What is emotional and social development like during middle childhood?
Children in middle childhood are starting to make friends in more sophisticated ways. They are choosing friends for specific characteristics, including shared interests, a sense of humor, and being a good person. That is quite a departure from the earlier days of playing with the people in your group just because they are there. Children in middle childhood are starting to realize that there are benefits to friendships, and there are sometimes difficulties as well. In this section, we’ll examine some aspects of these relationships.
- Examine Erikson’s stage of industry vs. inferiority as it relates to middle childhood
- Describe the importance of peer relationships to middle childhood
- Describe different parenting styles and family tasks
- Examine short term-and long term consequences of divorce on children
- Describe issues regarding sexual abuse and children
Psychodynamic and Psychosocial Theories of Middle Childhood
Now let’s turn our attention to concerns related to social development, self-concept, the world of friendships, and family life. During middle childhood, children are likely to show more independence from their parents and family, think more about the future, understand more about their place in the world, pay more attention to friendships, and want to be accepted by their peers.
Freud’s Psychosexual Development: The Latency Stage
|Table 2. Freud’s Stages of Psychosexual Development|
|Stage||Age (years)||Erogenous Zone||Major Conflict||Adult Fixation Example|
|Oral||0–1||Mouth||Weaning off breast or bottle||Smoking, overeating|
|Anal||1–3||Anus||Toilet training||Neatness, messiness|
|Phallic||3–6||Genitals||Oedipus/Electra complex||Vanity, overambition|
Remember that Freud’s theory of psychosexual development suggests that children develop their personality through a series of psychosexual stages. In each stage, the erogenous zone is the source of the libidinal energy. So far we have seen the oral stage (ages birth – 18 months), the anal stage (ages 18 months – 3 years), and the phallic stage (ages 3 years – 6 years).
During middle childhood (6-11), the child enters the latency stage, focusing their attention outside the family and toward friendships. Freud’s fourth stage of psychosexual development is the latency stage. This stage begins around age 6 and lasts until puberty. The biological drives are temporarily quieted (latent) and the child can direct attention to a larger world of friends. If the child is able to make friends, they will gain a sense of confidence. If not, the child may continue to be a loner or shy away from others, even as an adult.
In the latency stage, children are actually doing very little psychosexual developing according to Freud. Where pleasure and development occurred through erogenous zones in the first 3 stages, in the latency stage all pleasure from erogenous zones is repressed. In other words, it is latent—hence the stage’s name. Freud believed that in the latency stage all development and stimulation come from secondary sources since the erogenous forces are repressed. These secondary sources can include education, forming various social relationships, and hobbies.
Erikson’s Psychosocial Development: Industry vs. Inferiority
|Table 3. Erikson’s Psychosocial Stages of Development|
|Stage||Age (years)||Developmental Task||Description|
|1||0–1||Trust vs. mistrust||Trust (or mistrust) that basic needs, such as nourishment and affection, will be met|
|2||1–3||Autonomy vs. shame/doubt||Develop a sense of independence in many tasks|
|3||3–6||Initiative vs. guilt||Take initiative on some activities—may develop guilt when unsuccessful or boundaries overstepped|
|4||7–11||Industry vs. inferiority||Develop self-confidence in abilities when competent or sense of inferiority when not|
|5||12–18||Identity vs. confusion||Experiment with and develop identity and roles|
|6||19–29||Intimacy vs. isolation||Establish intimacy and relationships with others|
|7||30–64||Generativity vs. stagnation||Contribute to society and be part of a family|
|8||65–||Integrity vs. despair||Assess and make sense of life and meaning of contributions|
As we have seen in previous modules, Erikson believes that children’s greatest source of personality development comes from their social relationships. So far, we have seen 3 psychosocial stages: trust versus mistrust (ages birth – 18 months), autonomy versus shame and doubt (ages 18 months – 3 years), and initiative versus guilt (ages 3 years – around 6 years).
