Social and Emotional Skills: What to Expect at Different Ages

Infants and Babies

By 2 months

Cry to get needs met

Occasionally self-soothe by sucking on hands and fingers

Start to smile and look directly at you

By 4 months

Cry in different ways to show hunger, pain, or being tired

Smile in response to caregiver’s smile

Play with toys by shaking them

By 6 months

Are more aware of which people are familiar and which are strangers

Can respond to other people’s emotions by crying, smiling, or laughing

Enjoy looking at themselves in the mirror

By 9 months

Start to show stranger anxiety

May cry when familiar faces aren’t around

Start to prefer some toys over others

By 12 months

Play favorites with familiar people

Are more interactive (like handing over a toy or a book or making a specific noise to get a caregiver’s attention)

Enjoy simple interactive games, like patty-cake and peekaboo

Toddlers and Preschoolers

Ages 18 months–2 years

Have more temper tantrums and become more defiant as they try to communicate and be independent

Start simple pretend play, like 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)

Ages 3–4 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 caregivers more easily

May still have tantrums because of changes in routine or not getting what they want


Ages 5–6 years

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

Ages 7–8 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 directions

Try to express feelings with words, but may resort to aggression when upset

Ages 9–10 years

Share secrets and jokes with friends

May start to develop own identity by withdrawing from family activities and conversations

Are affectionate, silly, and curious, but can also be selfish, rude, and argumentative

Middle and High School

Ages 11–15 years

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 while figuring out where/how to fit in

Ages 16–18 years

Strive to be independent and may start emotionally distancing from caregivers

Start trying to discover strengths and weaknesses, at times seeming self-centered, impulsive, or moody

Show pride in successes

Spend a lot of time with friends and may be interested in dating

Remember that all kids develop social and emotional skills differently. If kids don’t meet every milestone for their age right away, that’s OK.

If your child isn’t hitting many of these milestones, learn more about trouble with social skills. Keep track of what you’re seeing and share your concerns with your child’s health-care provider. Together you can come up with a plan to help your child build social and emotional skills.

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