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Emotional and Social Development: Social Connections

Angela Oswalt Morelli , MSW, edited by Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.

As children become more mature physically, cognitively, and emotionally, their social relationships with family and peers also mature and change. During middle childhood, peer friendships take on a more prominent role than ever before. Peer relationships can include friends at school, friends in the neighborhood, teammates or other co-participants in activities like Boy or Girl Scouts, and near-age siblings.

girls talkingDuring this middle developmental period, as communication and cognitive skills continue to improve, children develop increased interpersonal awareness. As a result, they become better at reading and responding to other kids' emotions, and understanding other kids' intentions and needs; why they behave in specific ways at specific times. These social skills lay the foundation for the formation of closer friendships.

Peer Friendships Based Upon Reciprocity

In middle childhood, friendships take on some of the key attributes characteristic of adult relationships and start to become something more than simple playtime companionship. Now, friendships come to be based upon mutual regard for another individual's personality, abilities and behavior. Children grow closer together because they respect the other child's kindness, humor, loyalty, fearlessness, intellect, etc. Mutual trust and willingness to support each other (in a word "reciprocity") are the hallmarks of these friendships.

Most children of this age also begin forming peer groups, which are circles of friends where they spend most of their time playing, talking, and socializing. However, this period often is associated with a decrease in children's total number of friends (e.g., a child might have 2 or 3 best friends rather than 5 or 6), as they put more time and effort into maintaining particular special friendships.

Some children struggle to develop close friendships or find secure positions within peer groups. In some of these cases, children are physically or emotionally harmed by bullies who taunt, tease, threaten or actually violently assault them. Bullying is a serious issue which can result in substantial long term social, occupational and emotional harm if not addressed. For more information on the management of school-aged bullying, please see our Middle Childhood Parenting center. 

Continuing Emotional Dependence Upon Family

Though children's peer relationships mature and become increasingly prominent during middle childhood, children's connection to their parents and core family continues to be of tremendous importance for their well being and functioning. As a rule, children will continue to model the choices, beliefs, and behaviors of the adults or older youth who are present in their family. Children will also continue to derive most of their emotional support, nurturing, and affection from their families. Children may come to seek this support from a narrower selection of family members, however, as they form more individualized family relationships which depend on shared activities, perceived family roles, and other common or complementary personality traits rather than simple presence.

New Susceptibility to Guilt and Shame

Children's increased interest and investment in relationships with peers and adults in middle childhood makes them sensitive to the self-conscious emotions of pride, guilt and shame. Children derive a sense of pride, and thus an increased sense of self-esteem from making connections between their good choices and positive outcomes. They like the approval they may get from adults or peers, and they like the intrinsic feeling of pride in having achieved some objective. As feeling proud is very reinforcing, children who have this experience will be powerfully motivated to take on future challenges. Parental and peer correction experiences (where children are told that they've done something wrong) can similarly result in feelings of guilt or shame which are aversive, and which motivate them to behave differently, so as to obtain different outcomes.

Though mild guilt and shame are useful emotions, children's experience of excessive guilt or shame after negative outcomes can become destructive. Children who overgeneralize and conclude, on the basis of having made specific mistakes, that they are globally incapable people (e.g., kids who conclude, "I made that mistake because I am a stupid person") may suffer severe decreases in self-esteem, which can lead to problems with depression, anxiety, peer relationships, and school problems.

Please see our Nurturing Children's Self-Esteem center for further discussion of how to address children's tendency towards negative self-talk.