During the elementary school stage (ages 7–12), children face the task of industry vs. inferiority. Children begin to compare themselves with their peers to see how they measure up, which is called social comparison. They build competence. They either develop a sense of pride and accomplishment in their schoolwork, sports, social activities, and family life, or they feel inferior and inadequate because they feel that they don’t measure up. If children do not learn to get along with others or have negative experiences at home or with peers, an inferiority complex might develop into adolescence and adulthood.
According to Erikson, children in middle childhood are very busy or industrious. They are constantly doing, planning, playing, getting together with friends, and achieving. This is a very active time and a time when they are gaining a sense of how they measure up when compared with friends. Erikson believed that if these industrious children view themselves as successful in their endeavors, they will get a sense of competence for future challenges. If instead, a child feels that they are not measuring up to their peers, feelings of inferiority and self-doubt will develop. These feelings of inferiority can, according to Erikson, lead to an inferiority complex that lasts into adulthood.
To help children have a successful resolution in this stage, they should be encouraged to explore their abilities. They should be given authentic feedback as well. Failure is not necessarily a horrible thing according to Erikson. Indeed, failure is a type of feedback that may help a child form a sense of modesty. A balance of competence and modesty is ideal for creating a sense of competence in the child.
Children in middle childhood have a more realistic sense of self than do those in early childhood. That exaggerated sense of self as “biggest” or “smartest” or “tallest” gives way to an understanding of one’s strengths and weaknesses. This can be attributed to greater experience in comparing one’s own performance with that of others and to greater cognitive flexibility. A child’s self-concept can be influenced by peers, family, teachers, and the messages they send about a child’s worth. Contemporary children also receive messages from the media about how they should look and act. Movies, music videos, the internet, and advertisers can all create cultural images of what is desirable or undesirable and this too can influence a child’s self-concept.
The pre-adolescent, or tween, age range of roughly 9-12 is a major force in the marketing world. This group has a spending power of $200 billion, and are primarily targeted as consumers of media, clothing, and products that make them look “cool” and feel independent. This market came under heavy fire a few years ago for being overly sexualized, which led to the creation of a task force by the American Psychological Association to learn more—their findings and recommendations to reduce this problem can be accessed here.
The Society of Children
Friendships during middle childhood take on new importance as judges of one’s worth, competence, and attractiveness. Friendships provide the opportunity for learning social skills such as how to communicate with others and how to negotiate differences. Children get ideas from one another about how to perform certain tasks, how to gain popularity, what to wear, what to say, what to listen to, and how to act. This society of children marks a transition from a life focused on the family to a life concerned with peers. In peer relationships, children learn how to initiate and maintain social interactions with other children. They learn skills for managing conflict, such as turn-taking, compromise, and bargaining. Play and communication also involve the mutual, sometimes complex, coordination of goals, actions, and understanding.
Social Comparison and Bullying
However, peer relationships can be challenging as well as supportive (Rubin et al., 2011). Being accepted by other children is an important source of affirmation and self-esteem, but peer rejection can foreshadow later behavior problems (especially when children are rejected due to aggressive behavior). With increasing age, children confront the challenges of bullying, peer victimization, and managing conformity pressures.
Social comparison with peers is an important means by which children evaluate their skills, knowledge, and personal qualities, but it may cause them to feel that they do not measure up well against others. For example, a boy who is not athletic may feel unworthy of his football-playing peers and revert to shy behavior, isolating himself, and avoiding conversation. Conversely, an athlete who doesn’t “get” Shakespeare may feel embarrassed and avoid reading altogether.
Most children want to be liked and accepted by their friends. There are two recognized paths to popularity in middle childhood. Some popular children are nice and have good social skills. These popular-prosocial children tend to do well in school and are cooperative and friendly. Other Popular-antisocial children may gain popularity by acting tough or spreading rumors about others (Cillessen & Mayeux, 2004). Antisocial here doesn’t mean shy; it means “harmful” or destructive. These children more often use aggression to climb the social hierarchy.
