34 Unit 8: Social Development – Foundations of Child and Adolescent Psychology

Social Understanding

As we have seen, children’s experience of relationships at home and the peer group contributes to an expanding repertoire of social and emotional skills and also to broadened social understanding. In these relationships, children develop expectations for specific people (leading, for example, to secure or insecure attachments to parents), understanding of how to interact with adults and peers, and developing self-concept based on how others respond to them. These relationships are also significant forums for emotional development.

Remarkably, young children begin developing social understanding very early in life. Before the end of the first year, infants are aware that other people have perceptions, feelings, and other mental states that affect their behavior, and which are different from the child’s own mental states. This can be readily observed in a process called social referencing, in which an infant looks to the mother’s face when confronted with an unfamiliar person or situation (Feinman, 1992). If the mother looks calm and reassuring, the infant responds positively as if the situation is safe. If the mother looks fearful or distressed, the infant is likely to respond with wariness or distress because the mother’s expression signals danger. In a remarkably insightful manner, therefore, infants show an awareness that even though they are uncertain about the unfamiliar situation, their mother is not, and that by “reading” the emotion in her face, infants can learn about whether the circumstance is safe or dangerous, and how to respond.

Although developmental scientists used to believe that infants are egocentric—that is, focused on their own perceptions and experience—they now realize that the opposite is true. Infants are aware at an early stage that people have different mental states, and this motivates them to try to figure out what others are feeling, intending, wanting, and thinking, and how these mental states affect their behavior. They are beginning, in other words, to develop a theory of mind, and although their understanding of mental states begins very simply, it rapidly expands (Wellman, 2011). For example, if an 18-month-old watches an adult try repeatedly to drop a necklace into a cup but inexplicably fail each time, they will immediately put the necklace into the cup themselves—thus completing what the adult intended, but failed, to do. In doing so, they reveal their awareness of the intentions underlying the adult’s behavior (Meltzoff, 1995). Carefully designed experimental studies show that by late in the preschool years, young children understand that another’s beliefs can be mistaken rather than correct, that memories can affect how you feel, and that one’s emotions can be hidden from others (Wellman, 2011). Social understanding grows significantly as children’s theory of mind develops.

How do these achievements in social understanding occur? One answer is that young children are remarkably sensitive observers of other people, making connections between their emotional expressions, words, and behavior to derive simple inferences about mental states (e.g., concluding, for example, that what Mommy is looking at is in her mind) (Gopnik, Meltzoff, & Kuhl, 2001). This is especially likely to occur in relationships with people whom the child knows well, consistent with the ideas of attachment theory discussed above. Growing language skills give young children words with which to represent these mental states (e.g., “mad,” “wants”) and talk about them with others. Thus in conversation with their parents about everyday experiences, children learn much about people’s mental states from how adults talk about them (“Your sister was sad because she thought Daddy was coming home.”) (Thompson, 2006b). Developing social understanding is, in other words, based on children’s everyday interactions with others and their careful interpretations of what they see and hear. There are also some scientists who believe that infants are biologically prepared to perceive people in a special way, as organisms with an internal mental life, and this facilitates their interpretation of people’s behavior with reference to those mental states (Leslie, 1994). (69)

The Family

Parents are their children’s first socializer. How parents choose to parent has a great impact as to how the child will function in the world. In general, children tend to thrive when parents have high (but reasonable) expectations for children’s behavior, communicate well with them, are warm and responsive, and use reasoning (rather than coercion) as preferred responses to children’s misbehavior. This kind of parenting style has been described as authoritative (Baumrind, 2013). Authoritative parents are supportive and show interest in their kids’ activities, but are not overbearing and allow them to make constructive mistakes. Children raised by authoritative parents tend to have healthy self-esteem, self-confidence, and social skills. They also tend to have low rates of juvenile delinquency and mental illness throughout life. Because the parents are active in their life, the children tend to thrive academically.

By contrast, some less-constructive parent-child relationships result from authoritarian, uninvolved, or permissive parenting styles. (69)

Comparison of Four Parenting Styles

Described in text
Figure 8-1: Comparison of Four Parenting Styles (Noba Project) by Ross Thompson is licensed under CC-BY-NC-SA 4.0 .

