A Walk Through the Concept of Social Referencing in Infants

I don’t know how much attention you pay to your kid as they grow up. In most cases, their every action will be a reaction or response to a thing or the other. Also, they are very intentional about their actions as it is their means of communication for the period they are yet to develop speech. This brings us to the phenomenon of social referencing in infants.

A Walk Through the Concept of Social Referencing in Infants

If you have been close to babies, you must have observed this practice playing out in their daily activities. It is possible that you did not know the technical term, social referencing. So, you can now assess the different areas of this concept and what it actually means.

From research, however, it is established that social referencing also take place in higher animals like the primates. As such, it can be seen that social referencing is a natural instinct that is very evident in babies.

 Do you ever wonder how these little creatures learn to discern our non-verbal cues and respond accordingly? It is all about social referencing. So, in this article, you will be taken through the concept of social referencing in infants and all the necessary information you might need about this concept.

What is Social Referencing in Infants

Social referencing refers to the process wherein infants use the affective displays of an adult to regulate their behaviors toward environmental objects, persons, and situations. Any situation in which infants rely on another person’s cognitive and/or emotional appraisal to form their own understanding of a situation qualifies as social referencing.

Social referencing is the seeking and use of information from another individual to evaluate a situation. It generally occurs in situations of high ambiguity, when infants are presented with novel and unfamiliar occurrences.

Alternatively, social referencing 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 broadly includes children’s looks toward parents, their instrumental toy behaviors, affective expressions, and other behaviors toward parents. Children’s looks at parents are more selective with increasing age, with older infants preferring to look directly at their parents’ faces and younger infants showing no preference for looks to faces over looks elsewhere at the parent.

Expression of Social Referencing in Infants

Expression of Social Referencing in Infants

An expression of social referencing for instance is when a child encounters a novel object, turns to his/her mother, and sees that she is attending to the same object and smiling. In turn, the child moves toward the object and begins to explore it; that is, the child used his/her mother’s reaction to guide his/her own behavioral response.

In another instance your baby 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.

As shown in these examples, the social referencing process involves an interactive social situation in which one person uses another’s interpretation to form his or her own understanding of that situation.

An important developmental task is to learn to recognize another person as a source of information and to utilize this information as a method of learning about the surrounding world. This socially guided form of learning, referred to as social referencing, is critical for the development of children’s understanding of other people, themselves and their surrounding world.

However, it is important to note that social referencing requires the child to coordinate his or her attention between an object and the adult (initiate eye contact), to map the adult’s reaction to its source (follow gaze), and to comprehend the communicative significance of the adult’s emotionally structured message.

Baby Looking Up


Social Referencing in Different Stages of Child Development

Social referencing does just happen or begin abruptly at a definite time in the child’s life. It begins gradually over time at some point. however, there is a time where social referencing is most prominently displayed as will be seen in subsequent sections. so, let us observe how social referencing evolve through the years of a child’s growth.

1. During Infancy

From birth to 6 months of age, your baby can look at his hands and legs, suck his fingers and respond to your smiles and touch. He can also smile at the different sounds you make and try to find out where he is being touched.

From 6 months to one year of age, he would have learned to express pleasure, unhappiness, and even anger while also being able to distinguish between strangers and family members. He also responds to your gestures to please you and feels sadness when taken away from you.

2. After Infancy

Between the ages of 1 to 2 years, he takes your cues before approaching a new object or going to a stranger. Express happiness when you praise him for something good that he does and imitate your speech and actions.

Between the ages of 2 to 4 years old, your child will display different moods and interests and express some autonomy while still using social referencing for everything.

From 4 to 8 years, your child will learn to interact and play with other children and stay friendly. He will also learn to follow the rules and play as part of a team and express specific interest in activities or subjects.

When does Social Referencing begin in Children?

When Does Social Referencing Begin in Children?

Effectively, it is suggested that in the last quarter of the first year, infants become capable of integrating interpersonal communication with objects and situations in the environment. However, as seen above, this development and tendency begin to manifest at various stages of the child’s growth. Right from a tender age, a child begins to practice social referencing.

Thus, infants at about the last quarter of their first year are capable of viewing their parents as teachers and sources of knowledge about the environment; thus, there is true two-person communication about third events, including people and objects in the environment, which yields meaning about the world to the infant.

Accordingly, the information can be actively solicited, casually observed, or actively imparted by another person, and referencing can be affective (whether to feel positively or negatively about a situation), instrumental (how to behave in or cope with a situation), or both.

Hence, the differences between the broad and narrow definitions of social referencing are important, but should not obscure what both have in common: the astounding claim that infants as young as 10 months can make deliberate and specific use of another person’s judgment to form their own appraisal of a situation.

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. Accordingly, to effectively teach your child through social referencing, you need to note these points.

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.

2. 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.

3. 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.

Importance of Social Referencing in Your Child’s Development

Importance of Social Referencing in Your Child’s Development

Social referencing is just too important for the growing child. Certainly, it is the child’s major means of interacting with people and the environment around. Surely, there are many usefulness of social referencing to kids. Below are some of them.

1. Social referencing is a critical component of your child’s emotional development. They start learning the meanings of different emotive expressions, the words and sounds that follow, and how they associate with things.

2. Social referencing is an important part of the decision-making and will build your child’s confidence in your inputs. This mechanism develops into a process that forms the basis of their decision-making skills in life.

3. Social referencing in toddlers also lays down the foundation for complex thought and understanding the connotations of different emotive expressions. Although it is not obvious at that age, the foundation laid down at home, and other social environments will have a profound influence on the development of the child.

4. Social referencing represents one of the major mechanisms by which infants come to understand the world around them.

5. With newly acquired knowledge about environmental events, infants are capable of regulating their behaviors toward people and objects in accordance with the appraisals given them by caregivers.

6. Social referencing enables a child to learn about the environment independent of direct experience.

Nature has never been wrong. She has kept structures and systems in place to accommodate almost all the variables of the universe. Just imagine what would have been the condition of infants if there was nothing like social referencing. Truly, life is beautiful and is even more beautiful with kids around.

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.

What do you think about social referencing and this article? You can as well share it with friends.

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