The Challenges of Middle Childhood

They’re long out of diapers but will have to wait before they get behind the wheel. And whether they’re starting first grade or are reigning queens and kings of their elementary schools, your kids’ minds, bodies and emotions are subtly changing to help prepare them for adulthood.

“This period is a critical time for social, physical, cognitive and emotional development,” says Danny Plax, MD, board-certified pediatrician on staff with St. Louis Children’s Hospital. “Parents can help their children leave this stage with a good sense of self by focusing on what that child does well without making comparisons to other children. Instill a sense of responsibility by positively reinforcing them for good decisions and establishing consequences -- but still offering your support -- for choices that could be better.”

As a parent, you may be wondering if your children are developing on target. “It’s essential to remember that a great deal of variability among this age group is completely common,” says Suzanne Thompson, PhD, pediatric psychologist on staff with St. Louis Children’s Hospital. “Differences in personality, talents, activity choices and challenges should be expected -- even among siblings.”

Getting Physical

During middle childhood, your kids will continue to grow at a steady rate -- though perhaps not as rapidly as in infancy and early childhood.

“Boys and girls typically have similar growth patterns during this period,” says Dr. Plax. “Until puberty (which begins on average at age 10 1/2 for girls and 11 1/2 for boys) both sexes often gain two to three inches in height and three to eight pounds in weight annually.”

In addition to overall changes in size, middle childhood is also characterized by the development of small muscles, which helps to increase fine motor skills necessary for tasks like writing and learning to play musical instruments.

Moreover, some children (especially girls) may even begin to show the signs of puberty like breast buds or development of pubic hair toward the end of the 6 to 12 age range. If your child shows concern or anxiety about these characteristics, offer reassurance that the changes are completely normal.

Mental Masters

Beyond the changes they experience in their bodies, children at this age also experience a significant shift in the way they think. During the preschool stage, children tend to think concretely, but during middle childhood, they begin to grasp more abstract concepts. Their increasing cognitive capabilities help them master the challenges of school.

The perfect time to learn to read and write, the mental maturation of middle childhood enables both boys and girls to better focus their attention as well as take time to locate necessary information. In addition, the ability to order and sequence events and objects enhances mathematical abilities.

“This age span can be the time when learning problems may appear. Watch for difficulties with tasks like remembering facts; basic spelling, grammar and math skills; and organizing information, materials and concepts,” explains Dr. Thompson. “Teachers can be excellent resources for parents looking for feedback about their child’s development. They can also help point parents in the right direction for intervention by recommending strategies to try at home or a counselor trained in learning disabilities.”

The Social Situation


Though the cognitive changes are equally as important, they may not be as clearly observable as the transforming social ties your children experience at this age. Between the ages of 6 and 12, children often become more concerned with friendships and attachments with peers and choose to play with same-sex friends.

“Around this age, a child’s peer group becomes increasingly important,” explains Dr. Plax. “Though parents still serve a vital role, friends are also starting to play a more active part in forming their opinions and perceptions.”

In addition, your children will likely show interest in activities outside of school. “Children at this age generally want to be involved in hobbies like Scouts, music, sports and church,” says Dr. Thompson. “However, parents should be careful not to overschedule their children’s time. Try to provide a mix of adult-directed, structured activities as well as unstructured free play.”

Though the complexity of social relationships can vary greatly depending on age, individual personality and possibly even gender, the impact of the changing social landscape is incredibly important for your children.

“Though it may change from day to day, try to remain in touch with your children’s moods,” says Dr. Plax. “Be sure that they have and interact well with friends and pay attention to their concerns about peers and social settings.”

Communicate with Your Child


As with other age groups, the key to helping your kids make the most of middle childhood is maintaining open communication with your children and the other adults involved in their lives. If your child seems distressed, don’t hesitate to talk with your doctor about your concerns.

Want to learn more? Dr. Thompson recommends Raising a Thinking Preteen: The “I Can Problem Solve” Program for 8 to 12 Year Olds by Dr. Myrna B. Shure and The Heart of Parenting: Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child by Dr. John Gottman. Stop by our FamilyResourceCenter or call 314.454.2350 to check out these books.