What Is Social Referencing In A Child's Development?

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Social referencing is a phenomenon when babies and young children learn to respond according to their parents’ expressions and those around them. But what is the significance of “social referencing in a child’s development?” and how does it help your little ones develop emotions? This post discusses the principle of social referencing and how it impacts a child’s overall growth and development.

What Is Social Referencing In Infants?

Infant take cues from emotive displays of adults

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The definition of Social referencing psychology is the process by which infants take cues from emotive displays of adults (parents or caregivers) to form their responses to certain events or their environment and adjust their behavior towards other people and objects. The affective or emotive display of adults can be through facial expressions, vocal sounds or body language. Social referencing is a vital tool that helps infants to get a sense of their new environment and the people and objects that form a part of it (1).

Children Using Social Referencing

Child using your affective displays to form responses

Image: iStock

Infants as young as six months of age begin to use social referencing as a way to gain deeper understanding of their immediate environment. As they grow older, kids begin to use social referencing more than earlier. By the age of 18 months, your child may be using your affective displays to form responses for all his actions.

Babies may use social referencing for many things. For example, he sees a new shiny object on the floor and is obviously intrigued by it. He looks at you to see if it is okay for him to touch it. Your smile or frown can act as referencing tools for your baby and will determine if he proceeds to touch the object or avoid it.

The Role Of Social Referencing In Your Child’s Development

Not much clinical research exists on the relation between development of cognitive skills and social referencing. It is also not clear how social referencing differs for every individual. But researchers have pointed out many ways by which social referencing aids a child’s development.

  1. Social referencing also aids your child’s emotional development. Infants learn the meaning of different emotive expressions, accompanying sounds and how they relate to different people and things.
  1. Babies use social referencing to make decisions about what actions they need to take. It then becomes their first foray into crucial decision-making skills to use later in life.
To make decisions about what actions they need to take

Image: iStock

  1. Infants also begin to understand positive and negative connotations derived from different expressions. It may not be clear from their behavior at that age. But learning the concepts begins with social referencing among other things such as their home environment.

Using Social Referencing For Your Child’s Development

Parents and caregivers can use social referencing for babies and toddlers as a teaching tool. You can do so by being more mindful about how you react to people or situations and how you keep the ambiguity out of your body language and voice to a minimum.

  1. Use facial expressions when playing and interacting with your child. Let him see your emotive displays at close range for a better understanding of what they could mean for different situations. The way you react to other people and objects could affect how your child also reacts to them.
  1. Ensure that your voice syncs with your body language when you are around your child. You may pretend to greet a neighbor with a smile but if internally you are not happy about it, it can show up as ambiguity in your body language and vocal tones. These cues may be subtle, but your infant may pick on them and become confused by his difficulty to grasp them fully.
Baby using you as social referencing to greet others as you do

Image: iStock

  1. Use social referencing to teach your child new things such as making decisions about food choices. Your expressions can be crucial to your child willing to try new food groups.
  1. Social referencing, thus, affects the emotional development of your child and it begins in his infancy. It is best to use this tool for the maximum benefit of your child through mindfulness and awareness of your reactions.

Image: iStock

Although there is not much clinical evidence, some researchers have found that there could be a significant role of social referencing in a child’s development. From early stages, infants and young children begin to use social referencing to relate to people’s emotions, learn intents, and decide how to act in response to a situation, person, or surroundings. You may use this process as a tool to guide your little one by being a good role model and interacting with them with the correct expressions and body language. This will help promote decision-making skills and the overall development of your child.


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