Rejected children are sometimes excluded because they are shy and withdrawn. The withdrawn-rejected children are easy targets for bullies because they are unlikely to retaliate when belittled (Boulton, 1999). Other rejected children are ostracized because they are aggressive, loud, and confrontational. The aggressive-rejected children may be acting out of a feeling of insecurity. Unfortunately, their fear of rejection only leads to behavior that brings further rejection from other children.
Children who are not accepted are more likely to experience conflict, lack confidence, and have trouble adjusting. Other categories in the most commonly used sociometric system, developed by Coie and Dodge, include neglected children, who tend to go unnoticed but are not especially liked or disliked by their peers; average children, who receive an average number of positive and negative votes from their peers, or controversial children, who may be strongly liked and disliked by quite a few peers.
Also, with the approach of adolescence, peer relationships become focused on psychological intimacy, involving personal disclosure, vulnerability, and loyalty (or its betrayal)—which significantly affects a child’s outlook on the world. Each of these aspects of peer relationships requires developing very different social and emotional skills than those that emerge in parent-child relationships. They also illustrate the many ways that peer relationships influence the growth of personality and self-concept.
Stressors and Supports in Middle Childhood
During middle childhood, children spend less time with parents and more time with their peers. Parents may have to modify their approach to parenting to accommodate the child’s growing independence. Diama Baumrind observed parenting interactions and developed a typology of different parenting styles.
Authoritative parenting, arguably the best parenting style, is both demanding and supportive of the child (Maccoby & Martin, 1983). Support refers to the amount of affection, acceptance, and warmth a parent provides. Demandingness refers to the degree a parent controls their child’s behavior. Children who have authoritative parents are generally happy, capable, and successful (Maccoby, 1992).
Other, less advantageous parenting styles include authoritarian (in contrast to authoritative), permissive, and uninvolved (Tavassolie et al., 2016). Authoritarian parents are low in support and high in demandingness. Arguably, this is the parenting style used by Harry Potter’s harsh aunt and uncle, and Cinderella’s vindictive stepmother. Children who receive authoritarian parenting are more likely to be obedient and proficient but score lower in happiness, social competence, and self-esteem. Permissive parents are high in support and low in demandingness. Their children rank low in happiness and self-regulation and are more likely to have problems with authority. Uninvolved parents are low in both support and demandingness. Children of these parents tend to rank lowest across all life domains, lack self-control, have low self-esteem, and are less competent than their peers.
Support for the benefits of authoritative parenting has been found in countries as diverse as the Czech Republic (Dmitrieva et al., 2004), India (Carson et al., 1999), China (Pilgrim et al., 1999), Israel (Mayseless et al., 2003), and Palestine (Punamäki et al., 1997). In fact, authoritative parenting appears to be superior in Western, individualistic societies—so much so that some people have argued that there is no longer a need to study it (Steinberg, 2001). Other researchers are less certain about the superiority of authoritative parenting and point to differences in cultural values and beliefs. For example, while many European-American children do poorly with too much strictness (authoritarian parenting), Chinese children often do well, especially academically. The reason for this likely stems from Chinese culture viewing strictness in parenting as related to training, which is not central to American parenting (Chao, 1994).
Class and Culture
The impact of class and culture cannot be ignored when examining parenting styles. It is assumed that authoritative styles are best because they are designed to help the parent raise a child who is independent, self-reliant, and responsible. These are qualities favored in “individualistic” cultures such as the United States, particularly by the middle class.
Authoritarian parenting has been used historically and reflects the cultural need for children to do as they are told. African-American, Hispanic, and Asian parents tend to be more authoritarian than non-Hispanic whites. In collectivistic cultures such as China or Korea, being obedient and compliant are favored behaviors. In societies where family members’ cooperation is necessary for survival, as in the case of raising crops, rearing children who are independent and who strive to be on their own makes no sense. But in an economy based on being mobile in order to find jobs and where one’s earnings are based on education, raising a child to be independent is very important.
