Social Emotional Development in Toddlers

Social Skills

Welcome to the “you-may-never-sit-down-again” phase of parenting. Toddlers are constantly on the move as they put newly acquired (and growing!) gross and fine motor skills into practice. However, this is also the time when children experience a huge leap in social-emotional development (and language and pre-literacy, and…) Let’s just say that a whole lot of growing happens in the toddler years! (And, yes, you will eventually get to sit down again.)

Social-Emotional Milestones of Toddlers

As a child’s first and best teacher, parents are uniquely positioned to positively support all those key skills, including the social-emotional milestones of toddlers. Between one and three years old, your child’s social-emotional skills will grow faster than any other time, except during the teen years.

Here are a few social-emotional milestones and the timing in which many children develop. Of course, every child develops at his or her own pace. If you have questions about your child’s development, speak with your pediatrician. 

  • Sometime around 12-18 months, toddlers will show favoritism towards certain people and things. (Don’t worry. If you aren’t the “favorite” parent or adult in the room, your child won’t stay in this phase forever. Promise.)
  • Between 12-18 months, toddlers love playing simple games with an adult, such as peek-a-boo or pat-a-cake or even finger plays like “The Itsy Bitsy Spider.” You will find yourself playing these simple games over and over again just to get your little one to giggle at the wonder of it all! This is also the time when toddlers will begin to initiative play by handing things to others, such as a book or a toy. 
  • At around 18 months, toddlers point to things or people or animals that look interesting and also may make sounds to get your attention so you will look, too. Be sure to positively respond and describe what you see. This helps teach children that their ideas and opinions matter and supports healthy self-esteem development.
  • After months of watching the world, 18-month-old toddlers begin to imitate the behaviors of those around them. That baby who loved looking in the mirror suddenly becomes your own tiny mirror as they mimic your actions.
  • At around 18 months, toddlers may also experience intense emotions as they “feel all the feels” but don’t yet have the language or ability to express the emotion appropriately. Common everyday emotional experiences can be fear of strangers, frustration when transitioning to something else, affection towards familiar people, and holding on tightly to a loved one in a new setting or situation. Help your child label the emotion by saying something like: “I can tell by how tightly you are snuggling me that you feel nervous. I understand.” 
  • At around 24 months, toddlers begin to exhibit parallel play. That’s just a fancy way of saying that toddlers will play right next to each other without actually interacting with one other, unless the other child wants the same toy. During this phase, you may find yourself repeating the idea of sharing over and over again. 
  • At around 36 months, toddlers show concern for others without prompting. For example, a toddler may go up to a child who fell down and see if the other child is okay by patting the child on the back or leaning in close to say something encouraging.
  • As children near the end of toddlerhood, they can dress and undress themselves, separate easily from parents and even help with simple household chores. All of this supports a child’s growing independence and confidence. 

5 Ways to Support a Toddler’s Social-Emotional Learning

Everyday living offers endless opportunities to support a toddler’s social-emotional learning. Here are a few of our favorite ways that easily fit into most family’s daily routines and rituals.

  1. Talk together. Your toddler is beginning to initiate conversations with you by pointing out things that interest him or her or getting your attention by making early attempts at words. Talk back. Respond with enthusiasm, even if you have no idea what your little one is saying. By engaging in a conversation that your child starts, you are supporting your child’s confidence development by showing your child that what he or she says matters and brings value to the world. Plus, these responsive interactions with a loved one boosts your child’s vocabulary. 
  2. Read that book to your toddler again. During the toddler years, you may find yourself reading the same book over and over and over and over again (and over and over again). Children learn by repetition and your toddler will begin to play favorites with books by bringing the same one to you to read. This is all part of social-emotional development as toddlers begin to express preferences and opinions. You can add a social-emotional learning component to any book snuggling together as you read and by pointing out the emotions or emotional cues a character in the book expresses. Be sure to surround yourself with children’s books YOU like to read, too. Here is a list of some of our favorite books for children that support social-emotional learning. (Link to previous blog post)
  3. Make music with your toddler. We love music at all stages of a child’s development. After all, music supports all areas of a child’s development and children of all abilities can participate in some way. So I guess you could say we are ALL IN. One easy way to support a toddler’s social-emotional development through music is to listen to music together and play along with toddler-safe instruments or a plastic bowl and spoon. Toddlers will learn how to express themselves, work with others to create something, and to respect the ideas of others.  Click, here to view a list of some of our favorite songs for children that support social-emotional learning on Youtube.
  4. Encourage empathy. Noticing, recognizing, understanding and responding appropriately to the feelings of others takes years of practice and builds the groundwork for empathy and moral development. The toddler years offer the perfect time to start. During your everyday living, point out the emotions of others by using words to describe the emotion and talking about the facial clues. For example: “I can see that your brother is crying. He must feel sad.” Then model for your toddler how to respond and invite your toddler to do what you do. For example: “Your brother feels sad because it’s raining and we can’t play outside today. When we feel sad, sometimes a hug or a gentle touch helps us feel better. Would you like to give your brother a hug or a gentle pat on the back?” 
  5. Invite your older toddler to be a helper. Helping around the house isn’t reserved for elementary-age children. Older toddlers can contribute by doing simple things like putting away toys in a container or setting out plastic plates or napkins at dinner. By the way, early childhood development research shows that the way we ask a child to help matters. Try asking: “Will you be my helper” instead of “Will you help me.” This rephrasing of the question teaches children to identify as being a helper and also increases the likelihood that they will respond with a happy YES!

Do you have a favorite social-emotional activity to do with toddlers?

Let us know in the comments. We had a hard time narrowing it down to just five!

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