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Children demonstrate the desire and develop the ability to engage, interact, and build relationships with familiar adults.

Social interactions and relationships are extremely important for healthy social and emotional development. The first relationships children establish are with their attachment figure(s). While they are developing these attachment relationships, children also begin to interact and respond to other adults who are often present in their lives. Children use their attachment relationships as a springboard to develop these relationships with familiar adults. However, children still prefer their attachment figures in the majority of instances, especially when they are distressed or in new situations.

Children seek out relationships with adults for a variety of reasons. They use these relationships to feel safe, learn about their world, and socially interact with others.1 In early infancy, children engage in social interactions through eye contact and sounds with both unfamiliar and familiar adults. As they near one year of age, stranger anxiety sets in and children become selective of familiar adults. Children purposefully engage familiar adults in playful two-way interactions and seek out these adults when needing guidance and help. As children’s cognitive and play skills improve, they begin to take on a distinct interest in adult roles and often actively explore these roles through play.2 Older toddlers use language to connect with adults and share their thoughts, feelings, and ideas with them. The ability to form positive relationships with adults directly supports children in developing healthy relationships with peers, and helps build children’s self-concept.

Birth to 9 months

Children develop the ability to signal for caregivers. By the end of this age period, children begin to engage in playful communication with familiar adults.

Indicators for children include:

  • Uses signals to communicate needs, e.g., crying, body language, and facial expressions
  • Attempts to engage both unfamiliar and familiar adults
  • Engages in social interactions with adults through smiles, coos, and eye contact
  • Demonstrates preference for familiar adults, e.g., reaches hands out to signal for caregiver(s)
  • Cautious of unfamiliar adults
  • Begins to engage in simple, back-and-forth interactions with a familiar adult, e.g., plays “peek-a-boo,” babbles in response to an adult speaking and repeats this interaction

Strategies for interaction

  • Provide prompt, responsive, and sensitive care to the child’s needs
  • Provide a loving and nurturing environment with trustworthy adults, and assign a primary caregiver to consistently take care of the child’s needs
  • Engage with the child through everyday, loving interactions
  • Comfort the child when upset, frightened, or overwhelmed, e.g., gentle hugs or using a soothing voice
  • Follow the child’s lead when interacting and playing

7 months to 18 months

Children use familiar adults for guidance and reassurance. Children also initiate and engage in back-and-forth interactions with familiar adults.

Indicators for children include:

  • Looks for caregiver’s response in uncertain situations
  • Engages with adults during play, e.g., bangs on a toy drum and repeats action after an adult completes the same action
  • Uses key adults as a “secure base” when exploring the environment
  • Uses “social referencing” when encountering new experiences, e.g., glances at a caregiver’s face for cues on how to respond to an unfamiliar person or unknown object
  • Draws a familiar adult into an interaction, e.g., hands a book or toy to engage in together

Strategies for interaction

  • Follow the child’s lead in play; respond genuinely while interacting
  • Respond to the child consistently; this helps build trust
  • Offer support through reassuring behaviors such as smiles, hugs, and cuddles
  • Provide dedicated periods of time to play and engage with the child with limited interruptions

16 months to 24 months

Children actively seek out familiar adults and begin to show an interest in adult tasks and roles.

Indicators for children include:

  • Builds emotional connections with other familiar adults, in addition to primary caregiver(s)
  • Seeks adult assistance with challenges but may refuse help and say “no”
  • Responds to guidance, e.g., places the shape into the shape sorter after caregiver demonstrates how to
  • Imitates a familiar adult‘s actions, e.g., waves hands around while pretending to talk on the phone after seeing caregiver make those same actions

Strategies for interaction

  • Comfort child and acknowledge her or his feelings of distress; provide words for emotions the child is exhibiting
  • Set appropriate and consistent limits; ensure to take realistic expectations into account
  • Provide choices for the child, e.g., “Would you like the blue cup or the yellow cup?”
  • Establish everyday routines and rituals
  • Allow ample time for pretend play

21 months to 36 months

Children interact with adults to communicate ideas, share feelings, and solve problems. Children also actively explore adult roles and tasks.

Indicators for children include:

  • Imitates adult roles and activities through pretend play, e.g., goes grocery shopping, or prepares a meal
  • Initiates activities that are meaningful in the relationship, e.g., brings over a favorite book to be read together
  • Communicates thoughts, feelings, questions, and plans to both familiar and unfamiliar adults
  • Demonstrates desire to control or make decisions independent from adults

Strategies for interaction

  • Play and spend quality time with the child on a daily basis
  • Respond with interest as the child engages in conversation
  • Provide materials with which the child can play, e.g., toy kitchen, phone, baby doll
  • Provide choices for the child to help him or her feel more in control, e.g., “You may have milk or juice.”

Real World Story

Brandon is a happy, 10-month-old, social baby who has a secure attachment with his mother. He is beginning to actively engage with other familiar adults through interactions and simple play. For the last five months, Brandon has accompanied his mother to their neighborhood dry cleaner, once a week. The owner of the dry cleaner is a warm and loving woman named Grace. Every time Brandon and his mother have entered the dry cleaner, Grace has been very consistent in always saying “hello” to Brandon, gently squeezing his tummy, and demonstrating enthusiasm during her interactions with him. Brandon has also observed his mother’s facial expressions and interactions with Grace, which always consist of smiles and relaxed and positive conversation.

Brandon, who has by now developed a sense of awareness of strangers versus familiar adults, squeals with delight the minute his mother opens the door of the dry cleaner. While he will shy away from unfamiliar adults who reach out their arms to hold him, he comfortably leans in toward Grace as she gestures for him to come into her arms. He laughs and moves his body up and down to express his enjoyment of being carried by her, often attempting to pull her glasses off her face. Grace gently redirects his hands with her hands and moves them up and down. When it is time to say good-bye, Brandon leans toward his mom, and waves “bye-bye” to Grace as he leaves.

IN THIS EXAMPLE, Brandon is building relationships with other adults who consistently appear in his life. His strong attachment to his mother has provided the foundation for meaningful social interactions, and he is able to rely on his mother to provide security in different and/or new situations. Grace’s consistent interactions with Brandon have contributed to their relationship as Brandon connects Grace with enjoyable experiences, and he now anticipates seeing Grace when his mother opens the door of the dry cleaner. Even though Brandon has begun to exhibit stranger anxiety, the use of social referencing helps him recognize that Grace is someone whom his mother is comfortable with, and this makes him less hesitant around her. This example highlights how social emotional development, language development, and cognitive development all work together to support children in forming special relationships with others.

Discover how this Real World Story is related to:

  • Developmental Domain 3: Language Development, Communication, & Literacy
    Social Communication
  • Developmental Domain 4: Cognitive Development


  1. Karen, Robert, Ph.D. (1998). Becoming Attached: First Relationships and How They Shape Our Capacity to Love. New York: Oxford University Press.
  2. Stott, Frances, Ph.D. (2003). Social and Emotional Developmental Agendas: Children, Parents, and Professionals. Handout presented in Human Development course at Erikson Institute, Chicago, IL.

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About this resource

Age Levels (the age of the children to whom the article applies):
Reviewed: 2012