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date: 02 March 2021

Social Development Across the Lifespanfree

  • Kendall Cotton Bronk, Kendall Cotton BronkClaremont Graduate University, Department of Psychology
  • Elyse Postlewaite, Elyse PostlewaiteClaremont Graduate University, Department of Psychology
  • Betsy Blackard, Betsy BlackardClaremont Graduate University, Department of Psychology
  • Jordan BoederJordan BoederClaremont Graduate University, Department of Psychology
  •  and Hannah LucasHannah LucasClaremont Graduate University, Department of Psychology


Social development refers to the process through which individuals learn to get along with others. It encompasses the formation of friendships and romantic relationships as well as experiences of bullying and loneliness. Across the life span, cognitive development enables increasingly complex social interactions, and the most important contexts for social development expand. Early in life, family is the primary context for social development, but in adulthood the social world grows to include peers, colleagues, and others. Social development is critical for well-being. Research finds that the lasting social bonds that individuals form are perhaps the most important ingredient in a life well lived.

Social development refers to the process through which individuals learn to get along with others and form friendships and romantic relationships. It encompasses the way newborns learn to gauge the degree to which their caregivers will meet their daily needs, the way adolescents look to others to gain a better sense of who they are, and the way older adults value fewer, closer relationships over broader, looser personal networks. Across the life span, people learn to form bonds in increasingly complex social environments, and these bonds are perhaps the most important ingredient in a life well lived. Empirical studies and meta-analyses find that, compared to others, individuals with strong social ties are psychologically and physically healthier and more satisfied with their lives (see Amati, Meggiolaro, Rivellini, & Zaccarin, 2018; Proulx, Helms, & Buehler, 2007; Waldinger, Cohen, Shultz, & Crowell, 2018).

Leading theories of social development explain what social development entails and how it develops across the life span. For instance, in his theory of psychosocial development, Erik Erikson (1980, 1982) argued that infants develop a general sense of trust—balanced with a healthy dose of mistrust—in the people around them. Learning to trust in infancy establishes an important foundation for future social development. In early childhood, toddlers begin to recognize that their actions influence others and their environment. They learn to take initiative through social interactions and play. During the elementary school years, children’s social development manifests in a growing tendency to compare themselves with their peers. Doing so yields a more objective sense of their strengths and weaknesses. In adolescence, Erikson argued, social development is evident in the search for identity, where individuals forge a sense of who they are and who they hope to become. They reflect on and confirm their values and beliefs, in large part, in response to the values and beliefs of the family members and friends who surround them. Armed with a stable sense of identity, individuals enter young adulthood ready to form intimate relationships with others, and in midlife, adults explore ways of leaving behind a positive legacy as they begin to confront their own mortality. Finally, according to Erikson, psychosocial development in late adulthood involves reflecting on one’s life with either a sense of satisfaction or despair. Individuals who have navigated earlier life stages—learning to trust in infancy; to be autonomous, to take initiative, and to feel productive in childhood; to carve an enduring and meaningful identity in adolescence; to form intimate relationships in young adulthood; and to discover ways of being generative in midlife—are likely to reflect on their lives in late adulthood with a sense of satisfaction.

Other leading theories of social development highlight the way social relationships and the culture in which they are embedded shape cognitive development. Vygotsky’s (1978) sociocultural theory of development emphasizes the way social interactions influence both how and what people learn. Vygotsky argued that everything is learned twice. First, individuals learn through interactions with others, and later these lessons are integrated into an individual’s mental structures. According to Vygotsky, social development encompasses how we interact with others, and this shapes how we make sense of the world.

Drawing on these landmark theories of social development and also on the more contemporary relational developmental systems framework (Lerner & Overton, 2008), which emphasizes bidirectional interactions between person and context, the unity of nature and nurture in shaping developmental outcomes, and the plasticity or flexibility inherent in human development, the present article outlines the content and process of social development across the life span.

Research on social development is expansive. Capturing all that we know about it in one article is impossible. Therefore, organized chronologically, this article provides a brief snapshot of what social development entails by stage. At the same time, at each stage, a few of the more important or cutting-edge areas of social developmental research are addressed in greater detail. In addition, each section highlights social development in its most relevant context, as dictated by the stage of life.


From the moment we are born, before we can even maintain eye contact, we connect with others through physical touch. In fact, research indicates that skin-to-skin contact between parent and child, especially when the first encounter occurs immediately after birth, has many benefits. These include reducing pain and promoting better sleep and growth for infants (Ludington-Hoe, Hosseini, & Torowicz, 2005; Ludington-Hoe et al., 2006), facilitating breastfeeding, decreasing risk of mortality and severe infection (Conde-Agudelo & Diaz‐Rossello, 2016), and improving brain-motor function in adolescence (Schneider, Charpak, Ruiz‐Peláez, & Tessier, 2012). Further, the combination of skin-to-skin contact and breastfeeding promotes the attachment relationship between parent and child (Cho et al., 2016).



