whether children are developing in a way that is considered to be ‘typical’ for their age. While children do develop at different rates, it is important to note whether your child is meeting important milestones significantly later than they are expected to be.
Children are born with an intrinsic desire to connect to people in their environment. When teachers, parents, and caregivers create positive relationships with infants, children feel safe and secure. This in turn lays a healthy foundation for emotional development and regulation. Early interactions with adults’ impact on how children express themselves, interact with others, and regulate their emotions. Below are important definitions that will be referred to throughout this document.
Emotional Awareness refers to an individual’s ability to recognize and understand their feelings and actions, as well as those of other people. It also refers to an individual’s ability to understand how their own feelings and actions might impact others.
Positive Social Relationshipsrefers to positive relationships we share with others, including those with both adults and peers. As children develop socially, they learn important skills such as turn taking, helping others, sharing, and conflict resolution.
Self-Regulationrefers to one’s ability to express their thoughts and feelings in an appropriate manner. For example, learning to calm oneself when angry/overly excited and persevering through difficult tasks.
The following table summarises and highlights important developmental milestones for most children at certain ages, with a key focus on emotional -development and resilience. The following information was obtained fromDamon E. Jones et. al, Early Social-Emotional Functioning and Public Health: The Relationship Between Kindergarten Social Competence and Future Wellness,American Journal of Public Health 105(11) (2015): 2283-2290.
Age & Milestones
· May briefly calm themselves by sucking on hand or reaching for a pacifier
· Attempts to make eye contact with a parent/caregiver
· Begins to Smile
· Smiles spontaneously, especially at known people
· Responsive to social stimuli
· Enjoys interacting with others and might cry when an interaction ends
· Begins to copy some movements and facial expressions such as smiling
· Reacts positively to familiar faces and begins to be wary of strangers
· Likes to play with others especially known adults and siblings
· Responds to name being called
· May show early signs of separation anxiety and may cry more often when separated from familiar adults
· May become attached to a specific comforter
· Copies sounds and gestures of others
· Understands the meaning of ‘no’
· Starts to become socially interactive
· May show fear in new situations
· Repeats sounds or actions to get attention of adults
· May begin to show signs of independence and resist attempts to help
· Can begin to follow simple directions
· May need help coping with tantrums
· May begin to explore alone, but will want a known adult close by
· Engages in simple pretend play or modelling such as talking on a pretend phone, feeding a baby doll, or pushing a car
· Begins to demonstrate ability to engage in joint attention i.e., might point at a truck driving by but will also look at their caregiver to ensure they are also looking
· Parallel play may begin
· Copies others, especially adults and/or older children
· Shows more independence, including defiant behaviour
· Mainly plays alongside other children (parallel play), but is starting to include other children in play
· Follows simple instructions
· Also known as the ‘terrible two’s’, at this age children may seem like they are regressing and may appear stubborn, difficult to soothe, and defiant.
· May start to understand the idea of ‘mine’ and ‘his/hers’
· Becomes emotionally attaches to toys or objects for security
· May feel anxious with big changes in routine
· May begin to engage in turn taking, especially in games, and follow 2-3 step directions
· Names a friend and may show concern for a friend/sibling who is sad or distressed
· Cooperates with other children and may start to enjoy playing with other children rather than playing alone
· Often still finding it difficult to understand what is real and what is make-believe
· Enjoys new activities
· Makes attempts to please parents and caregivers
· Starts to recognize what is real and what is make belief
· Can turn take well
· Might not like sharing, but is able to share where necessary
· Begin to enjoy playing with other children, and start to become more conversational and independent.
· Are more aware of other’s perceptions
· May complain about friendships and the reactions of other children
· Not entirely attentive to the directions provided by adults, however are making a conscious effort to please adults
· At this age, children are starting to make attempts at expressing their feelings more appropriately, but may still resort to aggression when upset.
· Children start to narrow their peer groups to a few close friends
· May withdraw from family activities and conversations
· Are affectionate, but begin to test the boundaries and may come across as selfish or rude
· Start to think more logically
· Request and require more privacy
· Understand the value of friendships, and value the opinions of their friends more and more
· May test out new ideas, clothing styles, mannerisms, and hobbies in an attempt to discover their self-identity
· May become self-conscious about their physical appearance
· May overreact to parental criticism
· May engage in risky behaviours
· Many children at this age might give up a hobby or sport they have been interested in for years, in an attempt to try something new
· May psychologically distance themselves from their parents and may favour the opinions of their friends
· Sexual behaviour is exploratory
· Striving towards independence, and craving independence
· May emotionally distance themselves from parents
· Start to discover their own strengths and weaknesses, which can affect their self-esteem
· May have self-identity struggles
· Friendships become based on loyalty
· May become sexually active
Anxiety disorders can be treated in a variety of ways. If you believe your child might be experiencing anxiety, it is best to consult a child psychologist, who can assist with both assessment of the child’s anxiety and therapy to assist with management of the anxiety.
Emily Habelrih/ Clinical Psychologist
Emily is a registered psychologist with the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency. She has a Bachelor of Arts (Psychology), Post Graduate Diploma of Psychology and a Masters of Clinical Psychology. Emily is a member of the Australian Pyschological Society (APS) and has a specific interest in Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), developmental delay anxiety in children and building self-esteem. Her interest in childhood mental health began at a young age when her brother was diagnosed with Autism. This sparked her passion for supporting the needs of not only the child, but the siblings and family members of those who have a child in the family with additional needs.
To find out more about Emily’s professional experience, visit her website: