Handbook of Language and Literacy Development - a Roadmap from 0 to 60 Months

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Social-Emotional Development (13-24 Months)click to print Print
Research Review / Parent

Written by: Michaela Jelen and Veronica Smith, University of Alberta

Introduction to Emotional and Social Development

As babies enter the second year of life, they become toddlers. At this stage, some children are producing true words. More importantly for language learning, they are able to coordinate attention between people and objects, engage in social exchanges, and communicate intentionally using gestures and sounds that have shared meanings with their primary caregivers. Caregiver responsiveness has contributed to these important developments. Between their first and second birthdays, as children acquire more sounds and words, they are also developing a whole new set of active learning strategies that will contribute to their rapidly expanding social, emotional, communication, and cognitive development. Mahdi is now clearly getting her mother's attention by saying "ma!" and labeling objects while pointing to them. Her favorite stuffed turtle is named "tu tu", her stuffed bee is named "beee," and she has many different names for various food items. Words have now become the vehicle for Mahdi to engage in social and emotional interactions with her mother. She often sits in a room with her mother, points to objects, labels them and looks to see her mother's emotional reaction. Mahdi loves it when her mother affirms her knowledge by naming the objects with words or pointing to other items. She often smiles and giggles with delight when her mother is solely paying attention to her.

Babies' Interests and Abilities that Support Emotional and Social Development

Understanding of Emotional Expressions

Babies distinguish several emotional expressions prior to their first birthday, including happy, sad, and excited. In the second year of life, as their language develops, toddlers are able to 'label' or name emotions, such as 'happy,' 'sad,' 'mad,' and 'ew, yucky.' The words that toddlers hear in social interactions with adults direct their attention to important elements of events and help build their understanding of emotions. Chayton has learned to pay attention to sounds and words that his parents use to inform him about certain objects in his environment. When he puts something inappropriate in his mouth, he will usually take it out if his parents say "no! yucky!!" with disapproving looks. On the other hand, he will look eagerly at something when his parents say "Look Chayton!!" with excitement.

As toddlers become more aware of themselves as individuals, self-conscious emotions, such as shame, embarrassment, and pride, begin to emerge. Later, as toddlers improve their ability to control or regulate themselves, we see improved ability in controlling their emotions, as well. These growing skills are associated with brain maturation, gains in cognition and language, and sensitive child rearing.

Happiness. During the second year of life, the smile becomes a deliberate social signal. Toddlers break their play with an interesting toy to communicate their delight by smiling at an attentive adult. Mahdi loves her stuffed animals. She will frequently crawl across the room to get to them. When she is cuddling with a stuffed toy, she will often look up to share her delight with someone else in the room. Mahdi will often laugh, smile, and inform others of what her current animal is called by labeling it and looking at others in the room. Mahdi now pairs her delight in objects of interest with words. She will say "tu tu" for her beloved turtle while looking up and smiling at others in the room.

Anger/Sadness. Between 13 and 24 months, young children start to develop an understanding of simple cause and effect relationships related to desires, outcomes, emotions, and actions. These causal understandings may provoke the development of some negative feelings. For example, toddlers may show anger towards caregivers who prevent them from obtaining desired objects or, if exposed to peers, toddlers may begin to hit those who take their toys. Chayton will protest when his mother takes something away from him that he wants. He has a favorite book that he loves to chew on. His mother has decided that he is ruining the book by chewing it so she no longer lets him have the book if it goes in his mouth. Chayton will yell angrily and start to cry when his mother takes the book away from him. As toddlers learn more words, they tend to be more verbal (using words like "no" or "mine") when engaging in conflicts with peers. Though aggressive hitting may occur, increased language skills typically take peer conflicts to a more mature level over time.

Fear. Eventually, stranger anxiety begins to decline as toddlers' thinking skills develop enough to allow them to better understand the difference between threatening and non-threatening people and situations. Fear also wanes as children acquire a wider array of strategies for coping with situations that make them anxious. Mahdi is starting to be less afraid of people she does not know. Although she will play shy with new people, it is easy for strangers to make her laugh by playing peek-a-boo or making a funny face. The more Mahdi's mother takes the time to explain the situation and show her that she does not need to be afraid the quicker Mahdi adapts to the new situation and new person in her life.