Working-class parents are more likely than middle-class parents to focus on obedience and honesty when raising their children. In a classic study on social class and parenting styles called Class and Conformity, Kohn (1977) explained that parents tend to emphasize qualities that are needed for their own survival when parenting their children. Working-class parents are rewarded for being obedient, reliable, and honest in their jobs. They are not paid to be independent or to question the management; rather, they move up and are considered good employees if they show up on time, do their work as they are told, and can be counted on by their employers. Consequently, these parents reward honesty and obedience in their children. Middle-class parents who work as professionals are rewarded for taking initiative, being self-directed, and assertive in their jobs. They are required to get the job done without being told exactly what to do. They are asked to be innovative and to work independently. These parents encourage their children to have those qualities as well by rewarding independence and self-reliance. Parenting styles can reflect many elements of culture.
One of the ways to assess the quality of family life is to consider the tasks of families. There are many different types of family or family structure. The structures refer to the formation of relationships among a household, such as single-parent families, two-parent families, adoptive families, foster families, families raised by grandparents, same-sex parent families, etc. There are numerous structures of families, however, family function, or the way families function to meet each others’ needs is paramount.
Berger (2005) lists five family functions:
- Providing food, clothing, and shelter
- Encouraging Learning
- Developing self-esteem
- Nurturing friendships with peers
- Providing harmony and stability
Notice that in addition to providing food, shelter, and clothing, families are responsible for helping the child learn, relate to others, and have a confident sense of self. The family provides a harmonious and stable environment for living. A good home environment is one in which the child’s physical, cognitive, emotional, and social needs are adequately met. Sometimes families emphasize physical needs but ignore cognitive or emotional needs. Other times, families pay close attention to physical needs and academic requirements but may fail to nurture the child’s friendships with peers or guide the child toward developing healthy relationships. Parents might want to consider how it feels to live in the household. Is it stressful and conflict-ridden? Is it a place where family members enjoy being?
Family Change: Divorce
Factors Affecting the Impact of Divorce
The impact of divorce on children depends on a number of factors. The degree of conflict prior to the divorce plays a role. If the divorce means a reduction in tensions, the child may feel relief. If the parents have kept their conflicts hidden, the announcement of a divorce can come as a shock and be met with enormous resentment. Another factor that has a great impact on the child concerns financial hardships they may suffer, especially if financial support is inadequate. Another difficult situation for children of divorce is the position they are put into if the parents continue to argue and fight-especially if they bring the children into those arguments.
Short-term consequences: In roughly the first year following divorce, children may exhibit some of these short-term effects:
- Grief over losses suffered. The child will grieve the loss of the parent they no longer see as frequently. The child may also grieve about other family members that are no longer available. Grief sometimes comes in the form of sadness, but it can also be experienced as anger or withdrawal. Preschool-aged boys may act out aggressively while the same-aged girls may become more quiet and withdrawn. Older children may feel depressed.
- Reduced Standard of Living. Very often, divorce means a change in the amount of money coming into the household. Children experience new constraints on spending or entertainment. School-aged children, especially, may notice that they can no longer have toys, clothing, or other items to which they’ve grown accustomed. The custodial parent may experience stress at not being able to rely on child support payments or having the same level of income as before. This can affect decisions regarding healthcare, vacations, rents, mortgages, and other expenditures. The stress can result in less happiness and relaxation in the home. The parent who has to take on more work may also be less available to the children.
- Adjusting to Transitions. Children may also have to adjust to other changes accompanying a divorce. The divorce might mean moving to a new home and changing schools or friends. It might mean leaving a neighborhood that has meant a lot to them as well.
Long-Term consequences: The following are some effects found after the first year of a divorce:
- Economic/Occupational Status. One of the most commonly cited long-term effects of divorce is that children of divorce may have lower levels of education or occupational status. This may be a consequence of lower-income and resources for funding education rather than to divorce per se. In those households where economic hardship does not occur, there may be no impact on education or occupational status (Drexler, 2005).
