Encouraging Healthy Social-Emotional Development Among Children

By Jonathan Livingston, Ph.D.
     Rearing young children, for any parent, is a difficult task.  Parents with children ages 0-5 are very concerned with their child’s physical and mental development.  How much does my child weigh?  Is she growing at an age–appropriate rate, and when will she learn to walk?  Also, at what age will she talk?  Each of these questions is critically important for parents and the development of young children.  The Zero to Three: National Center for Infants, Toddlers, and Families suggests that another important area of growth for our young children that is often overlooked is their social-emotional development.  According to the National Center for Infants, Toddlers, and Families, supportive, nurturing relationships, especially those with parents and caregivers, are essential to a child’s development and social-emotional health.  These early relationships and interactions provide the initial context for how young children begin to understand themselves and their place in the world.  Through nurturing, protective relationships, children develop the psychological and social wellness needed to develop friendships and communicate with others, as well as develop trust and empathy, which are key components toward psychological health and healthy adult relationships.
     The National Center for Infants, Toddlers, and Families suggests that to better understand the social-emotional development of children, parents have to understand the nature of the relationships their child has formed and with whom. Are the parents, grandparents, or designated caregiver the primary providers of care?  Are there differences in these relationships? How does the child respond to each caregiver?  Given that these early relationships have an impact on and may determine how young children will behave in their childhood relationships, it is important to understand these relationships and the messages transmitted.
    The NCITF suggests that the following are key components to ensuring your child’s healthy           social-emotional development:
     Responsive care: When parents are responsive to their child’s needs, she learns to trust.  Responsive care includes holding your child, responding to your child’s cries and calls, and spending time observing your child’s behavior and actions in an effort to better understand your child’s feelings and motivations.  Simply watching your children can provide a wealth of information about their temperament and how they relate to other children.  This type of observation can help parents respond to their child’s behavior in more productive ways, which supports healthier social-emotional development.
    Affection and nurturing: Loving touches and encouraging words send a message to the young children that they someone special and to be valued.  When children receive love and affection from their parents, it builds their self-esteem and they learn how to love and nurture others. 
     Resolving conflict and understanding their feelings: As toddlers begin to develop self-awareness, sharing can become a difficult task, as well as their ability to understand their emotions and consider the feelings of others.  This ability to understand others’ feelings, with any developing child, comes with maturity, practice, or the help of a caring parent or other adult.  To help your child resolve conflicts and understand her feelings, create opportunities for your child to identify and discuss her feelings.  Discussing characters in books and movies may be a good way to begin discussions about feelings and conflict resolution.  Once the child reaches 2 ? -3 years of age, parents should take advantage of opportunities to provide guidance and initiate sharing or taking-turn games with their child in order to model socially-appropriate or sharing behavior.  When a child is misbehaving or not being cooperative with others, it is important to understand that toddlers are less willing to obey their parents when they are tired or not feeling well.  Redirecting or distracting a child’s attention to calm her down can be useful in resolving disputes. 
      Rearing and understanding the emotional world of young children can be exciting and challenging tasks.  Being responsive, nurturing, and trying to understand their feelings are each very important.  However, it is also important for parents to ask questions and seek the advice of other parents and early childhood professionals.
To increase awareness about the importance of early childhood issues in our community, each month Ingham County Great Start will place brochures at area community stores and provide articles to your local newspapers on topics essential to our children’s education, development, and health.
    Ingham County Great Start believes that healthy social-emotional development is important in ensuring a healthy future for children in the Greater Lansing area.    For more information about early childhood social-emotional health, you can go to the Zero to Three: National Center for Infants, Toddlers, and Families website at www.zerotothree.org, or for assistance at the local level, contact Barry Kaufman, 517-346-8053.