Age-by-age learning skills

Social and Emotional Skills: What to Expect at Different Ages

By Amanda Morin

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How do kids’ social and emotional skills typically develop? This timeline maps out what you can expect to see as your child gets older.

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Social and Emotional Skills: What to Expect at Different Ages

Kids mature and develop at different paces, but there are certain social and emotional milestones you can expect at different ages. Keeping track of your child’s progress as social and emotional skills develop can help reveal potential issues. The following timeline shows what’s considered typical behavior as a child develops.

Infants and Babies
By 2 months
• Start to smile and look directly at you
• Cry to get needs met
• Occasionally self-soothe by sucking on hands and fingers

By 4 months
• Smile and play spontaneously
• Cry when you stop playing
• Begin to engage with you by imitating faces you make

By 6 months
• Are more aware of which people are familiar and which are strangers
• Can respond to your emotions by crying, smiling or laughing
• Enjoy looking at themselves in the mirror

By 9 months
• Start to show stranger anxiety
• Start to prefer some toys over others
• May cry when familiar faces aren’t around

By 12 months
• Play favorites with familiar people
• Are more interactive (for example, handing you a toy or a book or making a specific noise to get your attention)
• Enjoy simple interactive games like “patty-cake” and “peekaboo”

Toddlers and Preschoolers
Between 18 months and 2 years
• Have more temper tantrums and become more deant as attempts at independence and communication increase
• Begin simple pretend play, often by imitating what adults or other kids are doing
• Become interested in having other kids around, but are more likely to play alongside them (parallel play) than with them (cooperative play)

Between 3 and 4 years
• Start to show and verbalize a wider range of emotion
• Are interested in pretend play, but may confuse real and “make believe”
• Are spontaneously kind and caring
• Start playing with other kids and separate from you more easily
• May still have tantrums because of changes in routine or not getting what they want

Between 5 and 6 years
• Are aware of their gender and may prefer to play with same-sex peers
• Enjoy playing with other kids and are more conversational and independent
• Test boundaries but are still eager to please and help out
• Begin to understand what it means to feel embarrassed

Between 7 and 8 years
• Are more aware of others’ perceptions
• May complain about friendships and other kids’ reactions
• Want to behave well, but aren’t as attentive to your directions
• Try to express feelings with words, but may resort to aggression when upset

Between 9 and 10 years
• Start narrowing peer groups to a few close friends they share secrets and jokes with
• May withdraw from family activities and conversations to start developing their own identity
• Are affectionate, silly and curious, but can also be selfish, rude and argumentative

Middle-Schoolers and High-Schoolers
Between 11 and 15 years old
• Start thinking more logically
• Are introspective and moody and need privacy
• Value friends’ and others’ opinions more and more
• May test out new ideas, clothing styles and mannerisms in an attempt to find where they fit in

Between 16 and 18 years old
• Strive to be independent and may start emotionally distancing from you
• Start trying to discover their own strengths and weaknesses, which can make them seem self-centered, impulsive or moody
• Show pride in successes
• May be interested in dating and spend a lot of time with friends
Graphic of Social and emotional skills: what to expect at different ages
Graphic of Social and emotional skills: what to expect at different ages

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About the Author

Portrait of Amanda Morin

Amanda Morin is a parent advocate, a former teacher and the author of The Everything Parent’s Guide to Special Education.

Reviewed by

Portrait of Donna Volpitta

Donna Volpitta, Ed.D., is coauthor of The Resilience Formula: A Guide to Proactive, Not Reactive, Parenting.

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