- Improved Relationships with the Custodial Parent (usually the mother): The majority of custodial parents are mothers (approximately 80.4 percent) and 19.6 percent of custodial parents are fathers. Shared custody is on the rise, however, and shows promising social, academic, and psychological results for the children. Children from single-parent families talk to their mothers more often than children of two-parent families (McLanahan & Sandefur, 1994). Most children of divorce lead happy, well-adjusted lives and develop stronger, positive relationships with their custodial parent (Seccombe & Warner, 2004). In a study of college-age respondents, Arditti (1999) found that increasing closeness and a movement toward more democratic parenting styles was experienced. Others have also found that relationships between mothers and children become closer and stronger (Guttman, 1993) and suggest that greater equality and less rigid parenting is beneficial after divorce (Steward et al., 1997).
- Greater emotional independence in sons. Drexler (2005) notes that sons who are raised by mothers only develop an emotional sensitivity to others that is beneficial in relationships.
- Feeling more anxious in their own love relationships. Children of divorce may feel more anxious about their own relationships as adults. This may reflect a fear of divorce if things go wrong, or it may be a result of setting higher expectations for their own relationships.
- Adjustment of the custodial parent. Furstenberg and Cherlin (1991) believe that the primary factor influencing the way that children adjust to divorce is the way the custodial parent adjusts to the divorce. If that parent is adjusting well, the children will benefit. This may explain a good deal of the variation we find in children of divorce. Adults going through divorce should consider good self-care as beneficial to the children-not as self-indulgent.
- Mental health issues: Some studies suggest that anxiety and depression that are common in children and adults within the first year of divorce may actually not resolve. A 15-year study by Bohman et al. (2017) suggests that parental separation significantly increases the risk for depression 15 years later when depression rates were compared to matched controls. In fact, the risk of depression was related more strongly with parental conflict and parental separation than it was with parental depression!
Sexual Abuse in Middle Childhood
Researchers estimate that 1 out of 4 girls and 1 out of 10 boys have been sexually abused (Valente, 2005). The median age for sexual abuse is 8 or 9 years for both boys and girls, around the first signs of physical puberty (Finkelhor et. al. 1990). Most boys and girls are sexually abused by a male. Childhood sexual abuse is defined as any sexual contact between a child and an adult or a much older child. Incest refers to sexual contact between a child and family members. In each of these cases, the child is exploited by an older person without regard for the child’s developmental immaturity and inability to understand the sexual behavior (Steele, 1986).
Although rates of sexual abuse are higher for girls than for boys, boys may be less likely to report abuse because of the cultural expectation that boys should be able to take care of themselves and because of the stigma attached to homosexual encounters (Finkelhor et. al. 1990). Girls are more likely to be victims of incest and boys are more likely to be abused by someone outside the family. Sexual abuse can create feelings of self-blame, betrayal, and feelings of shame and guilt (Valente, 2005). Sexual abuse is particularly damaging when the perpetrator is someone the child trusts. Victims of sexual abuse may suffer from depression, anxiety, problems with intimacy, and suicide (Valente, 2005). Sexual abuse has additional impacts as well. Studies suggest that children who have been sexually abused have an increased risk of eating disorders and sleep disturbances Further, sexual abuse can lead to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Being sexually abused as a child can have a powerful impact on self-concept. The concept of false self-training (Davis, 1999) refers to holding a child to adult standards while denying the child’s developmental needs. Sexual abuse is just one example of false self-training. Children are held to adult standards of desirableness and sexuality while their level of cognitive, psychological, and emotional immaturity is ignored. Consider how confusing it might be for a 9-year-old girl who has physically matured early to be thought of as a potential sex partner. Her cognitive, psychological, and emotional state do not equip her to make decisions about sexuality or, perhaps, to know that she can say no to sexual advances. She may feel like a 9-year-old in all ways and be embarrassed and ashamed of her physical development. Girls who mature early have problems with low self-esteem because of the failure of others (family members, teachers, ministers, peers, advertisers, and others) to recognize and respect their developmental needs. Overall, youth are more likely to be victimized because they do not have control over their contact with offenders (parents, babysitters, etc.) and have no means of escape (Finkelhor and Dzuiba-Leatherman, in Davis, 1999).
