Your toddler’s social and emotional development will form the foundation of how she will develop relationships, express emotions and cope with change and adversity in later life. In her second year of life, her awareness of herself and the outside world will begin to evolve. One moment she’s your helpless, cute baby, and the next moment you will get a glimpse of the independent child she will become.  

Social and emotional milestones

By his first birthday, your child will be able to express a range of emotions: happiness, sadness, anger, and fear. Separation anxiety will appear. His memory is improving and he may be able to remember things for up to 24 hours. He will interact with you playing peek-a-boo and waving “bye-bye”. He will show delight when he gains a new skill like walking, especially when met with applause. He may have developed a preference for favorite people or toys.

A toddler’s social and emotional development forms the foundation for developing relationships, expressing emotion and coping with change and adversity later in life.

12-18 months

As his walking improves your child will begin to explore his world, from a “secure base” (often you). He will begin to express his needs by pointing, which will evolve to include the use of sounds and words. He will begin to form narrative memories (story-based). Around 15 months he will develop a key social skill of shared attention, where he attempts to get you to focus on the same object as him, using gesture or verbal cues. He may begin to bring you toys or books, in order to engage you and simple pretend play will begin.

18-24 months

From 18 months on your child will become increasingly independent, exploring further from his “secure base”. He may exhibit separation and stranger anxiety, while at the same time becoming more loving and attached to a select few. He may enjoy parallel play alongside other children and may even hand them a toy. Imitation and simple pretend play emerge and develop. Defiant behavior, saying “NO” and possessiveness are normal behaviors at this age, as is the start of the dreaded temper tantrums! Sadly, he has little self-control, patience or common sense at this age.

Preemies and milestones

Children born prematurely will usually reach milestones based on their due date, rather than their birth date. All milestones have a broad range of ages at which they are achieved. If you would like further information the CDC has a good summary of all developmental milestones.

Helping your toddler develop social and emotional skills

These are essential months in the development of your child’s sense of security and self-image and her relationships with other people. Children benefit from quality time with their parents and this could include:

  • Show her unconditional love and give her lots of cuddle time. Offer a sense of comfort, safety, reassurance, and encouragement at all times, while at the same time offering her opportunities to explore and become independent. This can be a difficult balance to get right.
  • Play with your toddler and model how to pass a ball, play with cars, feed a doll and take turns. Allow her plenty of free play: she will learn by problem-solving and experiencing a little frustration when things don’t work.
  • Take opportunities to talk about emotions. Share with her how you are feeling and ask her if she is sad, happy or tired. Reading with her may provide a chance to talk about emotions.
  • Praise effort, as well as success and where possible ignore mistakes. A firm “no” will suffice when her behavior is inappropriate.
  • Playdates and group programs give your child the chance to learn to interact with other children. Teach simple social rules, like it’s not O.K. to hit or snatch toys, and you must wait your turn. If undesirable behavior occurs, say “no” and if it continues to distract or remove your child.
  • Establish routines and rules: toddlers are creatures of habit. Routines such as regular dinner-time, bath-time, and bed-time provide certainty for her. Prepare her for a change or transition. For example, “after lunch, we are going to the singing group”. Encourage other caretakers and family members to stick to your routines and rules.

When to call your doctor

The American Academy of Pediatrics suggests developmental checks at: 9 months, 18 months and 24 or 30 months. Children who were premature, low birth weight or have other health problems may be screened more frequently. If you are worried you can request an assessment at any time.

If you think your child is showing unusual signs don’t panic, there may be a very simple reason, every child is different. Signs to report to your doctor include:

  • Delay in reaching milestone of 3 months or more.
  • Doesn’t point or use gestures to express needs, instead gives up or cries.
  • Doesn’t initiate interaction or play.
  • Limited range and expression of emotions.
  • Doesn’t discriminate between primary caregivers and other people, or use you as a “secure base” for exploring.  
  • Lack of interest in even familiar adults or children. Doesn’t watch or mimic. 
  • Loss of skills previously gained (regression). 
  • It is recommended that you keep a record of your child’s development: if you are concerned it may help reassure you that your child is, in fact, progressing and if the need arises it will provide useful information for your doctor.

Read more on development 12-24 months

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