Social and Emotional Milestones in Children

Baby boy portrait
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While physical developmental milestones are often some of the easiest to observe, the early years of a child’s life are also marked by other developmental milestones, including social and emotional ones. In many cases, these achievements can be difficult or even impossible to identify directly since they often involve such things as increased self-awareness. Such skills can be tough to see, but they are just as important as the physical milestones, especially since social and emotional skills become so important once a child enters school.

From Birth to 3 Months

During the first three months, babies are actively learning about themselves and the people around them. Part of this skill-building involves:

  • Looking at their own hands and sucking on fingers
  • Looking at the part of their body that a parents or caregiver is touching
  • Understanding how the legs and arms are attached
  • Realizing that they are separate beings from those around them
  • Learning to be comforted and soothed by adults
  • Enjoying social stimulation and smiling at people
  • Responding to touch

From 3 to 6 Months

Social interaction becomes increasingly important. During this period of development, most babies begin to:

  • Respond when their name is said
  • Smile
  • Laugh
  • Play peek-a-boo

From 6 to 9 Months

As babies get older, they may begin to show a preference for familiar people. Between the ages of six to nine months, most children can:

  • Express a number of emotions including happiness, sadness, fear, and anger
  • Distinguish between familiar family and friends and strangers
  • Show frustration when a toy is taken away
  • Respond to spoken words and gestures

From 9 to 12 Months

As children become more social, they often begin to mimic the actions of others. Self-regulation also becomes increasingly important as the child approaches one year of age. Most kids can:

  • Hold a cup and drink with help
  • Imitate simple actions
  • Feed themselves small bites of food
  • Express anxiety when separated from parents or caregivers

From 1 to 2 Years

From the age of one to two years, kids often spend more time interacting with a wider range of people. They also start to gain a greater sense of self-awareness. At this stage, most can:

  • Recognize their own image in the mirror
  • Initiate play activities
  • Play independently, often imitating adult actions
  • Act pleased when the accomplish something
  • Start trying to help, often by putting toys away
  • Express negative emotions including anger and frustration
  • Become more self-assertive and may try to direct the actions of others

From 2 to 3 Years

During the toddler years, kids become more and more creative and confident. At two years old, most kids begin to:

  • Become aware that they are a boy or girl
  • Begin to dress and undress themselves
  • Demonstrate personal preferences about toys, food, and activities
  • Start saying "No" to adults
  • Enjoy watching and playing with other children
  • Become defensive about their own possessions
  • Use objects symbolically during play
  • Often have rapid changes in mood

From 3 to 4 Years

Because three-year-olds are becoming increasingly able to perform physical actions, their sense of confidence and independence becomes more pronounced at this age. During the third year, most children begin to:

  • Follow directions
  • Perform some tasks with little or no assistance
  • Share toys with other kids
  • Make up games and ask other children to join in
  • Begin engaging in pretend play

From 4 to 5 Years

During the fourth year, children gain a greater awareness of their own individuality. As their physical skills increase, they are more capable of exploring their own abilities which can help lead to great confidence and personal pride. At this age, most kids begin to:

  • Understand basic differences between good and bad behavior
  • Develop friendships with other kids
  • Compare themselves to other children and adults
  • Become more aware of other people’s feelings
  • Enjoy dramatic, imaginative play with other children
  • Enjoy competitive games

Help Kids Develop Emotional Skills

During the first few years of life, it is essential for children to learn that they can trust and rely on their caregivers. By being responsive and consistent, parents help children learn that they can depend on the people they are close to. A big part of this also involves providing consistent rules and discipline as a child get older. If a child knows what is expected and what will happen when the rules are broken, they will learn that the world is orderly. Doing this also helps kids develop a greater sense of self-control.

In order to develop social and emotional skills, parents need to give their children the opportunity to play with others, explore their own abilities and express their feelings. While maintaining limits, it is always a good idea to offer children choices so that they can begin asserting their own preferences. "Do you want peas or corn for dinner?" or "Do you want to wear the red shirt or the green shirt?" are examples of questions that parents should pose to help kids make their own decisions.

In social situations, help your child learn how to express their emotions in appropriate ways. When strong emotions like anger or jealousy rear their heads, encourage your child to talk about how he is feeling without acting out inappropriately. When unsuitable emotional responses do occur, such as hitting or yelling, make it clear that the actions are not acceptable, but always offer an alternative response. Model the type of behavior you expect to see.

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Article Sources
  • Learning Disabilities Association of America (1999). Early Identification - Social Skills Milestones. Found online at
  • Social and Emotional Development (n.d.) The Whole Child. Found online at