We were not meant to go through life alone. Healthy relationships and social support systems from the community are vital to lifelong wellness, and these interactions begin in childhood. Social connections go far beyond not feeling “lonely,” but rather they are the conduits of healthy childhood development. Positive social connections with people at all stages of life help ensure healthy development, both physically and emotionally. Just remember, children learn by example and when they witness positive relationships or are emotionally supported, that observed behavior will aid in their emotional skills and cognitive functioning later on. As your developing child grows from a baby into a toddler, and then into a teenager and an adult, their social networks will shift and change dramatically. However, through each stage of development, there are specific mental and behavioral needs that are met through socialization.
Social interaction is closely related to emotional development in infancy. Your baby’s primary connections to the outside world at this age are through you – his primary caregivers! Specifically, the individuals in an infant’s home who are caring for them, providing their food, water, and shelter, and interacting with them daily are the people who are meeting these socialization needs between birth and twelve months of age. Babies will develop trust and love for their caregivers because they are given adequate love and nurturing from their environment or they will develop mistrust and indifference for people and the world because they aren’t given those resources. During this stage, healthy social growth is all about attachment and bonding with parent and child.
If positive bonding experiences do not happen, the pathways that are needed in a child’s brain for normal and healthy relational experience can actually be lost entirely. There have been tragic case studies of children who spent the earliest years of their lives in minimal human contact, who later demonstrated a severe lack of emotional development in the absence of love, language and attention. What research has shown is that children’s ability to maintain a healthy relationship will greatly depend on the care and treatment they recieve from their caregiver early on.
Not only can a child’s emotional development be hindered by a lack of social connection, the physical growth of their brains can as well. In fact, research has shown a reduced growth in the left hemisphere, which may lead to increased risk for depression in children who suffered neglect or another extreme form of insecure attachment in their early years. Additionally, they may exhibit an increased sensitivity in the limbic system which can lead to anxiety disorders, and a reduced growth in the hippocampus that could contribute to learning and memory impairments.
The most common question that parents ask once they learn of the detriments of these insecure attachments is: “How can I be intentional about bonding with my baby?” Fortunately, most of what is involved in creating positive, social interactions with your child during this time frame is simple. Even just responding to their cues for food, diaper changes, and sleep contribute so much to their development! Other tips for attachment and bonding include singing, cuddling, clapping, playing, tummy time, kangaroo care (or skin to skin contact), soothing them when they cry, reading books to your children, eye contact, holding, babywearing, providing your young children with good nutrition and so much more!
While an infant’s primary need for social connections is met through bonding and connecting with primary caregivers, young children begin to create social relationships outside of their families. Interacting with other children their age (whether this is through daycare, preschool, Sunday school classes, or other events), help children mature in their ability to interact with one another socially.
A common phrase among child therapists is, “Adults Talk, Kids Play.” In a nutshell, children are not always able to articulate their thoughts, feelings, and experiences, but they are able to express them through play! Play is a powerful tool for learning, engagement, and growth.
The first type of play that young children typically engage in is known as parallel play. This is when kids play beside each other without truly interacting with each other. However, as they begin to move past these initial social connections, they begin to play more cooperatively. In cooperative play, young children interact in a small group with the same activity. These early practices of cooperative play include symbolic play (such as cooking in a kitchen, talking on the phone, or playing “house”). Children start practicing this type of play as early as toddlerhood and then peaks for the majority of young children between four and five years old. Additionally, as young children continue to develop socially with peers, they will typically enter a stage of “rough and tumble play.” This can include racing, running, climbing, wrestling, or competitive games. This stage is important as kids are developing social skills (such as learning to take turns and follow simple group rules and social norms).
In early childhood, peers will begin to identify one another as their friends. However, it is important to note that the concept of “friendship” is still a very concrete, basic relationship. At this stage of development, friendship only goes as far as sharing toys and playing together, rather than the associated qualities of empathy and support that adolescents and adults develop. However, this does not mean that these early friendships are any less important. In fact, Paul Schwartz, a professor of psychology and child behavior expert, is only one of many professionals who have emphasized the many benefits of childhood friendship. He stated:
“Friendships contribute significantly to the development of social skills, such as being sensitive to another’s viewpoints, learning the rules of conversation, and age-appropriate behaviors. More than half the children referred for emotional behavioral problems have no friends or find difficulty interacting with peers… Friends also have a powerful influence on a child’s positive and negative school performance and may also help to encourage or discourage deviant behaviors. Compared to children who lack friends, children with ‘good’ friends have higher self-esteem, act more socially, can cope with life stresses and transitions, and are also less victimized by peers.”
Even preschool friendships are helpful in developing social and emotional skills, increasing a sense of belonging and decreasing stress. The tremendous benefits of social connections in early childhood simply cannot be ignored!