Social development begins in infancy, or the first 2 years of life, with attachment, and attachment begins with infants’ desire to remain physically close to their primary caregivers. Psychologists initially believed this need for proximity derived solely from the biological need for nourishment. In the 1950s and 1960s, the work of Harry Harlow and colleagues in the Primate Laboratory at the University of Wisconsin turned this belief on its head (Harlow, Harlow, & Suomi, 1971). Harlow and his team observed infant monkeys whom they had isolated, including from their mothers, since birth (mercifully, ethical standards in psychology have improved such that this kind of research would no longer be possible). Two surrogate mothers were placed in the monkeys’ cages—one a wire figure with a bottle, and one a soft figure covered in cloth. Despite the lack of food, the infant monkeys displayed a strong preference for the cloth “mothers,” only briefly visiting the wire figures to satiate their hunger (Harlow & Zimmerman, 1959). From this and further research manipulating what surrogates had to offer (Harlow et al., 1971), Harlow and others concluded that the infant–caregiver bond is built on more than just the infant’s need for food.

Bowlby and Ainsworth

At roughly the same time that Harlow was studying monkeys, John Bowlby was studying orphans and hospitalized children and adolescents, and he began to formulate his theory of attachment. Through observations of children separated from their parents, and a review of research conducted by others (including Harlow), Bowlby concluded that for healthy development, infants require a warm, sensitive, and contingently responsive relationship with a caregiver. A key feature of Bowlby’s attachment theory is the concept of an “internal working model.” Attachment theory postulates that from our early interactions with caregivers, especially during infancy and early childhood, we construct a mental model of the world and our place in it. When infants cry or make other bids for attention and caregivers respond in sensitive, caring ways, infants learn to trust that their needs will be met. They learn that they are worthy of care and that others will help them. This builds an important foundation for lifelong, healthy social development. If, instead, an infant’s bids are misunderstood, met with anger, ignored, or otherwise insensitively addressed, infants conclude that they live in a world where their needs may not always be met. They learn instead that they must display certain behaviors or meet certain criteria to ensure their needs are addressed.

Mary Ainsworth worked under Bowlby before conducting her own research, observing mothers and their infants in Uganda and Baltimore in the 1950s and 1960s (Ainsworth, 1967; Ainsworth & Bell, 1970). Her research highlighted the importance of caregiver sensitivity to the development of attachment security in the infant (Bretherton, 1992). Infants gauge their parents’ responses to their behaviors and respond by adjusting their behaviors to maintain proximity to their vital caregivers. As a result, infants typically “organize” their behavior into one of three behavioral classifications proposed by Ainsworth (Ainsworth, Blehar, Waters, & Wall, 2015). Secure infants express needs freely with the anticipation that their needs will be met. They trust that their parents will act as safe havens, shielding them from distress. Further, they view their parents as secure bases from which they can explore the world, knowing they have a safe place to which they can return. Avoidant infants hide their distress, because they have learned that expressing it may result in the caregiver’s becoming annoyed or ignoring them. They understand that their parents’ function as a safe haven or secure base relies on the suppression of such behaviors. Resistant/ambivalent infants, also called “anxious” infants, act clingy and needy, because their parents display unpredictable patterns of availability and sensitivity; sometimes their parents are responsive and at other times they are unavailable. As a result, these infants have determined that the most adaptive behavior is behavior that constantly expresses a need for the parent and therefore, ideally, keeps the parent around. A fourth category, disorganized infants, was added later by Mary Main, a student of Ainsworth’s (Hesse & Main, 2000). These individuals defy categorization into any of the other categories, displaying erratic, confusing, and unpredictable responses to stressors. Such disorganized behavior may be seen in response to extreme situations, such as an abusive caregiver, where the primary figures of safety and terror are one and the same.

Subsequent research has indicated that attachment styles shape future relationships with friends, coworkers, romantic partners, and others (Kirkpatrick & Hazan, 1994). The mental models that take shape in infancy are reinforced throughout childhood and manifest in a sense of oneself as inherently worthy of love and attention, or of needing to behave in certain ways to earn love and attention. Although attachment figures eventually shift from caregivers to romantic partners, most people (70%) maintain their attachment style across time (Kirkpatrick & Hazan, 1994).


A final consideration in the discussion of social development during infancy is the set of innate characteristics the infant brings to the caregiver–child relationship. Consistent with the relational developmental systems model (Lerner & Overton, 2008), infant and caregiver relationships are bidirectional. Rather than merely responding to caregivers, infants elicit certain behaviors from them. Although temperament is not socialized, research indicates that the temperament of an infant can shape a caregiver’s response (Werner, 2000). Easy babies, those who are happy, easily acquire a routine, and are adaptable, are not difficult to care for and, as a result, tend to engender positive feelings in adults and elicit the consistently warm and responsive care they need. By contrast, difficult infants tend to cry more often, do not readily develop a routine, and struggle to adapt to new situations. Understandably, they are more difficult to care for, and therefore they often have caregivers who are frustrated or stressed and may respond less sensitively. There are also some children in the middle, termed slow to warm up, who adapt slowly to new situations and may initially display negative emotions in response to novel stimuli (Thomas & Chess, 1977). Although temperament influences the child–caregiver relationship, all infants, including those with less-than-easy temperaments, have the potential for secure attachment (Belsky & Rovine, 1987). As can be seen in this limited review, a child’s early social world is shaped by the infant’s relationship with early-life caregivers as well as his or her own temperament.

