Developmental markers can serve as signposts for social maturity in children, although every child will develop in her own individual way. Because toddlers sometimes behave in ways that appear defiant or uncontrolled to adults, parents might wonder whether their younger children are lagging behind in terms of social maturity compared with other toddlers, according to “Promoting Social Maturity,” an article on the website of John Waring and Associates, a group offering psychological services in Australia. Understanding common signs of social maturity in toddlers can be an assuring reminder that the toddler years are often somewhat emotionally and socially inconsistent when it comes to behavior expectations.
Social maturity relates to cognitive development, according to “Robert Kegan's Awesome Theory of Social Maturity,” a 2007 MentalHealth.net article penned by Dr. Mark Dombeck, a director of Mental Health Net for 12 years who has a private psychology practice now. Kegan's theories, expanding on those of famous Swiss developmental psychologist Dr. Jean Piaget, state that babies begin to understand their bodies and senses up to the age of 2. There is little time for the development of social maturity, since learning to understand their bodies absorbs much of their cognitive ability. After the age of 2, however, toddlers begin to understand that individuals are separate from themselves. Additional levels of social maturity begin to accrue as cognitive development becomes more sophisticated. Children begin to recognize and articulate their own needs -- for example, by saying “I am hungry” or “I want this” -- but might not be able to understand how their needs coincide or conflict with the needs of others.
The social behavior of toddlers shares some commonalities, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention article, “Important Milestones: Your Child at Two Years.” Toddlers might mimic or copy others, including other children or adults. They might become excited about interacting with other toddlers, but also demonstrate defiant behavior. Games involving “chase” might entertain your child at this stage. Signs that your toddler has not achieved developmental social milestones at this stage might include not being able to follow simple instructions, not copying actions or words, or losing social skills that she has previously acquired.
Social and emotional maturity are strongly linked, and defiance is often a characteristic of emotional deficiencies, according to the August 2011 "Psychology Today" article, “Parents Stay Aware: Defiant Children Lack Emotional Maturity!” by Dr. Jeffrey Bernstein, a licensed psychologist specializing in child and family psychology. Emotional intelligence includes five characteristics: recognizing emotions, expressing emotions appropriately, overcoming negative emotions such as self-doubt to achieve goals, showing respect for the emotions of others and managing relationships. In toddlers, emotional maturity might be focused on two primary skills: calming down and solving problems. Observing these behaviors in your toddler could indicate signs of social maturity. Serious emotional or social impairments might indicate signs of a disability or disorder, according to the Social Security Administration article, “Mental Disorders – Childhood.”
Parents can support their toddler’s growing social maturity by encouraging positive emotional development. Storytelling and role-playing can help teach social skills, according to the article, “Enhancing Children's Emotional Development,” from Leah Davies, who has a master's in education, writing on kellybear.com. Help toddlers separate their actions and behaviors by addressing them separately. For example, you might say, “It’s OK to feel angry. But it’s not OK to hit your friend when you’re angry. Use your words instead.” You can also ask your toddler to identify simple emotions so that she can practice saying, “I feel mad,” when a friend upsets her, rather than reacting negatively.