Here are some ways that parents can help their little ones develop positive, healthy, and beneficial relationships:
Model good friendship skills
Encourage the friendships that are important to your child
Set up playdates
Respect your child’s personality and interests
Emphasize the importance of staying connected
Ask about who your child’s friends are at school and daycare
Help your child develop problem-solving and conflict resolution skills
Model empathy and compassion, and respect for kids
Encourage your child to start new friendships, and maintain existing ones
Talk with your child about when it is appropriate or necessary to end a friendship, and how to do so respectfully
Have conversations about bullying and kindness
Overall, the more that you talk with your child about how to become a good friend, the more good friends they will have. The skills learned through social connections in early childhood are not only important for their current friendships, but for your child’s future relationships as well.
As children transition to adolescence, they begin to spend less time with their parents and siblings and more time in a social environment. As a result, friendships with peers become an increasingly important source of social connections, and characterizations of youths’ social relationships carry high relevance for developmental psychology. It is during the adolescent period that peer interactions arguably hold the greatest importance for individuals’ social and behavioral functioning.
When a teenager has healthy friendships, they can truly reap the benefits. Positive friendships provide youth with support, companionship, and a sense of belonging. They offer opportunities for the development of social skills. For example, adolescents learn to cooperate with others, communicate effectively, resolve conflicts, and resist negative peer pressure (which can either discourage or reinforce healthy behaviors).
Evidence also suggests that positive friendships in adolescence can lay the groundwork for successful adult relationships (including romantic relationships). Your kids are learning how to make, maintain, and end relationships, and they are able to practice being honest, compassionate, and trustworthy while doing so. As they develop their own identity in relation to the world around them, healthy friendships provide youth with support, companionship, and a sense of belonging. Teens who have supportive friendships are also more likely to do well in school, and be more equipped to navigate and recover from life’s challenges. Peer relationships are especially important during times of difficulty, as they offer a sense of belonging and relief from depression, anxiety, and stress. Feelings of closeness in friendships are intrinsically linked to increased resilience.
Overall, adolescence is a period of rapid change. Not only are your kids’ bodies growing and changing, but they are developing socially and emotionally as well. Friendships become more complex as teenagers view them more abstractly, through an exchange relationship of “give and take,” as well as a true social support system. For girls and boys alike, friendships in adolescence are far more emotionally involved than they were just a few short years prior. Because of this, peer relationships are also a common source of stress and anxiety.
Peer pressure can have a negative impact on an individual, such as when it convinces your child to try smoking or drinking. Here are some tips (adapted by those provided by researchers at the Cleveland Clinic) to help reduce the negative influences of peer pressure in the social interactions of teenagers:
Create a strong relationship and bond with your child, it is always advised to encourage your children to be open with you and to have honest communication.
Discuss the negative impact of peer pressure with your child, as they will be better prepared to say no and resist negative influences.
Reinforce the values that are important to you and your family.
Teach your child the importance of being assertive when necessary.
Give your teen plenty of space to also breath. Don’t be a hovering parent that is watching every move their child makes. You can’t expect him or her to do exactly as you say. Expecting perfection is setting them up to fail.
Instead of only telling your teenager what to do, try to listen first and gain their perspective.
Implement discipline, structure, boundaries, and consequences for negative actions or harmful behaviors.
Additionally, one the best things you can do for your child and their social connections in adolescence is to foster and encourage your teen’s abilities, strengths, identity, and self-esteem. By doing so, they will not be susceptible to the influences of others. In addition, the development of a positive self-image is vital to positive relationships as your child transitions from an adolescent to a young adult. Here are some practical things that you can do to build your teenager’s self-esteem:
Provide words of encouragement for your child every day. It is so important to recognize and acknowledge things your child does right, and not just their mistakes. Affirm them frequently! Identifying their talents and successes will help your teenager learn to focus on their strengths.
On the other hand, be sure to give constructive criticism. Feedback is essential to growth. Be willing to have the tough conversations, and try to do so with grace.
Allow your teen to make mistakes. Not only can overprotection or making decisions for teens be perceived as a lack of faith in their abilities, but it does not allow their confidence to grow. Sometimes, our best lessons are learned through failure. The safest time and place to fail should be while they are still in your care as their parents.
Initiate conversations about self-esteem, identity, worth, and self-image, as well as why these things are important.
Overall, Dr. Bruce Perry, a child psychiatrist, said it best when he stated in a study:
“The more healthy relationships a child has, the more likely he will be to recover from trauma and thrive. Relationships are the agents of change and the most powerful therapy is human love.”
No matter which stage of development your child is in, encouraging social connections is so important to their current and future well-being and mental health. Loving relationships truly are powerful in a child’s life and, as parents, we must remember that this type of love begins at home.