Early Childhood

Although an infant’s social universe consists primarily of his or her primary caregiver, a young child’s social universe expands to include his or her siblings, peers, and the media. In line with the preschool years, early childhood includes children between approximately 2 and 6 years old. During this stage, children learn to differentiate themselves from others using concrete characteristics, such as size, shape, and color (Phillips & Shonkoff, 2000); they make gradual advances in their understanding of others through theory of mind (Fiske & Taylor, 2013); and they show early signs of perspective-taking (Wellman, 2014). These and other developing cognitive skills enable children to act in an increasingly complex social world.


Parents remain the primary influencing factor in young children’s social development. In addition to serving as attachment figures, parents also begin to socialize their children. Socialization refers to the process by which parents help their children adopt values, norms, and culture, and it occurs through modeling behavior and reinforcing desired behavior (Parke, Roisman, & Rose, 2019). The process of socialization can be a positive or negative experience. Parents who engage in positive socialization practices interact with their children in responsive, age-appropriate, and structured ways (Maccoby, 1980). Historically, gender differences shaped the socialization process in significant ways. For instance, mothers tended to socialize their daughters to be obedient and caring, while fathers tended to encourage their sons to be assertive and excel in academic tasks (Bronstein, 2006). This differential treatment was largely due to deeply rooted gender norms, which dictated how adults should treat, describe, and talk to children. However, a recent meta-analysis found no significant differences in controlling or autonomy-granting parenting practices based on gender (Endendijk, Groeneveld, Bakermans-Kranenburg, & Mesman, 2016).

Parents not only directly influence their children’s social development, they also indirectly influence it. Parents typically select the social contexts in which their young children develop, including their children’s neighborhoods, schools, churches, and camps (Reich & Vendell, 2011). They also control their children’s interactions with peers, determining who their children become friends with by organizing play dates and the like.

In addition to parents, siblings represent another significant source of socialization in young children’s lives. In the Unites States, approximately 80% of children have at least one sibling (U.S. Census Bureau Public Information Office, 2011), and children learn a good deal about conflict from sibling interactions. In early childhood, children frequently engage in conflicts with their siblings; however, conflicts become less frequent as children age (Kramer & Radey, 1997). While allowing sibling conflicts to continue is not beneficial, they do teach important lessons about relationships and boundaries (Howe, Rinaldi, Jennings, & Petrakos, 2002), and parents can enact strategies that mitigate the negative effects of conflict (Kramer & Radey, 1997). In addition to teaching about conflict, sibling relationships also teach young children about helping, sharing, teaching, and playing (Howe, Ross, & Recchia, 2011). Sibling relationships are typically intimate, as siblings spend a good deal of time together and come to know one another well. Therefore, siblings often serve as important sources of both support and frustration (Dunn, 2007; Kerrane, Bettany, & Kerrane, 2015). In light of this, it is not surprising to find that feelings about siblings tend to be mixed.

The makeup of the nuclear family has changed over the years. Today’s families increasingly feature single parents, stepparents, stepsiblings, and half-siblings, as well as extended family members. Particularly in Western cultures, blended families as well as same-sex parents are also increasingly common (Bumpass & Raley, 1995). While each of these circumstances may present a different set of challenges, negative outcomes of blended families mostly disappear after controlling for adverse circumstances (Mostafa, Gambaro, & Joshi, 2018) and outcomes for children of same-sex couples can be quite positive (Titlestad & Pooley, 2014). Regardless of the family structure, the presence of at least one caring adult increases the odds that children will develop in healthy directions (Werner, 2000).


Across early childhood, children spend more time with peers. Compared to the typically brief peer interactions in infancy, peer interactions in early childhood become more coordinated and more direct, and they feature turn-taking with longer turn sequences (Coplan & Arbeau, 2009). Peers function as an important source of information about the world beyond the family, and they provide an opportunity to learn about relationships with equals outside the family setting (Gilmore & Meersand, 2014).

Play is an important feature of peer interactions (Power, 2011). In fact, most peer interactions in early childhood take place during play (Coplan & Arbeau, 2009). Gender roles influence both the composition of play groups and the nature of children’s interactions (Maccoby, 2002). For instance, young children demonstrate a preference for same-sex playmates, and within sex-segregated play groups, boys tend to engage in larger friendship groups than girls. Boys are also more likely than girls to engage in organized games, rough-and-tumble play, and competition.

