In this series of articles Diana Radeva, child and adolescent psychotherapist sets out to consider the emotional life of children from birth onwards; and how relationships between children and parents evolve over time. It is a view of human growth, which recognises the importance of strong feelings experienced at each stage of development; thus offering ways that parents might find helpful when wanting to better understand their children’s growth. This is the extraordinary story of the ‘ordinary development’ as seen and experienced by a parent and a child psychotherapist.
In focusing on eight to nine-year-olds, I will look at the ‘latent’ stage of child development when children gradually move away from reliance on their family and become more concerned with the outside world. This is the period when they have a rest from some of the turbulence and passion of the early years and face a range of new tasks and challenges. School has been a feature of their life for about three years but it changes at this point into something a little more formal.
Questions about identity move beyond the confidence of the family. The child is no longer simply the child of their parents but an individual who feels defined in a more complicated way. Children will describe themselves not only by name but also by school, by year group, by neighbourhood, by favourite soccer team and possibly by friendship group.
When all is going well, and there are firm foundations to build on from the child’s earlier experience, these ‘latency’ years are about the mastery of new skills and the accumulation of knowledge. Children are finding out about the real world, at the same time as enjoying forays into the world of fantasy, magic and mystery. They are developing a sense of right and wrong and might become very preoccupied with questions of justice. The world is often seen as consisting of ‘goodies’ and ‘baddies’ and there is a strong preference for stories in which good triumphs over evil and there is a happy ending. Causes such as the protection of the endangered species are very appealing to children at this developmental stage and they may become zealous about environmental issues such as energy preserving or recycling. They need to believe they can make a difference and may be overwhelmed by some of the harsher realities of life.
Children of this age tend to revel in making collections, whether it be of various kinds of stickers, cards or accessories. The collections provide the focus of some element of rivalry and competition, as well as an arena for the assessment of relative value and the development of bargaining skills. Children respond enthusiastically to being awarded badges or stickers and thrive on praise and recognition.
Eight and nine-year-old children vary enormously in their physical development. Some are beginning to stretch out and look as if they are just waiting to move into adolescence. Others are still round-faced and somehow toddlers. By the age of nine, there may be some girls who have begun to menstruate, although this sign of physical maturity is unlikely to be matched by emotional or psychological development. For the most part, this is an age group in which boys and girls opt for friendships with their own gender and are intolerant of the other.
The next stage
There is something deeply significant about nearly reaching double figures. By the time they are ‘nearly ten’ most children will have a coherent picture of who they are and how they fit into the bigger system of home, family and school. They will no longer see things in simple terms, as either right or wrong, but encompass a range of views or even acknowledge their ambivalent feelings. For the past two or three years, the energy that has been directed towards the acquisition of knowledge and skills; now they turn back to focus more fully on the world of human relationships.