As you can see from Figure 8-1, a parent with rigid expectations and little affection has an authoritarian parenting style. Children raised by these types of parents tend to struggle with academics, self-esteem, and social skills. They also tend to have higher juvenile delinquency and mental illness rates in comparison to those raised by authoritative parents (4 Parenting Styles – Characteristics and Effects, 2018; Baumrind, 1972; Esmali Kooraneh & Amirsardari, 2015).

Parents that are affectionate, but do not provide structure or consequences to unacceptable behavior, are consideredpermissive parents. These parents prefer to be their children’s friends, as opposed to a parent. This actually hurts the children as they benefit from having rules and having consequences when the rules are broken. In comparison to children raised by authoritative parents, children raised by permissive parents struggle with social skills, social responsibility, and self-control (4 Parenting Styles – Characteristics and Effects, 2018; Baumrind, 1972; Esmali Kooraneh & Amirsardari, 2015).

The final parenting style is referred to as uninvolved (originally referred to as rejecting-neglecting). These parents are emotionally disengaged from their children, sometimes being outright rejecting. They also fail to provide any structure or rules. These parents do not encourage children to be independent or develop their own identity. This parenting style is associated with very negative child outcomes; including, substance abuse, delinquency, poor self-control, and even suicide. (4 Parenting Styles – Characteristics and Effects, 2018; Baumrind, 1972; Esmali Kooraneh & Amirsardari, 2015). (1)

Parental roles in relation to their children change in other ways, too. Throughout infancy and early childhood, parents increasingly become mediators (or gatekeepers) of their children’s involvement with peers and activities outside the family. Their communication and practice of values contributes to children’s academic achievement, moral development, and activity preferences.

During middle childhood, children spend less time with parents and more time with peers. And parents may have to modify their approach to parenting to accommodate the child’s growing independence. Using reason and engaging in joint decision-making whenever possible may be the most effective approach (Berk, 2007). Children raised in this manner tend to be confident, successful and happy (Chao, 2001; Stewart and Bond, 2002). (69)

Family Tasks

One of the ways to assess the quality of family life is to consider the tasks of families.

Berger (2005) lists five family functions: Providing food, clothing and shelter

  1. Encouraging Learning
  2. Developing self-esteem
  3. Nurturing friendships with peers
  4. Providing harmony and stability

Notice that in addition to providing food, shelter, and clothing, families are responsible for helping the child learn, relate to others, and have a confident sense of self. The family provides a harmonious and stable environment for living. A good home environment is one in which the child’s physical, cognitive, emotional, and social needs are adequately met. Sometimes families emphasize physical needs, but ignore cognitive or emotional needs. Other times, families pay close attention to physical needs and academic requirements, but may fail to nurture the child’s friendships with peers or guide the child toward developing healthy relationships. Parents might want to consider how it feels to live in the household. Is it stressful and conflict-ridden? Is it a place where family members enjoy being?

As children reach adolescence, the parent-child relationship increasingly becomes one of “coregulation,” in which both the parent(s) and the child recognizes the child’s growing competence and autonomy, and together they rebalance authority relations. We often see evidence of this as parents start accommodating their teenage kids’ sense of independence by allowing them to get cars, jobs, attend parties, and stay out later.

Family relationships are significantly affected by conditions outside the home. For instance, the Family Stress Model describes how financial difficulties are associated with parents’ depressed moods, which in turn lead to marital problems and poor parenting that contributes to poorer child adjustment (Conger, Conger, & Martin, 2010). Within the home, parental marital difficulty or divorce affects more than half the children growing up today in the United States. Divorce is typically associated with economic stresses for children and parents, the renegotiation of parent-child relationships (with one parent typically as primary custodian and the other assuming a visiting relationship), and many other significant adjustments for children. Divorce is often regarded by children as a sad turning point in their lives, although for most it is not associated with long-term problems of adjustment (Emery, 1999). (70)


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