Play shifts from object manipulation during infancy to imaginative play in early childhood (Narvaez, Panksepp, Schore, & Gleason, 2013). In other words, whereas an infant may be entertained by rolling a small ball around on the floor, a preschooler may use the ball as a phone from which to call an imaginary friend. Play also shifts from self-play to social play, including role playing and pretend play. Play during early childhood is important for fostering the development of language, and it helps children learn to understand and negotiate social roles, rules, and norms (Coplan & Arbeau, 2009). For example, in imaginative play, children learn how to take turns and share experiences: “You be the kid and I’ll be the mommy” (Dunn, 2004).


In early childhood, young children are increasingly exposed to television and other forms of mass media, and this exposure also shapes social development (Huesmann & Taylor, 2006). For instance, many studies have examined the effects of televised violence and aggression on young children’s social interactions. A growing body of research suggests that viewing violence on television leads to more aggressive social interactions among young children (Bushman, Gollwitzer, & Cruz, 2015), and these effects endure over time (Bushman & Huesmann, 2006). Although this line of research is alarming, studies also find that viewing prosocial interactions on television can engender prosocial interactions among young children. An early study (Leifer, 1973) demonstrated that children who watched prosocial interactions on Sesame Street re-enacted those behaviors in later social interactions. More recent studies have similarly concluded that television can positively shape children’s social behaviors, especially through cultivating empathy, and particularly when there are follow-up activities that reinforce the televised messages (see Fisch, 2014; Prot et al., 2014).

Middle and Late Childhood

Middle and late childhood follow the elementary school years, and as such this stage refers to children between approximately 7 and 11 years old. Children in middle and late childhood continue to develop perspective-taking abilities, and this enables them to engage in even more complex social interactions (Coleman, 2011). For instance, school-age children become increasingly skilled at recognizing that other people have access to different information than they do, and as a result may hold different beliefs than they do (Heyman & Legare, 2005). Interactions within the family are still particularly salient to school-age children’s social development, but peer interactions become increasingly important as well.


With increased time spent at school, extracurricular activities, and play dates, children spend less time with their parents than they did during early childhood, yet parents still play an important role in their social development (Collins, Madsen, & Susman-Stillman, 2002). As children enter middle and late childhood, parents spend more time than in early childhood managing their children’s lives by setting up play dates, monitoring children’s behavior, and organizing extracurricular activities (Parke et al., 2019). Mothers, as compared to fathers, tend to do more in this regard (Parke et al., 2019), but both parents “serve as gatekeepers and provide scaffolding as children assume more responsibility for themselves and . . . (begin to) regulate their own lives” (Huston & Ripke, 2006, p. 422).

As school-age children become more independent, effective parenting practices are associated with healthy social development. Diana Baumrind’s (1971) highly influential research describes four parenting styles (authoritative, authoritarian, indulgent, and neglectful), which highlight the importance of parental expectations (which vary along a continuum from low to high) and parental warmth (which varies along a continuum from low to high).

Authoritative parenting is characterized by high parental expectations and high degrees of parental warmth. Authoritative parents explain to children why they hold the rules they hold, and they listen to their children’s thoughts on the rules. Sometimes, authoritative parents will accommodate their children’s requests for exceptions. In this way, children learn to listen, speak on their own behalf, develop coherent arguments, and negotiate, and these skills help them develop and maintain healthy relationships with others. Children raised by authoritative parents tend to be cheerful, self-regulated, self-reliant, cooperative, and achievement-oriented (Argyriou, Bakoyannis, & Tantaros, 2016) and to have high self-esteem (Pinquart & Gerke, 2019). Not surprisingly, authoritative parenting is associated with desired social outcomes in most cultures (Hoskins, 2014).

Authoritarian parenting, which is characterized by high parental expectations and low levels of parental warmth, is rigid and discipline focused. Parents who enact this parenting approach place strict limits on their children and hold high expectations for their behavior. Authoritarian parents demand respect from their children and enforce rules with disciplinary action. Little explanation is offered for the rules that are set or the punishments that are meted out. Instead, children are expected to follow their parents’ orders. Effects of authoritarian parenting vary by culture (Parke et al., 2019), but in general this approach leads to conduct problems (Thompson, Hollis, & Richards, 2003) and children with low self-esteem (Pinquart & Gerke, 2019). Children of authoritarian parents generally fail to initiate activities and display poor communication skills (Parke et al., 2019). However, among Latinx (people of Latin American descent) families, where obedience is emphasized (Dixon, Graber, & Brooks-Gunn, 2008) and African American families, which more often feature control and physical punishment, (Brody & Flor, 1998), authoritarian parenting can be associated with positive adjustment among children.

