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During the elementary school years, development tends to settle down a little bit. By around age six, children begin to distinguish between inner states and material outer states, meaning they develop a fuller grasp between what they imagine and what actually is. (Selman, 1980) Their thinking starts to become more concrete. By eight years of age, a child’s brain is nearly its mature size. Brainwaves also increase, producing a more mature level of brain activity that is more on par with an adult. (Epstein, 1980) By the age of 10 or 12, a child’s brain has reached its full size, though its neural development is far from over.

A child’s expanding social awareness and how it relates to adversity

As a child enters elementary school, their social world suddenly gets a whole lot bigger. Friends go from being physical to emotional. (Youniss & Volpe, 1978) Because of this, a child’s use of social comparisons to describe themselves increases dramatically after the age of seven. (Ruble, 1983) Whereas young children tend to describe themselves based primarily on physical features (boy/girl, age, size, hair color, capabilities, etc.), by the age of 8 that has changed, and children distinguish themselves more in psychological terms. (Broughton, 1978) Likes and dislikes, personal interests, friends, character qualities, relations with others; all of these become firmly incorporated into a child’s identity by the elementary school years.

Along with this new emphasis on social life and their greatly expanded psychological representation of the self also comes many new vulnerabilities. Children become more sensitive to the opinions of other kids, and so fitting in becomes more important. As children get older, they become more self-critical of themselves. (Harter, 1983) Peer pressure starts to exert its influence more and more. Antisocial behavior can also begin to emerge at this age as a byproduct of peer influence. (Bixenstine, DeCorte & Bixenstine, 1976) This greater social influence, combined with a mind that is more adept at abstract psychological thinking, means that school age children become more vulnerable to things like stigmatization or the types of abstract social messages that surround many issues in life. For example, there is physical suffering (I’m hungry and cold because we’re poor and can’t pay for food or heat) and then there is mental suffering caused by abstract social messages (others must think our family is worthless because we’re poor and can’t pay for food or heat; Alex says my Dad’s a bum because he can’t find work. Other people think I’m tainted or dirty or my “innocence has been stolen” because someone touched me in a certain way, etc.). Therefore much like adults, who love to create a million different rules for how life is supposed to be and then torture themselves when life fails to conform to these beliefs, school-age children begin to form mental representations about who or what they are based upon whatever nonsense others may suggest about a situation. Things no longer just are what they are – negative events now come equipped with abstract ideas that can cause just as much pain as actual experiences.

Core Adversity Concepts for Grade School Children:

  • Kids this age tend to be worriers. Though they may not speak openly about it, they are very attuned to family situations and tend to obsess about problems.
  • School age children are very sensitive towards attacks on their family, and especially their parents. They can be brought to tears by hurtful things said about their parents, just as if these things were said about them directly.
  • They’re old enough to have a greater grasp that something negative is going on, yet they’re still young enough and helpless enough that these events can feel overwhelming.

Helping school-age kids deal with adversity

1) Parents should try to strike the right balance between giving them enough information to feel in the loop but not so much as to stress them out needlessly. Trying to hide family problems or other difficulties from school-age kids is typically not a wise thing to do. They can sniff out a cover up, and your silence will only cause them to worry more and suspect the worst.

They’re young enough to still benefit from a buffering zone between you and the cold-harsh realities of the world, but old enough to despise being treated like babies or looked upon as though they can’t handle information. So find ways to keep kids this age privy to what’s going on, while still sparing them every stressful detail that will only cause anxiety.

2) Recognize that children this age are very sensitive to and protective of their parents, and may suppress their true feelings if they think it will cause you stress. They’re masters at telling you precisely what they think you want to hear. So make it clear to kids that you want them to tell you exactly what they are feeling without hiding anything, and that you won’t be upset or stressed out to hear what they have to say.

3) Find ways to offer control and stability to kids this age, no matter how trivial. They want to feel like they are helping, even if it’s only an illusion. They also benefit from stable rituals, no matter how minor. Your family could be homeless and living in a tent, but still making a big deal out of finding time to get together for an evening meal can go a long way towards feeling they have some stability in their lives. So find ways to develop meaningful family rituals during stressful times that will help school-age kids feel a sense of empowerment and stability.

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