How Environmental Factors Affect Social and Emotional Development

Social-emotional problems in children 5 years of age and younger are not uncommon. According to the National Center for Children in Poverty, between 9.5 percent and 14.2 percent of children in this age group have social-emotional problems that affect their development and functioning enough to interfere with readiness to start school 124. The World Health Organization points to the vital role environment plays in social and emotional development, particularly during early childhood, which it describes as the most significant developmental phase of life 4.

Loud, Overcrowded Living

According to studies conducted by environmental and developmental psychologist Gary Evans, a Cornell University professor, loud, overcrowded living conditions can negatively affect a child's social and emotional development. Research found these environments often resulted in parents speaking less to children, and using shorter words when they did. For infants and toddlers, reduced interaction can affect their ability to connect with other people. According to the National Center For Children in Poverty, attachment quality is a barometer of social and emotional development and health 123. Parents unable to reduce noise and crowding can promote development by taking a child somewhere quiet daily, such as:

  • a park or library
  • for quality interaction time,
  • by regularly engaging a child in calm
  • pleasant
  • focused interaction
  • reducing child withdrawal incidents

Economic Struggle

According to the World Health Organization, the most fundamental way economic struggle affects child social and emotional development is through poor nutrition. Adequate nutrition is essential to fueling early childhood's rapid brain growth. Without it, brain growth can slow, delaying cognitive, social and emotional development 4. A University of California at Davis Center for Poverty Research study indicated that how a mother responds to economic stress affects her child's social and emotional health 12. Mothers responding with depressive symptoms were likelier to have negative child interactions. Researchers found over the long term, “a mother’s depressive symptoms are a better predictor of social competence than both income and education.” How parents manage financial pressure can have a stronger effect on children's social and emotional development than the material strain, with the exception of the biological effects of poor nutrition 24. Being nurturing and affectionate to children during difficult times can help mitigate potential developmental problems.

Intellectual Stimulation

An active mind is a growing, developing mind. According to the World Health Organization, an intellectually stimulating environment helps social and emotional development by promoting cognitive development. That sort of environment doesn't require a lot of money to create. For babies and toddlers, a safe clean area to explore, a handful of interesting toys, and some baby-safe household items offer noise and adventure. For bigger children, art supplies and imagination fueled toys are fine choices. Both playing with a child and letting a child explore how things work on his own are important. Make up games around identifying emotions, using cues like facial expressions and tone of voice, to encourage emotional development. Promote social development by using the same manners and respect you'd offer an adult when you child talks to you, listening closely and showing interest with topical questions.

Parental Attention and Affection

The importance of early childhood can make parents anxious, fearful of a parenting mistake with long-term developmental effects. Don't worry. It's the quality of the parent-child relationship that matters most. Loving, responsive, consistent care with plenty of attention and positive interaction easily covers the occasional parental imperfections. So, relax. Don't worry about being perfect, loving and enjoying your child is the best way to promote healthy development.