Neglectful parenting is characterized by low parental expectations for children and low levels of parental warmth. In many cases, neglectful parents are self-involved, valuing their own lives over their children’s lives. As a result, they tend to be detached from their children, and the lack of warmth and clear expectations can lead their children to develop poor self-control and low self-esteem (Pinquart & Gerke, 2019). Taken together, it is not surprising that children of neglectful parents tend to display internalizing symptoms like anxiety, depression, and social withdrawal (Pinquart, 2017).

Finally, indulgent parenting is characterized by low behavioral expectations for children but a good deal of warmth and love. Indulgent parents generally want to be liked, and as a result, they place few demands on their children. Consequently, children of indulgent parents have a strong sense of self-confidence (Lamborn, Mounts, Steinberg, & Dornbusch, 1991), but they tend to be impulsive and to participate in problem behaviors, including alcohol and drug use, lying, stealing, acting aggressively, and delinquency (Slicker, 1998).

Research on parenting styles assumes a unidirectional influence, from parent to child, but in line with the relational developmental systems model, researchers recognize that social development is the result of bidirectional interactions between parent and child (Smetana, 2017). In other words, children elicit parenting styles from their parents as much as parents direct particular approaches toward their children. In fact, at least one longitudinal study found that children’s adjustment predicted their parents’ authoritativeness more than the other way around (Kerr, Stattin, & Özdemir, 2012).


Friendships become increasingly important in middle and late childhood. As children enter elementary school, the amount of time they spend with peers increases substantially. Middle and late childhood friendships are characterized by a high degree of reciprocity, in which friends help one another, and shared interests, in which children seek out friends who like the same things they do (Selman, Levitt, & Schultz, 2017). As compared to early childhood friendships, school-age friendships tend to be subject to less adult supervision (Selman et al., 2017).

Healthy friendships in middle and late childhood predict healthy relationships in adolescence and adulthood (Huesmann, Dubow, Eron, & Boxer, 2006). The quality of young people’s peer relationships is often studied by examining peer sociometric status, which is assessed by asking children to identify peers they like and dislike. Popular children, who are frequently nominated as friends and are rarely identified as being disliked, typically have strong social skills (Cillessen & Bellmore, 2010). They provide reinforcements, listen carefully, and demonstrate positive emotions while controlling negative ones (Hartup, 1983). Children classified as rejected, on the other hand, are rarely identified as friends and are often disliked by peers. They tend to lack social skills, and they are more likely to have adjustment problems in adolescence and beyond (Prinstein, Rancourt, Guerry, & Browne, 2009).


In adolescence, further cognitive advances enable further social development. During this stage, youth improve in both perspective-taking and empathy (Coleman, 2011), and these emerging abilities enhance the way they interact with others. At the same time, adolescents become increasingly interested in peer relationships (Coleman, 2011). Continuing the trend since birth, they spend more time with peers as they look to peers to help them carve their emerging sense of identity. That said, although peer relationships become increasingly important, familial relationships also remain vital (Smetana, 2010).


Adolescence marks a change in parent–child relationships, most notably in parental monitoring, autonomy, and attachment. Parental monitoring, which involves supervision of social settings, activities, friends, and academic efforts, becomes more important during this stage as adolescents spend less time in the physical presence of parents (Borawski, Ievers-Landis, Lovegreen, & Trapl, 2003). However, it is difficult, if not impossible, for parents to monitor adolescents if adolescents do not tell their parents where they are going or with whom they are spending time. Accordingly, parental monitoring goes hand in hand with adolescent disclosure (Keijsers, 2016). Positive adolescent adjustment results when parents are present and ask questions about their adolescents’ lives and when adolescents share information about their activities, whereabouts, and friends (Keijsers, 2016). In this way, closeness between adolescents and parents is associated with youths’ healthy development overall.

At the same time, adolescents seek greater autonomy and independence from their parents than they did as children (Smetana, 2010). Social systems and structures are often designed to support adolescents’ growing need for autonomy. For instance, teenagers become eligible to drive and to vote. Beyond these legal rights, Western, industrialized societies generally grant adolescents a moratorium of sorts during which youth are granted more freedom than children and are held to fewer expectations than adults (Erikson, 1980). During this time, adolescents are expected to experiment with social roles (Coté, 2009).

The push for independence and the pull of parental monitoring require adolescents and parents to negotiate a balance between autonomy and attachment, which can be difficult (Collins, 1990). Parents often struggle to relinquish control over their adolescents’ lives, and they may underestimate how much youth want to manage their own affairs (Smetana & Daddis, 2002). Perhaps not surprisingly, these negotiations can result in conflict. However, although parents and adolescents argue frequently, their arguments are generally short-lived and low in intensity. They tend to center on daily activities, such as chores, mealtimes, clothing, and social gatherings (Smetana, 2010).

