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Publication #FCS2308

Strengthening Families: Social and Emotional Competence1

David C. Diehl, Jessica N. Wente, and Larry F. Forthun2

Parenting is a tremendous responsibility full of many moments of joy. But sometimes the rapid rate of a young child’s growth and development can leave parents feeling a little overwhelmed. This Strengthening Families Series highlights six factors that promote positive parenting and protect against stressors and frustrations that can lead to harsh parenting: Parental Resilience, Social Connections, Knowledge of Parenting and Child Development, Concrete Support, Social and Emotional Competence, and Nurturing and Attachment. Each of these protective factors offers families and children some defense against distress. However, together they combine to create a solid foundation of knowledge, parenting skills, and support that can help families thrive during everyday circumstances as well as persevere during times of stress or crisis (1).


Of all the protective factors described in this series, Social and Emotional Competence is the only factor that focuses on the characteristics of the child:

  • The social and emotional development of young children plays a critical role in their cognitive skill building, social competence, mental health, and overall wellbeing. The nature of this development is deeply affected by the quality of a child’s relationships with his or her primary attachment figures, usually parents (2).

Sometimes children feel things that they cannot understand. This can be frustrating to the child and cause them, in a plea for help, to act in ways they know are not acceptable. When parents help their children understand emotions they are empowering the child to communicate how they feel. This communication is valuable for parents and other caregivers because it allows them to help the child work through the immediate issue as well as establish emotional and social life skills. In the case of children with developmental, emotional or social issues, parents can find the extra help they need to understand the challenges their child may be facing. In many cases, parents need access to trained staff, direct teaching of social and emotional skills, creative programs for children, and timely action when there is a concern.

What You Can Do

Parents foster positive social and emotional development through their everyday interactions with children. To support the most positive social and development of your children, you can do the following (3):

  • Provide a safe, loving environment for your child to feel comfortable communicating with you. Help your children express their feelings through language, art and play. “Teaching Your Child to Identify and Express Emotions” is an excellent resource on this topic (

  • When your child expresses their feelings and needs, be responsive and supportive. Many times, children need affirmation and can benefit from hearing, “I understand how you are feeling.”

  • Set clear, reasonable expectations. Children need clear rules and guidelines for their behavior—rules or consequences that are constantly changing can be confusing for children.

  • Be a good role model. Children frequently learn behaviors from their parents, so work to express your own emotions in constructive ways.

  • Plan for situations that may arise. If you anticipate challenging situations and prepare for them, you can prevent many problems. For example, if you are going to dinner with your children, it’s a good idea to pack some coloring books or activities for them to engage in while the adults chat.

  • Take care of your own needs. Parents who are experiencing stress need to take care of themselves as well as their children. Reducing your own stress will improve your parenting.

  • When negative behavior arises, stay calm and try to give limited attention to the negative behavior. Constructive parenting usually takes place when parents react calmly and rationally to the situation.

  • If your child is struggling with social or emotional issues, be proactive. Work with your child’s teachers, counselors, or other adults to create a plan for dealing with the challenging behavior.

  • Celebrate the positives. Children thrive on positive feedback—when they engage in positive behavior, praise and reinforce them. When you look for the good, it helps to balance out the more challenging times.

  • Remember that children’s communication and coping skills are still developing. Your children need your patience and encouragement when something is wrong.

Finding Resources and Information

There are many resources available to support your parenting. Start with this list and pursue additional resources that meet your specific needs.


(1) This work is based on the framework developed by the Center for the Study of Social Policy, with more information available at

(2) Horton, C. (2003). Protective factors literature review: Early care and education programs and the prevention of child abuse and neglect. Washington, D.C.: Center for the Study of Social Policy. p. 21.

(3) This advice has been synthesized from the resources described in the Resources and Information section.



This document is FCS2308, one of a series of the Department of Family, Youth and Community Sciences, Florida Cooperative Extension Service, Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, University of Florida. Published December 2011. Visit the EDIS website at


David C. Diehl, assistant professor, Jessica N. Wente, graduate student, Larry F. Forthun, assistant professor; Department of Family, Youth and Community Sciences; Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences; University of Florida; Gainesville, FL 32611.

The Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (IFAS) is an Equal Opportunity Institution authorized to provide research, educational information and other services only to individuals and institutions that function with non-discrimination with respect to race, creed, color, religion, age, disability, sex, sexual orientation, marital status, national origin, political opinions or affiliations. For more information on obtaining other UF/IFAS Extension publications, contact your county's UF/IFAS Extension office.

U.S. Department of Agriculture, UF/IFAS Extension Service, University of Florida, IFAS, Florida A & M University Cooperative Extension Program, and Boards of County Commissioners Cooperating. Nick T. Place, dean for UF/IFAS Extension.