The importance of social and emotional development has taken on increased focus due to the social isolation many children (and adults) have experienced recently due to the pandemic and the disruption of in-person school and activities. Because having healthy relationships is vital for our well-being—in fact it is the most powerful and important source of genuine pleasure for children and adults alike—and helps to ward off negative impacts when life gets challenging, nurturing a child’s emotional development is crucial. Supporting children’s emotional growth sets them up to be more resilient in handling life’s ups and downs as they grow.
What is Social-Emotional Development?
Social-emotional development is the process through which children grow healthy identities—including the development of positive, internal self-esteem, and establish and maintain healthy relationships. For young children, this type of development helps them feel good about themselves, get along with others, and become comfortable and successful in more structured settings, like school. As they get older, children’s social-emotional development evolves to encompass understanding and regulating emotions in constructive ways, communicating effectively with others, making decisions that are self-caretaking (never harmful), and nurturing positive, caring relationships.
Why Is Social-Emotional Growth Important?
There are strong reasons to support children’s healthy social-emotional development. One of the most important is that this growth lays the groundwork for future success by building children’s inner self-worth, the cornerstone of mental health and resilience. As they grow, children are better able to adapt and handle the challenges they’ll face throughout their lives, including making good choices that help them take care of themselves and others.
Some research(1) has even shown that having a healthy social and emotional foundation leads to improved academic performance, improved behavior, and may result in:
· Increased confidence
· Happier and healthier friendships and relationships
· Fewer substance abuse problems
· Reduced anxiety and depression
· Decreased instances of engaging in harmful activities
Nurturing Social-Emotional Development
Whether at school or at home, the key to nurturing children’s emotional growth is to nurture positive relationships with children. It’s common for parents to be told that they should “teach” empathy, such as encouraging a child to acknowledge another person’s upset feelings instead of first providing empathy for the child’s own hurt feelings. However, this approach can make him feel misunderstood and unhappy, which actually hinders his ability to develop caring responses toward himself and others. Smart Love’s approach is based on treating children (and ALL their emotions) with respect and unconditional kindness. In this way, healthy social-emotional development takes place because of how a child is treated by parents and other caregivers, not by being formally taught a certain set of skills.
As Drs. Martha Heineman Pieper and William J. Pieper discuss in Smart Love Solutions for School-Age Children and Teens, “[Social and emotional development] cannot be taught formally, but is learned by imitating those who are important to us. Because your child loves you and wants to be just like you, she will grow up wanting to treat herself and others with the same loving kindness she receives from you. By understanding your child’s needs and responding to them in a loving way, you teach her to understand and love herself and to understand and cherish others.”
Smart Love offers parents and other caregivers a way to help children regulate their immature behavior and strengthen their social-emotional development. Smart Love’s “Be S.M.A.R.T” is a helpful guide to responding to children.
Ways to Support Your Child’s Social-Emotional Development – Be S.M.A.R.T.!
Stay Positive - In difficult situations, when you are able to stay calm and positive, your child is more likely to be receptive to your help and easier to manage. Best of all, a positive approach causes your child to feel positively about herself and your relationship.
Model Kindness - Research shows that children copy how we treat them, then treat themselves and others the same way. Guidance and kindness are not mutually exclusive. When you guide with kindness, their day to day choices are based on a desire for positive self-caretaking and positive relationships with others. An inner compass based on positive self-esteem is the most effective tool children have in being able to make good choices (personal, social, academic) throughout their lives.
Acknowledge Feelings - Make yourself available to hear your child’s feelings and try to understand his experience - especially when he is unhappy and struggling. This is how he will come to feel unconditionally loved. By taking his feelings seriously, you help him understand himself, trust your relationship, and instead of acting out his feelings in negative ways, learn to turn to caring relationships for comfort and support.
Regulate Behavior - It is always important to step in to manage your child’s unsafe, immature, or out of control behavior. You teach your child healthy self-regulation by intervening to change the behavior (despite your child’s complaints or protests), while remaining firm, yet compassionate and understanding. Let your child know the reason for your guidance without “arguing” or expecting him to necessarily agree or understand why he can’t have what he wants in the moment. Keep in mind that the most important thing your child wants is to feel loved by you, especially when he experiences disappointment or frustration.
Time-In Together - It is always best to offer solutions to problems that bring you and your child closer (“time-in”), rather than isolating her or withdrawing your love and approval. Your love and approval builds her positive self-esteem, and teaches her that problems can be resolved within a caring relationship, instead of isolation or with negativity and force.
Smart Love: The Comprehensive Guide to Understanding, Regulating and Enjoying your Child, Martha Heineman Pieper, Ph.D. and William J. Pieper, M.D., Harvard Common Press, 1999.
Smart Love Solutions for School-Age Children and Teens, Martha Heineman Pieper, Ph.D. and William J. Pieper, M.D., Smart Love Family Services, 2012.
Social Emotional Learning (SEL) & Why It Matters for Educators, National University.
Social Emotional Learning is Essential for Child Development—Here’s How to Teach It at Home, Nicole Harris, Parents, March 24, 2021.
(1) Why Does Social Emotional Learning Matter?, Education Development Center, February 15, 2018.
How Can SEL Nurture Young Children to Thrive?, Dara Feldman, University of Maryland School of Social Work.