Finally, attachment is another key component of adolescent social development in the family context. Attachment is different in adolescence than it is in infancy, but it serves much the same function. Adolescents still benefit from being securely attached to their parents, but whereas secure attachment in infancy typically means physical proximity to parents, in adolescence it means having emotionally available parents (Doyle, Lawford, & Markiewicz, 2009). Securely attached adolescents regularly check in with their parents, and when push comes to shove, they know they can turn to their parents for advice and warmth. Securely attached adolescents are less likely than insecurely attached youth to engage in delinquent behavior (Allen, 2008; Allen, Porter, McFarland, McElhaney, & Marsh, 2007) and are more likely to thrive socially (Nagaoka, Farrington, Ehrlich, & Heath, 2015). Securely attached adolescents are also more likely to learn from the model their parents provide regarding how to engage in healthy social relationships and to develop a coherent sense of identity (Nagaoka et al., 2015). In short, warm relationships with parents are key to healthy social development during adolescence.


Healthy relationships with peers are also important. In fact, youths’ perceptions of their parents as their primary source of support decline during adolescence as support from friends increases (Collins & Steinberg, 2006). Whereas friendships during childhood were often built on the premise of shared interests, friendships in adolescence are more likely to be built on a foundation of trust, self-disclosure, and intimacy (Berndt, 1982; Sullivan, 1953). Adolescent friendship networks tend to be smaller, more intimate, and more intense than childhood friendship networks. Adolescents report that they rely more on their friends than their parents for companionship, intimacy, and reassurance about their sense of worth (Buhrmester, 1996; Coleman, 2011). Having high-quality friendships is associated with a range of developmental advantages. More specifically, adolescents with good friends tend to be more socially skilled, supportive, and academically motivated than adolescents who lack close friendships (Bukowski, Motzoi, & Meiyer, 2009; Cillessen & Bellmore, 2010).

The adolescent social landscape is defined by cliques and crowds. Cliques are small groups of same-sex peers ranging from two to twelve individuals. They typically form through a shared interest or extracurricular activity, and they are defined by close, intimate relationships (Brown & Dietz, 2009). Cliques are small, tight friendship networks that share a sense of in-group identity. Crowds, on the other hand, are large and relatively impersonal. Membership in a crowd is based on reputation rather than intimacy (Brown, 2011). Crowds emerge in early adolescence and diminish by late adolescence.

Dating is another hallmark of the adolescent social landscape (van de Bongardt, Yu, Deković, & Meeus, 2015). Youth spend a significant portion of their time dating or thinking about dating (Connolly & McIsaac, 2009). This activity can serve multiple purposes for adolescents. Adolescents may date to gain social status, to learn about intimate relationships, or in hopes of finding a long-term mate.

Romantic relationships are also shaped by the contexts in which they unfold (van de Bongardt et al., 2015). Peers and parents, along with broader cultural and societal values, contribute to the form and likelihood of adolescent romantic relationships. In Western cultures, older adolescents who have high-quality romantic experiences are likely be better adjusted and more socially accepted, to have more friends, and to be more romantically competent than younger adolescents who have lower-quality romantic experiences (Collibee & Furman, 2015). At the same time, romantically involved adolescents in Western cultures are likely to report higher levels of substance use, delinquency, and sexual behavior than their single peers (Furman & Collibee, 2014). Much of the existing research on adolescent romantic relationships has featured Western youth; research on youth from other cultures is needed.

Social Media

Interactions with peers, whether friendly or romantic, take place not only in person, but also online. Accordingly, online interactions increasingly shape adolescents’ social development. More specifically, adolescents use text messaging and social media platforms to sustain and enhance their social relationships (Weinstein & Davis, 2015). They can use these online platforms to interact with peers in one-to-one and in one-to-many social interactions (Livingstone, Kalmus, & Talves, 2013). That said, the social media landscape changes so rapidly that it is difficult for researchers to keep up with exactly how adolescents use each form of social media and with the influence each has on adolescent social development (e.g., Snapchat, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc.; Best, Manktelow, & Taylor, 2014)

In addition to facilitating social development, social media platforms also shape identity development (Coleman, 2011). Adolescents often use their social media profiles to try out different personas. Although this may represent a healthy form of identity exploration, social media, as has been widely reported, can be used in less healthy ways as well (see Best et al., 2014; Weinstein, 2018). For instance, depression, cyberbullying, body image issues, and anxiety have all been associated with social media use (Twenge, 2017). Despite parents’ high estimates of the dangers associated with online activities, they are unlikely to monitor their adolescents’ technology use (Rideout, Foehr, & Roberts, 2010).


Young adulthood and midlife encompass roughly the third through the sixth decades of life. For much of the 20th century, the transition from adolescence to adulthood happened soon after adolescents reached their late teens or early twenties. However, with increasing numbers of individuals pursuing postsecondary education, delaying marriage, and exploring different career paths, many young adults find themselves gradually transitioning into full adult roles (Arnett, 2014). This emerging adulthood stage, which includes young adults in roughly the third decade of life living primarily in Western, industrialized cultures, is characterized by residential instability, multiple career changes, and a sense that one is not yet a full-fledged adult but no longer a child, either (Arnett, 2014). The emergence of this controversial new stage has led to different social and occupational experiences for young adults and for the midlife adults who support them (Arnett, 2014). It is important to understand not only how social relationships progress across adulthood, but also how they continue to change with societal circumstances.


