There’s a developmental phase in childhood that doesn’t get talked about enough, and yet provokes an enormous amount of questions and concern. It can best be described as dramatic. That may be an understatement. It is when children become even more imaginative and complex, and also when behavior can regress and take us by surprise with its ferocity. I’m talking about the shift that happens around 6 or 7, though it can happen as early as 5 and as late as 8.
Physically, it makes a lot of sense. The brain has spent the first 5-6 years growing and supporting the completion of all internal organ systems and basic human skills. Voila! A complete and somewhat autonomous human being! Now the brain has another big growth and shifts to developing intellect. Neuron pathways starting branching together so quickly they look like forests. In particular, language (both spoken and in symbols) and relationships (both spatial and conceptual) see a significant neurological leap. You might see evidence of your child making connections that are new or more complicated. Your child might also become an “expert” at something, or everything, with their first foray into abstract thought. Children in this phase are now able to see themselves as an individual, both independent and a part of the family, and this new identity can produce both wonder and fear in relationship to bigger concepts such as death or good vs. evil.
On the upside, the ability to form images or words inside the head can produce a wonderful era of reading for pleasure, creativity, innovation and building, interest in formal music study, and storytelling. While you might see a lot of mental planning and execution begin to flourish, understand that the tertiary areas that support long term planning and decision making develop later, so I wouldn’t expect much follow through without parental involvement at this point! Doing everything you can to encourage imagination and exploration, particularly through kinesthetic activities that naturally pair strategic or creative thinking with physical action, will not only support the brain’s development during this time, but will also help kids to understand how to regulate their own bodies and emotions.
Children at this stage are able to process much more complex ideas and feelings, and initially this can be overwhelming and exhausting. Often their emotional development has not quite caught up, so they end up expressing their frustration, fear, confusion, and elation in exaggerated and sometimes intense ways. Parents are often taken by surprise at the sudden re-appearance of tantrums, testing limits, and an unwillingness to do things (like go to bed) that they were perfectly willing to do mere weeks ago. They can be moody or inconsistent in their actions. It is not that they are incapable of following rules or direction, by the way. They are capable, but their intentions to do so can be often thwarted by unexpected emotion or an unbending focus on what they believe to be right or fair. When kids are stressed, as this phase predictably provokes, they tend to easily lose auditory processing and peripheral vision. They also tend to move a lot as the rest of their bodies compensate for the loss. So it is absolutely possible that they did not hear you, that they did not see something, and that they can not stop fidgeting. All of this is exhausting, and your kid may even start occasionally napping again. It is our responsibility to adjust, create a more appropriate environment, and help them through.
I want to emphasize here that all children experience this phase differently, and some find it harder than others. Children who are sensory sensitive, Edison Trait, Spirited, 2E, or on the spectrum may find this phase even more challenging because it triggers the very reactions they already struggle with. These kids generally find it difficult to express emotion productively or consistently, and adding complexity of thought to the process is enormous for them. They are also dealing with something that many people don’t understand: every emotion, from elation to anger to disappointment, often manifests itself physically for these children. Meaning, when that child feels angry, they are feeling it in their whole body, not just their heart and mind. I know, because I was one of those kids (and still am, though I can control it now) and I have one of those kids. The moment I was able to describe back to my son how it felt to have emotional reactions that I could physically feel was incredible. That someone understood what he was experiencing- with no judgement, only compassion- allowed him to finally trust that he could build a framework for himself to process and have control over his emotions.
So, after experiencing this 6-7 shift with many kids that I have mentored and taught over the years, the inevitable research I pursued along the way, and now having all three of my kids through it and onto other developmental phases, these are the things that helped us maintain our relationships and turned this phase into a gift rather than something to simply be endured:
Have your child do as much heavy work with their body as possible.
Activities that involve the whole body, particularly pulling and pushing using the body’s own weight, are fantastic for building endurance. Endurance is the bridge between the mind and the body. Go hiking, and have them carry a backpack. Sign them up for a pottery class where they are building with clay (not just painting). Sports that focus on physical and spatial awareness like gymnastics, dance, parkour, rock climbing and Quidditch (non-traditional but fun AND carrying around that broom is fantastic heavy body work) are all great ways to keep the body engaged while the mind expands.
Academics should not be the focus of your child’s day. Play should be.
“Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood.” – Fred Rogers
There is plenty of evidence that formal academics shouldn’t even be introduced until age 8 and this phase is why. Studies have shown that beginning academics earlier than 7 has no long term benefits, but children who did not begin formal academics until after 7 showed less mental health issues related to stress, better comprehension skills, a more developed ability to self regulate, and a more positive attitude towards learning.
This doesn’t mean learning shouldn’t be supported and encouraged. Frankly, you can’t stop them from learning (and why would you?), but it is helpful to know that at 6-7, kids are entering the “industry” phase. What can I do? What can I make? How can I explore what I love in meaningful ways? Focus on kinesthetic learning- how can they use their bodies to create something that helps them understand a concept or question? All of these questions get answered in preparation for the next phase (Identity), a phase in which it gets much harder to get your kid to try new things. So, when I say your child is building themselves as life long learners right now, it’s not an exaggeration.