Self-consciousness. Feelings of self-consciousness contribute to emotions of shame, embarrassment, guilt, envy, and pride. These emotions can injure or enhance our sense of self. Self-conscious emotions appear at the end of the second year, as toddlers become aware that they are separate and unique from their parents. Shame and embarrassment can be seen as 18-24 month-olds lower their eyes, or hide their face in their hands. Guilt and pride also emerge at this time. Adult guidance is important to help toddlers' understand the actions or behaviours that are associated with these emotions, as some children are confused by new emotions such as shame or guilt. Chayton has learned the meaning of "no". He loves to get into a drawer in the kitchen that he knows he is not permitted to go into. Each time he goes into the drawer, his mother or father says "no Chayton!" and gives him something else to do. Chayton still finds the drawer interesting and can't help himself from trying to explore what is inside. Now when his mother tells him "no" he starts crying and clearly displays an expression of shame. His mother will often explain to him that the drawer is 'not safe' for him to be in and re-direct him to his box of toys to try and calm him down.

Emotional Self-Regulation

During the second year, the toddlers' ability to control their own emotions and behaviour and to organize their experiences continues to depend on the responsiveness of parents and caregivers. At this age the caregiver and child work together to develop the toddler's regulation in this area. The secure attachment formed in the first year of life tends to predict the child's continuing ability to use the parent's help to regulate emotional expressions and to control behaviour when faced with frustrations or stress. A reliable parent allows the child to become self-protective. Mahdi loves ice cream cones. Going out for ice cream with her mother is a real treat and has become a routine in the hot summer months after her mother picks her up from child care in the afternoon. Mahdi loves the act of picking out ice cream with her mother, walking to a nearby park, sitting on a park bench with her mother, and finally indulging in the cone. On one occasion, Mahdi was so excited that she ran to the bench, and her ice cream fell on the ground. Mahdi went to pick it up and tried to put it in her cone. When her mother told her that she could not eat it, Mahdi started crying and became very upset. Her mother let her cry and labeled the emotions that Mahdi was feeling. "You are feeling mad because you can't have the ice cream cone. You were excited to eat your ice cream! It is too dirty to eat. That makes you mad." Mahdi's mother helped her calm down by calmly talking to her and using the words to express Mahdi's own feelings. They decided that they would share the ice cream cone that her mother had bought. Mahdi calmed down and eventually was happy to share her mother's cone. Children of parents who are consistent in helping their child feel secure, cope with anxiety-provoking situations, and notice situations that might be dangerous are better able to internalize these experiences and learn to better regulate their emotions. Better regulation allows children to demonstrate more positive sense of well-being. In addition, it helps young children tolerate frustrations better, and utilize better problem solving when freed from extreme emotions that detract from thinking.

Responding to the Emotions of Others

Between 13 and 24 months young children continue to develop the ability to understand and predict other people's emotional reactions to social situations. They notice how an adult responds to an object or to a person and they begin to mimic and respond in the same manner. Researchers have found that the more mothers label emotions and explain them in conversing with preschoolers, the more "emotion words" children use. Parents who prompt emotional thoughts (e.g., posing questions to toddlers such as "What makes him afraid?") will have toddlers with higher levels of emotional language and greater understanding of the emotions of others. Mahdi's mother is constantly labeling her own emotions when Mahdi is present. For example, when Mahdi's mother is laughing at something she has read, Mahdi will often look at her or come over as if to ask "What is so funny?" Her mother then explains why she is laughing at a language level that Mahdi is able to understand. Similarly, when Mahdi's mother was upset because Mahdi broke a picture frame, she told Mahdi that she was "sad" and tried to explain why.

Empathy Development. True empathy, having the ability to understand how someone else is feeling, requires children to understand that the self is different from other people. As their self-awareness develops, children nearing 2 years of age begin to empathize. This self-awareness can be observed in children's responses to another's unhappiness; they not only sense it but often try to relieve it. Chayton's mother recently lost a friend in a car accident. Because of her sadness, she will often cry at various times in the day. If Chayton sees her crying, he will crawl over to her and look up at her with a concerned expression on his face. He will often try and pull himself up onto her lap or request to be picked up. Chayton's mother often responds by trying to dry her tears and gives him a big cuddle. Chayton often points to one of his toys and tries to engage his mother in play.


Within the first half of their second years of life, toddlers are generally highly attached to familiar caregivers. They show signs of this attachment by frequently reaching out when they want to be picked up, protesting when they are separated from their caregivers, and giving looks of recognition when familiar people walk into the room. Additionally, toddlers consistently relate to caregivers' emotional expressions and show an ability to relate to the desires of others. When Mahdi's mother comes home from work, she often says "I'm starving!" Mahdi will frequently take her mothers hand and pull her to the kitchen and point to the cupboard where she knows her favorite animal cookies are kept. Depending on how much exposure a young child has to various people, stranger anxiety may slowly begin to dissipate between 13 and 24 months. For example, when a toddler has exposure to many different adults, they may start to show less or even no fear with other strange adults. Conversely, if a young child is only exposed to a few familiar caregivers, stranger anxiety may persist past this 24-month stage of development. In this section, we will review the final two phases of attachment that could occur during this stage of life. Please refer to earlier developmental ages (0-3, 4-6, and 7-12) to understand all four phases of development.