According to Erikson (1982), early adulthood is a time for developing intimate relationships. Such relationships require mutual trust and authenticity, and they can serve as an important source of intimacy that can optimize both physical and emotional health (Seyfarth & Cheney, 2012). According to the social convoy model of social relationships (Kahn & Antonucci, 1980), individuals move through life embedded in a personal network of individuals from whom they give and receive social support. Social convoys are protective, dynamic networks of close social ties that provide adults with personal, familial, and even professional support.

Friendships play an especially important role during early or emerging adulthood, when—in the absence of family obligations—individuals find they have ample time to devote to them. In fact, people often report having more friends during early adulthood than at any other point in their lives (Carmichael, Reis, & Duberstein, 2015). By the time adults reach their thirties, the quality of their friendships tends to become more important than the quantity of them, and this trend toward fewer, closer friendships continues into midlife and beyond (Carmichael et al., 2015).

Romantic Relationships and Parenthood

Evolutionary theories rest on the premise that without the benefit of close kinship ties and the instinct to mate and procreate, the human species would not survive (Kenrick & Trost, 2004). This emphasis upon finding a mate during early adulthood can also be understood through the lens of Erikson’s psychosocial theory, which posits that across adolescence and early adulthood, relationships become increasingly intimate. Emerging from adolescence with a strong sense of identity, young adults are prepared to explore connections with others that are authentic and characterized by high degrees of self-disclosure without fear of rejection (Erikson, 1982).

Research on modern romantic coupling among adults reveals an increased focus on “assortative mating,” in which adults prioritize how much their interests, values, and lifestyle preferences match those of a potential partner (Buss et al., 1990). The ability to choose a mate who is a “match” has increased as online dating and dating applications have become available (Wiederhold, 2015). Although this may help adults find a well-suited partner, it may also lead to dissatisfaction, if they believe even more suitable partners may be within reach through technology (Finkel, Eastwick, Karney, Reis, & Sprecher, 2012; Lenton, Fasolo, & Todd, 2010).

Assortative mating stands in contrast to the purely evolutionary assumption that adults form long-term partnerships for the primary purpose of procreation (Buss et al., 1990). While many young adults report that they would eventually like to have children, more report that they engage in long-term partnerships for companionship, love, and well-being (Miller, Hollist, Olson, & Law, 2013). Adults who have children tend to do so later than in earlier generations. This is partially due to their spending more time in school (Brauner-Otto & Geist, 2018; Dribe, 2009). In some regards, becoming a parent later in life is beneficial. For instance, older mothers tend to adapt to the experience more easily and spend more time with their children, and older fathers tend to be more invested in fatherhood (Berlin, Brady-Smith, & Brooks-Gunn, 2002; Cooney et al., 1993). However, fertility declines with age, and older adults may have trouble becoming parents. The perceived right time to have children is increasingly driven by the “social clock;” by and large, adults choose to become parents when their friends do (Pekel-Uludağlı & Akbaş, 2018).

In midlife, long-term romantic partners often confront the “empty nest” phenomenon, as children leave home and make their own way in the world. This can open up the opportunity for partners to become reacquainted with one another as they find they have more time to focus on their relationship (Carr, Freedman, Cornman, & Schwarz, 2014). However, emerging adults in the early 21st century leave home later and are more likely to return home (Copp, Giordano, Longmore, & Manning, 2017). This can be stressful for midlife adults and their emerging adult offspring, and it can lead to conflict over autonomy and other issues. However, it also brings the chance for strong bonds to form between intergenerational adults due to their continued proximity (Copp et al., 2017).

Late Adulthood

The last stage in the life span is the fourth age. The fourth age, also considered the “oldest-old,” describes the chronological age at which half of the birth cohort is still alive (Baltes & Smith, 2003). Given current mortality rates in industrialized countries, those older than 80 years old are considered to belong to the oldest-old category. By definition, the social landscape shrinks for individuals in this age group as many of their peers are deceased. Yet, social psychology emphasizes the importance of sociality among the oldest-old, as successful aging is in part defined by one’s ability to maintain interpersonal relationships (Rowe & Khan, 1997).

For years, psychologists posited that aging and preparation for death were associated with disengagement from social life and roles (Cumming & Henry, 1961). This assumption has been largely refuted over the past three decades, with more current research showing that older adults actively attempt to maintain key facets of their identity through the many transitions they face (Atchley, 1989; Thoits, 1992). A more nuanced empirical understanding of the oldest-old highlights the many life choices, life course factors, and opportunities that shape relationship dynamics with friends and family in the fourth age.