Up until middle childhood, the process of development isn’t usually as structured as it becomes during middle childhood when children enter into the formal education setting. Children in school are taught new ways of thinking about things that they already know—they learn why they structure sentences the way they do, they learn new words not through hearing them from others, but from lists provided by teachers or determined by committees. They are even taught how to play sports in specific ways with explicit rules that they get tested on in written form. This is quite a departure from the organic learning of younger years.
Learning in this new way is difficult for some children who have never had to sit down for formal instruction. Structured learning can also shed light on learning difficulties and learning disabilities. Educators today are trained to recognize the signs of many learning disabilities so that children can get help early on in their academic careers.
Developing social relationships in the school environment and keeping up with the changing relationships at home can be difficult tasks for children during middle childhood. Children begin the period relatively dependent on parents and by the end of the period, children should be able to act autonomously in terms of decision making and caring for themselves. This change may feel quick to parents, and it can be difficult for them to let go of control and to allow the child to make more decisions. In order for the child to continue healthy development, though, that gradual letting go is necessary. Parents should pay close attention to their children to recognize signs that the child is capable of taking on new responsibilities. This will help the child continue to develop their skills, their sense of self, their sense of place in the family, and their sense of place in the greater community.
Additional Supplemental Resources
- Autism Science Foundation (Links to an external site.)
- An organization supporting autism research by providing funding and other assistance to scientists and organizations conducting, facilitating, publicizing, and disseminating autism research. The organization also provides information about autism to the general public and serves to increase awareness of autism spectrum disorders and the needs of individuals and families affected by autism.
- Stop Bullying (Links to an external site.)
- There are many types of bullying, including physical, verbal, social, and cyber. With bullying affecting so many people, it is important to understand what it is and how to respond to it and prevent it. This Web site provides a plethora of resources for a variety of audiences.
- Crash Course Video #13 – How We Make Memories
- This video on how we make memories includes information on topics such as stages of memory, mnemonics, and levels of processing. Closed captioning available.
- Kohlberg’s Stages of Moral Development
- This video summarizes Kohlberg’s stages of moral development. The stages themselves are structured in three levels: Pre-Conventional, Conventional, and Post-Conventional.
- Heinz Dilemma – Kohlberg’s Stages of Moral Development (Interactive Animation)
- Heinz’s dilemma was conceived by Lawrence Kohlberg in its original research on the stages of moral development. This video presents a simplified version of the experiment.
- What is dyslexia? – Kelli Sandman-Hurley- TEDed
- Dyslexia affects up to 1 in 5 people, but the experience of dyslexia isn’t always the same. This difficulty in processing language exists along a spectrum — one that doesn’t necessarily fit with labels like “normal” and “defective.” Kelli Sandman-Hurley urges us to think again about dyslexic brain function and to celebrate the neurodiversity of the human brain.
- Piaget – Stage 3 – Concrete – Reversibility
- Does this child understand the concept of reversibility? Which stage would that put her in?
- The Three Mountain Problem was devised by Piaget to test whether a child’s thinking was egocentric, which was also a helpful indicator of whether the child was in the preoperational stage or the concrete operational stage of cognitive development. Which stage are these children in?
- ADHD at School
- ADHD stands for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and is considered a mental disorder. Children with ADHD have trouble paying attention, are hyperactive, and have difficulty controlling their behavior. To understand how it affects children in school, let’s look at the story of Leo, a 12-year-old boy who is going to school with the best intentions, but is struggling hard to succeed.
- The World Needs All Kinds of Minds- TED talk
- Temple Grandin, diagnosed with autism as a child, talks about how her mind works — sharing her ability to “think in pictures,” which helps her solve problems that neurotypical brains might miss. She makes the case that the world needs people on the autism spectrum: visual thinkers, pattern thinkers, verbal thinkers, and all kinds of smart geeky kids.