You will get farther and get the best out of this developmental shift by creating an environment that is fun and focused on the things they are passionate about. Do they love dinosaurs? Great! Draw a circle on a page and write dinosaurs in the middle. Now list out all the things you could possible explore around the subject of dinosaurs: books from the library, prehistoric life, fossils, paleontology, anatomy and physiology of dinosaurs, volcanoes, meteors, climate, prehistoric environments, other prehistoric life like bugs and plants, dinosaurs in films and cartoons, dinosaur shows, special effects, robotics, dinosaur video games, and I’m sure we could go on. It’s inevitable that, because your child is motivated by their passion, they will develop reading, comprehension, and mathematical skills that are necessary to get them where they want to go. From an alternative education point of view, this kind of individualization and holistic approach to learning is commonly accepted and practiced. Obviously, this is not the way the school system is set up, but even if you are following a more traditional educational path, it is worth fostering self selected study which will naturally help kids be prepared to move onto the next stage of education when formal lessons begin or intensify. And most importantly, your child will develop a love of learning that will endure.
Rethink rewards and punishments.
Disciplining a child for what he or she can’t control is counterproductive, breeding resentment, disconnect, and shame. Be forewarned that a child who is constantly given the label of a “bad kid” will begin to believe it and manifest that identity because they have no other choice. Don’t tell a child to “use their words” without first helping them find the words that would be most helpful in expressing their feelings and their truth. Remember, their developing intellect does not always match up with their behavior, and kids of this age are profoundly impacted by parental tone.
Personally, I had one child who breezed through this phase, one whom exhibited a fairly sizable and dramatic but normal shift, and one for whom this phase was very difficult, making us question everything we were doing and completely changing our parenting. This may be controversial for some, but I found punitive consequences to be a trap. Especially for our middle child, the punishment would continue to escalate while he held his ground until there was nothing left to take away. Nothing was learned or gained from this. So we stopped engaging in what society had ingrained in us and started communicating differently. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t natural consequences to behavior or action. There absolutely is. But they happen naturally, that’s the point. If he refused or took too long to get ready, even with consistent reminders, we miss the opportunity to go. If he is rude to his sister, we work on what is happening with him that he felt the need to build himself up by tearing her down. This approach was life changing for us and for him, and in the end most closely aligned with how to support what is happening for kids during this phase.
Regardless of how your child moves through these years (or any of their years), I have found staying neutral yet caring, and understanding that their behavior is not personal and that it is not about you, is essential. Humor is usually my first approach to any conflict. I don’t expect kids to know how to do something unless I have done it with them and shown them the way, multiple times. I don’t expect them to remember to do things consistently at this age so I start modeling executive functioning skills by making lists and creating bullet journals for every one of my children that contain our weekly schedule, goals, responsibilities. There’s a phrase- you can’t expect what you don’t inspect. I think that is generally true, though I prefer to think of it less as an inspection of duties completed and more of a nurturing of essential life skills. I embrace this with my own children, as well as the children in my classes and workshops. Letting go of the idea that their issue has anything to do with me (unless it actually does) allows me to be patient, empathetic, and help that child make the connection between thought, action, and emotion.
Set up for success.
Frankly, I take a page out of science and aim for the path of least resistance. There may be situations like classes or park days that just aren’t working right now. Give yourself and your child permission to not do it. Your kid may bounce from interest to interest, or want to quit something they have been doing for years. Only you can sort out what their level of dedication is and whether they will regret taking a break from something they used to be passionate about. There is lots of anecdotal evidence of people who say they are glad their parents made them stick to something (like music lessons), but there are just as many people who are glad their parents didn’t. I am one of them. I will be eternally grateful that my mother and my nonna allowed me to experiment and try as many new hobbies as I wanted. Because of it, I have built quite a skill set. In some of those skills, I became masterful because without the pressure of performance I was motivated by a love of the subject. It also taught me the extremely valuable lesson of knowing when to commit and when to move on.
In any case, setting up for success helps avoid doing triage all the time. Avoiding the largest triggers and creating a rhythm that makes your child feel capable and empowered builds confidence. Confidence and success reinforces the behavior that created it. Childhood is short, don’t make it harder than it needs to be.
Enjoy your child.
This is not just a phase to be endured. In fact, no developmental phase is. This is when our children need us to dig deep and be our most loving and compassionate. Consider what behaviors are triggering you, and how that may point to what emotional work you may still need to do. For better or worse, our kids are often like little mirrors. Take breaks and make self care a priority, especially during this phase. And above all, remember that while it gets better, each developmental stage builds on the last, so the foundation you build now eases the next one. Wholeheartedly dive into their interests and learn alongside them. Introduce them to some of things you are passionate about and allow them to see you as a person outside of your role of parent. Embrace the dramatic flair of this age.
Despite the challenges that come with this stage, the sensational 6-7 year old is awesome. Full of ideas, imagination, delightful mischief, this is where we really get to see who our children truly are. This stage is fleeting, giving way to a (often) calmer period marked by the earnest building of self and community before the shift into adolescence. Enjoy it!
This is fantastic insight, and I absolutely love the advice given. Definitely sharing with my husband, and I'm confident this will help him gain a new perspective on what's happening with our boy. Thank you!
Reading this just now feels like a life preserver thrown at such a dire time. I will share with my partner and my son's father. Much gratitude for your insights and wisdom! I hope to meet you sometime in the near future :-) THANK YOU!!