Social Relationships and Health

Throughout the life span, the basic need for relatedness does not decrease (Ryan & Deci, 2000) and the detrimental impact of loneliness does not lessen (for review, see Ong, Uchino, & Wethington, 2016). Social convoys continue to support individuals into the oldest-old stage of life, and the presence of social support continues to be associated with positive developmental outcomes (Antonucci, 2001; Kahn & Antonucci, 1980). For instance, longitudinal research finds that older individuals who are more socially engaged are less likely to experience cognitive decline (Donovan et al., 2017; Marioni et al., 2015), are less likely to show signs of dementia (for review, see Kuiper et al., 2015), and are more likely to live longer (Ellwardt, van Tilburg, Aarsten, Wittek, & Steverink, 2015). Such effects emerged as a result not only of receiving support, but also of providing it (Greenfield & Marks, 2004; Krause, 2006).

Loneliness and Social Pruning

As discussed previously, social networks become smaller across adulthood as adults value quality over quantity in their friendship groups, and this trend continues into late adulthood. The oldest-old spend 70% of their time alone, doubling the solitary time experienced by middle-aged adults (Chui, Hoppman, Gerstorf, Walker, & Luszcz, 2014). Loneliness is highest among young adults and the oldest-old; however, the associated risk factors during these two stages of development are very different (Luhmann & Hawkley, 2016). For those in the fourth age, loneliness is largely attributed to lower income levels, a higher prevalence of functional limitations, and a higher proportion of singles in the age group. The experience of loneliness is drastically reduced for those who are married and healthy, as they are better able to maintain social networks and to participate in social activities (Ailshire & Crimmins, 2011; Luo, Hawkley, Waite, & Cacioppo, 2012).

Although smaller social networks can contribute to loneliness, social networks are often pruned by choice; social pruning is a developmental strategy designed to maintain only the most positive relationships. More specifically, empirical work within socioemotional selectivity theory finds evidence for an intentional pruning process that helps aid emotional regulation during old age (English & Carstensen, 2014). Even though social networks decrease with age, the number of emotionally close partners remains stable or even increases with age (Lang & Carstensen, 1994; Yeung, Fung, & Lang, 2008).

Differentiated Roles for Friends and Family

The oldest-old report frequent contact with children and family members (Ailshire & Crimmins, 2011), and they are more likely to count these individuals in their core social groups (Cornwell, Laumann, & Schumm, 2008). Although most social time is spent with family, these relationships are often not as positive as friendships during this stage. In general, family provides instrumental help, while friends provide companionship (Huxhold, Miche, & Schüz, 2013). For those with more functional limitations, familial relationships can be strained, especially when older adults feel dependent on family members and are unable to reciprocate (Fingerman, Pitzer, Lefkowitz, Birditt, & Mroczek, 2008). Studies find that friendships, as compared to familial relationships, are more likely to promote psychological well-being (Antonucci & Akiyama, 1995; Larson, 1978) and positive affect (Rook, 1987). A recent study found that engaging with family members increased both positive and negative affect and did not influence life satisfaction, but engaging with friends increased positive affect and life satisfaction and decreased negative affect (Huxhold et al., 2013). Interestingly, longitudinal data from an Australian sample found that having more friends was associated with lower risk of mortality over a 10-year period, while no such relationship was found for familial networks (Giles, Glonek, Luszcz, & Andrews, 2005). In short, the oldest-old may spend more time with their family members than with friends, but they continue to value their friendships, as well.

In general, the elderly receive the most care from spouses and adult children (Adams & Blieszner, 1995). However, the frequency with which older adults have contact with their families depends on a variety of life course factors. For instance, widowhood is associated with more contact with adult children, likely as a way to ease grief (Suitor, Pillemer, Keeton, & Robison, 1995). Interestingly, better health is associated with more contact with family members, as older adults report that they do not want to feel dependent on their children (Field, Minkler, Falk, & Leino, 1993). Healthy older adults benefit from familial interactions when they can provide monetary and emotional help, and when they serve as the hub for family contact (Robertson, 1995). Although family relations may be strained in old age, they are still an important source of social connectedness, and, in turn, subjective well-being (Huxhold et al., 2013). Taken together, both family and friends are important in the last stage of life. Research has shown that having a combination of friendship and familial networks is ideal for positive aging (Fiori, Antonucci, & Cortina, 2006).


Social development is a broad topic. It encompasses features of human interactions, including friendships, familial relationships, and socialization more generally. It represents a process that begins early in life and continues across the life span. Infants’ attachment styles influence the way school-age children interact with their teachers in school, and this shapes the degree to which adolescents develop the social skills required to form intimate friendships. Building on the skills developed through intimate friendships, young adults explore, and some commit to, long-term romantic relationships. Across midlife and into later adulthood, large groups of friends, which were more common in adolescence and early adulthood, give way to smaller, more intimate friendship groups. However, across the life span, although the contexts and nature change, the salience of healthy social development for psychological well-being endures. The need for close others is one of the few features of life that is just as important to the oldest-old as it is to the newborn.