Children grow upward and outward during middle childhood. They hatch from the cocoon of family and home to explore new places, new people, and new things. As they develop their skills and sense of self through relationships and experiences within and outside of their family, they become more independent and confident in their abilities. By the end of middle childhood and the onset of adolescence, children are expected to:
- Complete activities of daily living independently (e.g., homework, brush teeth, get dressed, etc.)
- Understand and abide by social rules
- Take the perspectives of others
- Spend more time away from home with peers and in extracurricular activities
- Succeed academically
- Desire and value time spent alone
- Self-soothe (regulate and manage their emotions)
- Demonstrate self-control
While 6 to 7 year olds will still have an occasional meltdown or tantrum when they are upset and/or rely heavily on their parents to help them calm down, the frequency and intensity of emotional distress should be decreasing as they develop and learn emotion coping skills (e.g., walking away from conflict, saying, “Oh well,” focusing on solutions rather than the problem). This is motivated in part by the growing realization that kids do not like to be friends with kids whose emotional outbursts interfere with play or who hurt their feelings. In contrast to when they were younger, when friends were peers who liked to do the same things as you, friendships in middle childhood are defined by loyalty and supportive behaviors. As they start to realize they can rely on their friends, friends become more important to them. Middle childhood is when you start to see children’s first best friends and enemies.
During middle childhood, children start to better understand and think through the consequences of their actions. This ability is related to both their capacity to take the perspectives of others and by the increasing value friendships play in their well-being. By the end of middle childhood, they understand that their social standing with friendships and peer groups depends on their ability to follow rules, behave like their peers, do well in school, and treat others kindly. At home, they strive to comply with rules/parental requests and complete chores and homework because of the sense of pride and accomplishment they feel when they are able to do things well. They feel good when they can say “I did this.”
As children progress through elementary school, academic performance and achievement plays an ever-increasing role in how they feel about themselves (self-esteem) and how they are received by their peers. Children who do well in school make friends with classmates who also get good grades, feel good about themselves, and have good social skills. The more they interact and spend time together, the better their grades, self-esteem, and social skills will be.
As they develop an awareness of others, children also develop a sense of self and begin to compare themselves to others to evaluate their own skills. They ask themselves, “Am I as good as Jimmy at sports?” If so, they might conclude, “I must be good at sports.” By the time they enter adolescence, they start to integrate their skills into their sense of identity. So, “I must be good at sports” evolves into “I’m a sports person.”
It is important to remember that children develop at different rates during middle childhood and do not necessarily demonstrate the same level of skill across all areas. How they are functioning also depends on their experiences at home, at school, and with their friends, and can fluctuate daily. It is not uncommon for children and their parents to experience some degree of stress and emotional unrest in the wake of all of these changes. However, when a child is experiencing frequent and intense problems that do not seem to improve with parent or teacher intervention, it may be time to seek professional help.
Signs that suggest an evaluation is needed:
- Decline in school performance or failure to perform at the level of functioning
- Excessive worry or anxiety that limits or prevents your child from participating in activities with friends, going to school, or going to sleep at night
- Frequent and intense meltdowns, tantrums, or mood swings
- Hyperactivity, fidgety/wriggly, constantly moving, or difficulty concentrating
- Difficulty demonstrating independence in completing daily activities at the level of most of his or her peers
- Failure to make and/or keep the number of friends they wish they had