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An Ounce of Prevention: Social and Emotional Health

Parents are usually well aware of many aspects of their children’s health, such as their immunization schedules, but parents need to monitor other health areas in order to maintain the well-being of the whole child. Preventive care can save families much time, money, and emotional worries.

To ensure that you cover all areas of your child’s health, get a notebook for each child and take it with you to all your doctor visits. Before seeing the pediatrician, write down key questions, using the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Developmental Milestones (PDF 2.16MB) checklists and your child’s age as your guide. If you have a specific concern, it’s important to provide your doctor with a picture about your child’s overall health. Parents can begin tracking a specific behavior or concern by identifying a timeframe—when it started and what triggers the issue; providing specific examples of stressors; and including possible observation notes from other caregivers or teachers. By collecting this type of information over time, it allows you to be more prepared to ask specific questions of your pediatrician.

Concerns About Social and Emotional Health
Teaching children social and emotional skills will help them handle their emotions and form and maintain friendships and other relationships. With these skills, your child can cooperate with others, share toys, consider the feelings of others, and handle conflicts. Since children are still learning these skills, they show a wide range of positive and negative social and emotional skills. Children (PDF 4.39MB) who are not practicing positive social and emotional skills at home or at school may:

  • Be disruptive;
  • Disobey instructions;
  • Have difficulty managing their emotions;
  • Have difficulty engaging in positive peer interactions; and
  • Have difficulty communicating appropriately.

For this reason, a strong parent–teacher partnership is important because teachers can be the first individuals to identify potential issues or red flags with children who may have potential problems with their social and emotional health. Parents and teachers may also observe patterns of behavior over time. Parents can then ask the pediatrician if an issue of behavior is within a normal range of performance or if it needs further attention. A parent–teacher partnership can help promote an early intervention, which is most effective in reducing the impact of such issues on a child’s long-term development.

Observing Your Child
If you have concerns about your child’s social and emotional skills, take time to learn how they understand the world. Engage with them through play. Have fun and observe.

Your Child at Play: Observe your child at play—at home with family members; in the neighborhood, such as at a neighbor’s or at a community park; and at school (and request the teacher’s observations). How your child functions in diverse environments, including the way in which he or she chooses to interact with peers and with adults, will tell you a lot about his or her social and emotional skills.

Your Family at Play: Have some playtime with your child on a regular basis. It doesn’t have to be a scheduled time, a specific activity, or an activity long in duration. Just allow some time to play with your child with what interests him or her. For example, you can engage in:

  • Free play, which provides the opportunity to talk and share through the use of cars, trucks, puppets, dolls, trains, etc.;
  • Games, which allow numerous opportunities to talk, take turns, cooperate, share, handle challenges and conflicts, and negotiate with others.

Remember that free play allows children to use their creativity while developing their imagination and dexterity as well as physical, cognitive, and emotional strengths. It’s through free play that children create and explore a world they can master, conquering their own fears while practicing adult roles. Studies have shown that, through free play, children can develop new abilities that lead to enhanced confidence and the resiliency that they will need to face future challenges.

If, after observing your child over time, you are still concerned, act early (PDF 5.09MB). Get the right support for your child to grow into an emotionally and socially healthy teen and adult.

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families
Program-Wide Positive Behavior Support: Supporting Young Children’s Social-Emotional Development and Addressing Challenging Behavior (PDF 4.39MB) provides information about creating a nurturing environment to promote children’s social competence and address challenging behaviors.

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
The CDC website provides parents and caregivers with helpful information, resources, and tools that support healthy child development:

Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics
The Importance of Play in Promoting Healthy Child Development and Maintaining Strong Parent–Child Bond: Focus on Children in Poverty gives parents and caregivers key information and benefits about the importance of free play among young children.

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Updated on 3/22/2014