Clear-cut attachment phase (6-8 months to 18 months-2 years). At this stage there is evidence of attachment to the familiar caregiver. Babies and young toddlers display separation anxiety—upset when the adults they have come to rely on leave. The reaction depends on the temperament of the child and on the situation. Separation anxiety suggests that infants and young toddlers have a clear understanding that their caregivers continue to exist when not in view (object permanence). Older babies and young toddlers may not only protest a parent's departure, but also try harder to maintain the parent's presence. Chayton dislikes it when his mother or father leaves the room. He will often follow one or both of them to the next room or cry in distress when they do not return. Older babies and young toddlers may approach, follow, and climb on the parent, using him or her as a secure base from which to explore.

Formation of reciprocal relationships (18 months- 2 years and on). By the end of the second year, toddlers demonstrate rapid growth in understanding and language which helps them to understand some of the reasons why parents come and go and to reliably predict their return. Because of these developments, separation protests often decline. Children at this stage begin to use language to negotiate with their caregivers, using requests and persuasion to alter a caregiver's goals. Twenty month old Mahdi has learned that if she asks her mother for a hug by saying "ma, up?!" her mother will pick her up and cuddle her for a few minutes. As a result, anytime she sees her mother getting ready to leave, she will quickly go over to her and request to be picked up. As soon as her mother puts her down, she requests the same again. Mahdi's mother hates leaving her and as a result often gives Mahdi lots of hugs before she actually leaves. When Mahdi's mother is in a rush, she often has to leave with Mahdi crying in the arms of her caregiver and reaching for her mother. When she has time however, she will often sit with Mahdi and her caregiver and play with one of Mahdi's favorite toys. When Mahdi becomes engaged in the activity and is positively responding to the caregiver Mahdi's mother will often say "bye bye" and quietly let Mahdi know that she is leaving.

The Development of a Sense of Self

From approximately 13 months on, children have an ongoing interest in their own image. This interest is important for the later development of self-recognition. Between 13 and 24 months, toddlers grow in self-recognition when looking in the mirror. Eighteen- to twenty-four-month-old toddlers continue to show a growing interest in their own images and even begin to recognize themselves in a mirror. Chayton loves to point at and label his facial parts while sitting on the bathroom counter and staring at himself in the mirror. He will happily do so for 30 minutes before bath time if someone is imitating and praising him while he is doing so. The payoff of this recognition of self is dramatically in language growth when young toddlers start to use first-person pronouns such as "I", "me" and "mine". During his bathroom mirror game, Chayton is starting to point to his mother and say "ma" and then point to himself and say "yato!" When his mother asks him, "Who is that?" while pointing to him in the mirror, Chayton will often respond "yato!" Mahdi has also learned to label her facial features. She will point to her nose, her mouth, and her eyes and has learned to beam proudly when others praise her for her actions. She will try and get others' attention by verbally labeling her body parts such as "no" for nose, "ma" for mouth, or "ah" for eyes. She will say the name of the facial feature and point in anticipation of others imitating her or saying things like, "That's right! That is your nose!"

Interpersonal Social Behaviours

Between 13 and 24 months of age, toddlers make sounds consistently and purposefully, begin to use words, smile, and look at other people in their vicinity. Increased development of language skills, as well as an interest in social games such as hide-and-seek and peek-a-boo, allows for new positive interactions with others. During the second year of life, young children begin to engage in simple pro-social behaviors such as giving an object to another person when he/she becomes upset. When Chayton's younger cousin cries while visiting him, Chayton will often bring her his favorite truck and offer it to her by asking "tuk?" and reaching it up to her. Toddlers also begin to develop skills that allow them to be more flexible when thinking. This development allows for new ways of responding during social interactions with others.

Coordinated actions. Thirteen- to eighteen-month-old children begin to understand that their own actions influence other people's emotions and behaviours. Because of this realization, toddlers begin to cooperate with others and 'help' with everyday tasks and chores. During this stage of development, young children's participation in activities with others is mostly restricted to familiar routines and rituals with older, familiar caregivers.

Imitation. Towards the end of the first and into the second years of life, toddlers significantly increase their ability to imitate others. Both motor and verbal imitation skills increase during this developmental period. Toddlers will play follow-the-leader type games. Chayton's father has developed a feeding routine with Chayton where they take turns having a bite of food. His father will often try to 'trick' Chayton and put a piece of food on his head or on his nose, 'pretending' that he has missed his mouth. Chayton loves this game and will often imitate his father or initiate the same silly actions in anticipation of his father doing the same thing.

