Which factors can affect social and emotional child development?

The first few years of a child's life are when they are developing their early skills across many areas. During this stage, a child will be discovering all about themselves and others, and growing their social and emotional skills. During a child’s early social and emotional development, there are many factors that can have an effect, both positively and negatively. In this summary, we’ll be detailing these factors, that usually fall into two categories – environmental and within the child. We’ll also be detailing wider ideas that are good to know, like why children’s mental health is important, emotional changes as they transition in life, and how to help if you think a child is at risk.




Environment risk factors

There are multiple environmental aspects that can have an impact on social and emotional development in children. Environmental risk describes factors that children may experience in their home or area of living that can have a negative influence on their development. These factors are categorised into nurture risks, attachments, and emotional transitions.


Nurture risk factors

Nurturing care is essential for early development and focuses on the stable environment created by primary caregivers for children and babies. A positive experience of nurture in early childhood includes good nutrition, a secure home environment, responsive care, and early learning opportunities. When children are not provided with this level of care, they can be thought of as at risk. 

Nurture risks for children can occur before a child is even born. Low nutrition in pregnancy can lead to a low birth weight, which can later result in a child being at more risk of illness – which can also influence social and emotional development.  

A recent report by the World Health Organisation found that children who lacked  nurturing care in early childhood grew to find it difficult to relate to others, and are at risk of being in ongoing poverty cycles as an adult. However, this can be changed through early intervention, which has been shown to improve relationship skills, empathy, and wellbeing. [1] 



Attachment theory focuses on how children develop healthy bonds with adults, which then, in turn, support them in making relationships throughout life. This theory was developed by John Bowlby, who found that children who had attentive caregivers developed a strong sense of security and knew that they had a base from which they are confident to grow and explore. Children can develop these relationships through having opportunities for attachment – plenty of time spent with caregivers – and through quality care, meaning that their caregivers respond consistently, quickly, and appropriately to their needs. [2]

Holding hands

However, children who do not form these positive, nurturing relationships in early childhood are at risk of suffering a negative impact on their behaviour when older. As found in a study, children who did not form early healthy attachments with caregivers showed aggression in later life, delayed cognitive development and hostility towards their primary caregivers. [3] 


Within child risk factors

In contrast to environmental factors, which define risks that children may experience as a result of their home environment, and the early relationships that they form, within child risk factors refer to internal aspects that can impact social and emotional development. These can include mental health and emotional neglect in early childhood.  


A child's mental health

Mental health is something that the public have developed more awareness of over the past few years. We often see mental health campaigns in the mainstream, with the topic now discussed more openly than ever before. Mental health is often thought of something that mainly effects adults, but the mental health of children can often have an impact on their early life.  

To support your child’s mental health, ensure that you are using as much caring body language with them as possible, such as making eye contact, smiling and positive touch. An example of positive touch could be a hug or holding hands.  

As well as this, consistency in routine and expectations is essential, as well as using praise to acknowledge and reward positive behaviour and interactions. It is also important to spend time with your child listening to them, their thoughts and feelings, and doing activities together that they find fun and rewarding in order to nurture a caring relationship. [5] 


Emotional transitions as they grow

Transitions are a normal part of life. As people grow from babies to adults, they will encounter many transitional stages, such as moving to a new area, starting school, or losing people who are close to them. 

Adults play an integral role in supporting children through these stages of transition and upheaval in early life. There are steps that adults can take in helping their children through transitional periods in life, including being a positive model of behaviour, responding to children’s needs appropriately throughout transitions and being warm and supportive of them during interactions related to what is happening. Clear communication and consistent routines may also be supportive during these periods.

Baby crying

If children are not supported adequately through emotional transitions, it can have a negative impact on their social and emotional development. Periods of transition can be a time where emotions are high, and children who are less able to cope with this may express their worry or upset by withdrawing from others, crying, or hurting others. [4] 


Advantages of positive mental health

Having good mental health in childhood can support many different aspects of early development. Children who have good mental health can talk about themselves in a positive way and will want to share their thoughts, feelings and interests with others. When things aren’t going the way that they expect, children with positive mental health will be able to cope with this in a more constructive way – they may get upset briefly but will take a step back to deal with the situation, try again, or simply move on. 

Child holding chalkboard

Children who have good mental health might also find it easier to relate to others and build relationships with them. They may appear confident and want to approach other children or seek out adults to share ideas or ask for help.  

Because of the confidence and resilience that stems from this, young children who have good mental health may find life changes easier to understand and cope with. It is also possible that this will enable them to engage more in learning activities both at home and at school or nursery. [5] 


Drawbacks of emotional neglect and abuse

Emotional neglect is when caregivers fail to meet their child’s emotional needs. Neglect often goes hand in hand with emotional abuse, which is classified as a purposeful decision to act in a way that is harmful to the emotional needs of a child. Children who are suffering from emotional neglect and abuse will see an effect in their mental health and sense of worth when growing up. There can be immediate effects such as withdrawal from others, aggression, appearing not to care about others and low self-esteem. These effects can lead to other issues in childhood such as developmental delays, depression and anxiety. The impact of emotional abuse and neglect can also last into adulthood. This can manifest as angry or aggressive behaviour, avoiding intimacy, post-traumatic stress disorder and anxiety and/or depression, as well as disordered eating and lack of trust in others. [6]



There are many aspects to consider when it comes to social and emotional development, and how it can be affected by both external and internal factors, including times of transition, attachment, neglect, abuse, and mental health issue.  

Although all these factors can have a negative impact on social and emotional development, there are signs to look out for to help spot where growth and development can be impacted. Having a knowledge of these potential signs can help to put steps in place that can prevent negative outcomes in the future. Children’s needs can be supported in many ways if concerns arise, and there are agencies that offer help for families and carers who are concerned about a child. Seeking support or guidance for healthy social development in children who are at risk is often the best way forward. For example, speak to a school or nursery, or services such as NHS, Young Minds, or Action for Children.  



[1] World Health Organisation. (2018). Nurturing care for early childhood development A global framework for action and results. Available: https://www.who.int/maternal_child_adolescent/child/nurturing-care-framework-first-draft.pdf.

[2] Bowlby, J. (1969). Attachment and loss. (OKS Print.) New York: Basic Books.

[3] Lyons-Ruth, K. (1996). Attachment relationships among children with aggressive behavior problems: The role of disorganized early attachment patterns. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology.

[4] Early Education Partners. (2021). Supporting tranSitionS: Using Child Development as a Guide. Available: https://web.partnership.vcu.edu/projectseedva/downloadables/supporting-transitions-brief-one.pdf.

[5] raisingchildren.net.au. (2021). Good mental health for children: 3-8 years. Available: https://raisingchildren.net.au/school-age/health-daily-care/mental-health/children-s-mental-health.

[6] Healthline. (2019). Childhood Emotional Neglect: How It Can Impact You Now and Later. Available: https://www.healthline.com/health/mental-health/childhood-emotional-neglect#effects-in-adulthood.