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.
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.
- Karen, Robert, Ph.D. (1998). Becoming Attached: First Relationships and How They Shape Our Capacity to Love. New York: Oxford University Press.
- 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.
Discover how Relationship with Adults is related to:
- Self-Regulation: Foundation of Development
- Self-Regulation: Foundation of Development
- Developmental Domain 3: Language Development, Communication, & Literacy
- Developmental Domain 4: Cognitive Development
- Approaches to Learning
Curiosity & Initiative