Social Development in Infants and Children According to their Age

Social development in infants and children allows us to understand how they come to socialize and identify important variables.
Social Development in Infants and Children According to their Age
Laura Ruiz Mitjana

Written and verified by the psychologist Laura Ruiz Mitjana.

Last update: 20 April, 2023

Socialization is defined as the process through which human beings learn information from their environment in order to integrate into society. In this way, they’re able to relate appropriately. Keep reading to learn about social development in infants and children.

In the socialization of children, there are a series of facilitating agents, such as school, play, and family. All of these have great relevance for their development. Social development encompasses the first social relationships, attachment, the ability to empathize, to recognize oneself as someone different from the other, and many other interesting elements that we’ll discuss throughout the article.

How does socialization evolve with age?

According to a study by Prior (1992), published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, social development in infants and children is based, initially, on the mother-child relationship. Therefore, when children are very young, their fundamental relationship is with their mother or with the main caregiver or caregivers.

Therefore, attachment is formed–an emotional bond with the caregiver figure. This is created and strengthened through social interactions, displays of affection and love, attention, and the meeting of basic needs, among others.

The importance of attachment in the first months

If the attachment that’s built is healthy and secure, the way the child will bond with peers and adults, as they grow up, will also be healthy. This doesn’t mean that they won’t bond, at some time or another, or with certain people, such as partners or friends, inappropriately or dysfunctionally.

This is because social development in infants and children, and attachment, are influenced by other variables, such as experiences, temperament, and personality. However, it’s true that the first attachment defines, to a large extent, what our type of attachment will be as adults.

The social smile and reciprocity

Smiling is also very important in the social development of infants and children. Therefore, in the social relationship with attachment figures, there’s an evolution. Normally, this occurs in the first two months of life, which is when the “social smile” appears.

Here, the level of stimulus required to elicit reciprocity begins to decrease. Therefore, at first, the infant needs the adult to talk and gesture, but gradually, a smile will suffice. As attachment develops, the sight of the person produces laughter.

A baby lying in bed smiling.
In the first 2 months of life, the “social smile” appears in babies. It’s then that the child can discriminate and smile at familiar faces.

Causality and self-concept

Gradually, the child acquires the concept of causality, which involves smiling to manipulate the environment and satisfy their needs. With time, other social relationships begin to be established. But, for this, the baby needs to have the concept of self vis-à-vis others.

The emergence of empathy

Empathy is something that appears quite early on, as soon as 3 months of age. Or at least “primitive” empathy does. It develops through adult interaction situations and, logically, is refined over the years. It’s a very important ability to establish connections with others. Also, later on, the ability to share appears, which is essential to maintaining social relationships.

Reflective thoughts

When the child is able to express their emotions through language, they begin to think about social interactions. Their first words appear at one year of age, but the ability to talk about emotional states comes a little later. With this, the child begins to show reflective thinking. This means that they begin to think about how others behave toward them and how they behave toward others.

The influence of temperament

Temperament is another variable that influences social development in infants and children. It has to do with how they respond and behave emotionally in various situations. It’s the most primitive personality, the one with the strongest biological and genetic basis.

Temperament shapes and conditions social relationships. It can be modified over time (through family and environmental factors), but much less than personality (which can’t be modified much either).

Need for relationships, at 3 years of age

According to Prior (1992), from the age of 3, the way children behave at school and in play determines, to a large extent, their social relationships. It’s also at this age that children begin to feel the need to relate to others. Logically, they also feel a need to bond earlier, but it’s a little different.

The family, the context of reference

From the beginning, family is the context of reference through which children learn to develop and socialize. In fact, it’s in the family that they find their socialization models, i.e., who to imitate. Therefore, social relationships begin at home, with parents, siblings, and caregivers.

Young school girls sitting on a bench talking.
Children interact through social skills and play. For example, the first spontaneous interactions in the playground or at recess are very important.

Relationships between 6 and 9 years of age

At 6 years of age, relationships are still very much in flux. Bonds aren’t yet close or permanent. But there are bonds, and they’re becoming more and more diverse. Then, at about 9 years of age, relationships begin to strengthen. At this age, groups are more stable and children are already more emotionally involved in them.

Putting social skills into practice

In fact, from birth, children already begin to put their social skills into practice. Logically, these skills evolve over time and become more sophisticated or complex.

The family and the school as agents of socialization

As we can see, children’s social development occurs gradually. From the formation of the first attachment, the rest of the social and emotional bonds are developed. Therefore, it’s important that the first attachment is healthy. With time, social relationships go beyond the father or mother, so the social circle begins to open up.

The family is an essential means of socialization for the formation of an adequate moral development. For its part, schools allow for  the possibility of relating with other people who aren’t the child’s relatives.

The importance of play

Play is also another great space for socialization, as well as a tool that enables interaction with peers. It also provides great stimulation, both intellectually and socially. In the first relationships, children will play just for the sake of it, for pleasure and fun. Gradually, however, these connections develop into more personal relationships.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

    • Alonso-Geta, P. M. P. (2005). La socialización de la infancia en la sociedad de la información. Eduga: revista galega do ensino, (47): 1345-1365.
    • Pérez Pereira, M. (2004). Desarrollo del lenguaje. En J. Palacios, A. Marchesi, C. Coll (Eds.), Desarrollo psicológico y educación: Psicología Evolutiva. Madrid: Alianza Editorial.
    • Prior, M. (1992): Childhood temperament. J Child Psychol Psychiatr, 33:249-279.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.