Joint Attention. Interactions with caregivers begin to involve a common focus on external objects. Beyond 13 months, toddlers begin to use pointing gestures to inform others of objects or people. When Mahdi is 'helping' her mother cook, she will often point to items that she thinks go next in the routine. For example, if her mother takes out the jug of milk, Mahdi will point to her cup. Young toddlers also will begin to 'show' objects to a familiar adult, briefly holding up objects for the familiar adult to look at and then quickly retracting them as if to say, "Look what I found, you can tell me about it but you can't have it." Young children are now easily able to follow an adult's gaze to an object, an important behaviour that leads to many language-learning opportunities.

Caregiver Support for Social and Emotional Development

The importance of child-adult relationships to social and emotional development has been recognized for a very long time. Relationships continually influence, and are influenced by, the individual participants and by the diverse traits of those individuals, the societies in which they are embedded, the sociocultural beliefs and values, and the physical environment. The first year of life is associated with major developments in social and emotional development and caregivers are influential in both promoting and inhibiting development.

Social and Emotional Input

Parents play a powerful role in supporting a toddler's development by offering praise, asking questions that require the toddler to think about his or her experiences, and pointing out when the toddler has succeeded at a new activity. Recordings of conversations between toddlers and parents show that parents are doing much more than providing good language models. One of the interesting observations of parental input for toddlers within the 13 -24 month developmental period is how parents help to 'co-construct' a toddler's experiences. By asking questions, offering ideas in simplified grammar, using frequent repetition, and slowing the pace, parents help toddlers organize and remember what they have done or seen and strengthen the toddler's sense of self as a central actor in the experience. Chayton loves his blue dump truck. During play interactions, his parents often make truck sounds, fill the dump truck with items and dump the items during play sequences. During play with Chayton and his dump truck his parents use language such as "truck", "dirt", "pile" and "vroom vroom!" Chayton will often imitate his parents and so they extend their talking based on the play sequence to encourage his language and ensure he is engaged in the interaction. For example, as Chayton is pushing his car, his mother will often take her car and say to Chayton, "come on! Lets go through the tunnel!" she will then push her car under the coffee table and encourage Chayton to follow her with his car, she will they say "tunnel" as Chayton follows her. He will giggle in excitement and delight when his parents in turn follow his lead when he pushes his car to other areas of the room. Their parents' and caregivers' attention to their interests and experiences, positive affect and encouragement combine to convey to toddlers that they are not only valued but are also on the right track.

Social Responsiveness

The 13 - 24 month age is a period of rapid language growth. During this time toddlers are also keenly tuned in to social clues that inform them about which words are worthy of registering and recalling. That is, toddlers are now able attend to multiple clues - timing, facial expressions, gestures, emphasis, prosody, emotional tone - for establishing new words and references to the world around them. When Mahdi's mother emphasizes certain words Mahdi will often pay closer attention to what she is saying and often try and imitate the word. For example when her mother is helping Mahdi learn a skill such as putting on her own shoes, she will stress key words such as "shoe" and "on" and "foot". Mahdi will try to verbally and physically help her mother and pay closer attention when her mother places stress on key words. She smiles when her mother provides social praise for labeling items and body parts correctly. Children at this age tend to learn best, it has been found, in situations where they are socially comfortable and within familiar routines established within predictable environments. Thus, in socially comfortable and familiar settings, toddlers are more responsive and are better able to pick up social clues to meaning even when overhearing language that is addressed to others.

Social and Emotional Understanding

At this stage of development, toddlers have not yet developed theory of mind skills. 'Theory of mind' skills are thoughts that are associated with the ability to understand what others are thinking. However, the building blocks for these 'thinking about others' thinking' thoughts are beginning to emerge in the 13 to 24 month period. For example, during this time period, toddlers have an emerging awareness that others are interested in the same things that they are interested in and, between 13 and 18 months, children begin to draw inferences about what other people are planning to do. They are able to anticipate what a parent will say, for example, if they touch something that they were asked not to touch. Chayton has learned when he climbs up on the couch his parents will often say "No Chayton!" and lift him off. He will often pull himself up on the couch and look towards his parents in anticipation of their emotional response. Toddlers are also able to learn from their caregivers what appears to be correct and incorrect behaviour and what is allowed and not allowed by reading their emotions. A toddler's developing capacity for representation (e.g., remembering a mother's disapproving tone of voice) means that he or she can now recall and think about what kinds of behaviour the caregiver approves and disapproves.

Jelen, M. & Smith, V. (2008). Parent/Caregiver Narrative: Social and Emotional Development (13-24 Months). In L.M. Phillips (Ed.), Handbook of language and literacy development: A Roadmap from 0 - 60 Months. [online], pp. 1 - 9. London, ON: Canadian Language and Literacy Research Network. Available at: Handbook of language and literacy development