Social Development Milestones: Ages 1 to 4

Not sure if your child is on the right track for developing social skills? Be on the lookout for these indicators.
toddlers playing together

Heather Weston

Whether you have an outgoing or shy little one, socialization is an important part of your child's overall development. "[A] baby's social development is tied to so many other areas," says Heather Wittenberg, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist specializing in child development. "Walking, in particular, triggers a cascade of milestones. And since most children begin to walk around the one-year mark, this is when you'll really start to see some big social milestones occur."

These milestones are important because they prepare a child to manage personal feelings, understand others' feelings and needs, and interact in a respectful and acceptable way. Find out what to expect when it comes to your child's social development.

Age 1

Although mommy-and-me programs are a great way to introduce your toddler to other kids, he will pick up most of his social cues from you. At this age, you'll notice your baby is able to:

Begin basic communication. One-year-olds will predominantly point and vocalize to express their intentions, says Maria Kalpidou, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Assumption College in Worcester, Massachusetts. It's important to interact with your toddler by acknowledging what he's looking at and pointing out other cool things around him.

Recognize familiar people. When he sees Grandma and Grandpa, the babysitter, the pediatrician, and other familiar people, your toddler will begin to greet them with a smile (or a cry, depending on his mood!). "If the baby isn't paying attention to anyone around [him], that is definitely a red flag," Dr. Wittenberg says. "You want him to be aware of what -- and who -- is around him, even if he cries when someone besides Mom and Dad walks into the room."

Interact with you. If your child hands you toys, this shows his willingness and ability to engage with others. This also sets the stage for lessons in taking turns, but don't expect too much on the sharing front just yet. "Back-and-forth playing is so important," Dr. Wittenberg says. "You want your child to show signs of independence but also to be keyed into appropriate social situations."

Age 2

Around this age, your child is engaging more with those around her, but she still prefers to play with Mom and Dad. Right now, your child is able to:

Begin to socialize. Children typically engage in parallel play at this age; this means that they play next to instead of with each other. "There isn't a lot of interaction with kids at this stage but it's still important to give your child time with other kids," Dr. Wittenberg says.

Defend territory. This is the age where kids start fighting over toys and declaring, "It's mine!" Sharing is, of course, very difficult at this age, as 2-year-olds can't see another child's perspective. "Their social behavior reflects egocentric thinking, and their behavior is guided by their desires," Dr. Kalpidou says. Model sharing and taking turns with your spouse to help your child learn these important social actions.

Extend relationships to other people. Showing an interest in others is a key part of socialization, and kids will begin to seek out interactions beyond those with Mom and Dad. Whether it's playing with Grandma and Grandpa or waving hello to the cashier at the market, your toddler is learning to enjoy the company of others. Although some kids aren't as outgoing around others, don't be so quick to label them as "shy." "Parents often see shyness as a negative, but it's normal for kids to be slow to warm [up] to people they don't know or don't see very often," Dr. Wittenberg explains. "Give your child time to adjust to new situations and follow her lead."

Age 3

Your child might soon be starting preschool, where he'll have other peers to socialize with and a chance to forge a few friendships. Right now, you'll notice that he is able to:

Seek out others. Associative play begins at this age, so your child will start to look for other kids. "It's important at this stage to give your child plenty of opportunities to spend time with peers," Dr. Wittenberg advises. But your child will need help in navigating these social situations. Although he can understand some behavioral and safety rules, offer gentle reminders about sharing and taking turns.

Use his imagination. Dress-up, pretend play, and other creative activities will be part of playdates. "Your child will also make friends based on mutual interests," Dr. Kalpidou says. The concept of sharing can still be hard for kids this age, but this is also a time where they can understand compromise and be respectful of one another. "Kids this age are more likely to solve conflicts with friends in order to maintain their play and show more positive behaviors to one another," Dr. Kalpidou adds.

Start to understand emotions. Your child still learns best from you, so point out different feelings (happy, sad, scared) when watching TV or reading a book. This will help your child be more aware of his own feelings as well as those of others. Also, kids will start to show empathy by offering hugs and kisses when needed.

Age 4

Kindergarten is right around the corner, and your big girl will soon learn the ropes of socializing with new friends. At this age, she is able to:

Show interest in being part of a group. Your child now enjoys playing with others and interacting with her peers more. Experts say this is a good age to sign kids up for a sports team, such as soccer or T-ball. "Choose activities where there aren't too many rules or restrictions," Dr. Wittenberg suggests. "If not, it can ruin the experience for them and they'll never want to play again."

Share and cooperate more with others. There will still be tugs-of-war over toys, but your child can understand the concept of sharing and waiting her turn. "There is an increased awareness of other people's minds, which allows children to develop negotiation skills, resolve conflicts verbally, monitor the emotional state of a group, and regulate other children's behavior," Dr. Kalpidou says.

Be physically affectionate. By now your little one is offering plenty more hugs and kisses to you and showing affection toward family and friends, especially when she sees them in distress. "Kids this age engage in more pro-social behaviors, such as sharing and expressing sympathy," Dr. Kalpidou says.

Exert more independence. The catch-22 of parenting is that you want your child to be more independent, but she often picks the worst times to do things her way, as when she insists on dressing herself when you're running late, or when she wants to help you put away her toys (but in the wrong place). Still, being confident and comfortable in her own abilities is an important part of successfully socializing, especially as she gets older.

Copyright © 2013 Meredith Corporation.

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