What I didn’t realize until I spoke to friends who are parents is that social development in children starts earlier than I’d ever imagined. I think it’s safe to say that most parents dream of their child making friends easily, but there are actually simple ways that you can foster their interaction with others beginning at just a few months old. If your little one refuses to leave your arms and screams every time you leave them with someone else, chances are you need to work on their social growth.
Part of raising a happy kid is having them interact with others and show emotion. Some experts say there are four aspects of social development in children: awareness of others, making gestures or displaying emotion to others, showing “contagious distress,” and having a physical or emotional response when facing conflict. So if you’re ready for some tips for raising a more social child, keep reading.
Foster Social Situations
If your child hardly leaves your house and doesn’t have the opportunity to interact with others outside of your immediate family, you may be doing them a disservice, especially when they hit 3 years and up. “It’s important at this stage to give your child plenty of opportunities to spend time with peers,” says Heather Wittenberg, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist who specializes in child development. Some parents opt to put their little one in day care a day or two a week to get them used to being away from them (even when they or someone close to them have the ability to watch them).
This day or two “out” lets little ones interact with new adults and children their own age. It teaches them basic skills like sharing and how to adapt to a new environment (and new people).
The more comfortable your child becomes in their own shoes, the better. They’ll want to act positively if they know you will compliment them on their good behavior. They’ll start to put two and two together and realize that acting kindly toward others will lead to a positive response from you. Plus, a happier child will likely get along better with others. (Just think about how you don’t want to be social when you’re in a bad mood.)
Find Time for Play
“Kids … are more likely to solve conflicts with friends in order to maintain their play and show more positive behaviors to one another,” muses Maria Kalpidou, Ph.D., a professor of psychology. Begin by hosting frequent playdates with children of the same age. This gives your child the opportunity to learn that they need to be nice and respectful so that their game of make-believe (or puzzle or coloring session) can continue. You can start by having shorter playdates or even have a practice playdate with yourself or their sibling.
Once your little one realizes that they’re going to be taken away from the fun for a time-out if they misbehave, they’ll learn to keep their tantrums in check.
What better way to learn emotions than together? You don’t have to conduct a separate lesson on the subject, either. Rather, it's best to incorporate the discussion into everyday activities. While watching TV, ask your child how something made them or one of their favorite characters feel, or discuss whether a plot line of a book makes them happy (or sad). By pointing out emotions, your little one will start to recognize their feelings as well as those of others.
Be a Role Model
Of course, you’re always going to try to put your best foot forward around your kids, but now’s the time to be even more conscious of the example you’re setting. While you’re doing everyday things like sharing and interacting with others, give your child a verbal play-by-play so that they know why—and how—they should be acting. Plus, the more they see good social behavior, the more they’ll mimic your positive mannerisms.
Now that you’re armed with these five tips for encouraging social development in children, it’s time try them out. When it comes to raising a social butterfly, we know you can do it.