Why Your 6 year old is Emotionally Sensitive
By Wendy Dougherty
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01. The shift in self-awareness that happens between the ages of 5/12 to 7
02. The emotional and physical changes you can expect to see during this time
03. The importance of healthy boundaries during this transition
It is not unusual for parents to call or grasp my arm in the hallway at some moment during the final year of kindergarten, perhaps even a bit before. They look at me with anxious eyes and ask in a quiet, but urgent tone, “What has happened to my child?”
I can only smile, and offer solace with recognition that their child is not possessed, not disturbed and, in fact, all is well. For, in truth, this shift parents experience in their little one between the ages of 5/12 to 7 is healthy, normal and can be quite dramatic. Waldorf kindergarten teachers refer to this time as the 6/7 Year Change. Prior to this moment in development, the child is a dreamy soul. She experiences herself, predominantly, as one with the world around her. The very young child is deeply imitative, full of wonder and reverence for the natural world, a sensory “sponge”.
Indeed, everything is brand new. The slightest gesture or event, a beautiful leaf, a shiny stone or the wind on their face, can bring about gasps of utter delight. The very young child is wide open, completely trusting and full of adoration for those who care for them The very young child truly does believe that mommy and daddy have eyes in the back of their head, and they are glad of it. Because she is one with the world, the very young child assumes the adults in her life know, not only what she is thinking, but what she feels as well. They will follow their loved ones about, much like chicks after a mother hen. We who watch over them are omnipotent, all knowing and profoundly loved.
This is a glorious time in parenting.
And then, sometimes all at once, everything changes. Suddenly, a once dreamy contented child is having nightmares, thinking and talking about death and vacillating between not wanting help at all and needing to be with momma every moment. Going to the bathroom alone can now be a tremendously anxiety producing event. Even the most “well behaved”, quiet, souls begin to sneak around a bit, sharing secrets (though not well), creating mischief and, even, lying. Tantrums begin. It is as though the child is on an emotional roller coaster. I have had parents ask if I believed their child may be developing mental illness. What is happening in the life of the child at this time?
Imagine being one with the heavens and the world around you. As we describe in our kindergarten birthday story, “Everything is beautiful here. Everything is perfect.” Very young children rest and are fully living into each and every moment. This is, in fact, the one time in life human beings are naturally “living in the moment”. As adults, we try to
cultivate this experience, as this kind of “mindfulness” is a pathway to peace and tranquility. In the very young child, this is their natural state of being. During the 6/7 Year Change, the very young child is awakened , to a large degree, for the very first time. Now they are aware of themselves as separate from the world around them They have become, to a small extent, self aware.
What is this body of mine? Aches, pains, and tummy challenges become prevalent as children experience their physicality in a new way. Also, it is common now for children to explore their bodies. Kindergarten teachers must increasingly become aware of hidden corners and bushes as children can be heard to say, “I’ll show you mine, if you show me yours.” Teachers and parents often hear the call for ice packs, warm compresses, arnica and remedies of all sorts. This is time for warmth, flannel wrapped hot water bottles, good rest and healthy foods. Have plenty of camomile tea on hand, woolies and comfort in many loving forms.
Where are you going? Stay with me! Go away! Because these children have become aware of themselves as separate beings, the world is now both an exciting and, sometimes, frightening place. Healthy boundaries become ever more important as the child seeks to “sniff around the edges” of their world. Without appropriate boundaries, the world is very large indeed, and can be quite overwhelming. The child wants to live into their new found sense of independence and skills, but every once in awhile, they can find themselves over their heads. It’s much like swimming in the ocean; all is well until you discover you can’t feel the bottom and the shore now seems miles away. Now is the time to reassure children that, they are fine and all is well, while at the same time gently placing clear, healthy boundaries. Allow for choices, perhaps, but not too many! Remember, freedom within the form. Set down your fences and then, let them explore away. While children during the 6/7 Year Change may feel capable of being in charge, it’s not quite time yet. That time will c ome, but not now. I used to say to my children during this period in their development,(and, in fact, beyond), “Your shoulders are too narrow, yet” Children need to know we are in charge at this age, so they don’t have to be. When the young child expresses anxiety at goodbye, they are saying that the world feels a bit uncertain. It is best, then, to reflect that the world is safe and good. Quick goodbyes into their classrooms are a parent’s way, for example, of letting them know they can trust the world around them.
Who me? Liar, liar, pants on fire! While the 6/7 Year Change can be anxiety producing for some children, it is also exciting. For the first time, they recognize that mommy and daddy, for example, can’t, read their minds! The child now experiences a separate place in their thinking where ideas can form and grow. This is a glorious time of playful self awareness, of conscious thought. The child can’t help but explore how far this goes. Mischief making, secretiveness and lies are part of this exploration. The young child may begin to play with power, both to see how it feels, but also to experience the boundaries of their own capabilities. The good news is; they are terrible liars. Young children whisper their secrets to one another in almost earsplitting decibels. Kindergarten teachers often find themselves suppressing smiles as they hear, “Don’t let the teacher know!” come screaming across the room, followed by giggles and mock innocence. Truthfully, if one listens well enough, the young child will make every act of mischief known in advance with planning circles and stage whispering. This behavior is not immoral, but rather a simple act of exploration. It will end, as the limits of their abilities become known to them.
I am so sad! No, happy! No, angry…. Not only is the young child increasingly aware in the thinking and physical realms, but in the emotional realm as well. Their feeling life becomes unbridled and they are, as of yet, unable to reliably harness their emotions. As a result, children may express their feelings much like a human roller coaster. Our job is to stand by, let them know they are safe, and not get on the ride with them. The 6/7 Year Change has been likened to a small puberty, where feelings shift and overwhelm like the tumultuous sea. We must make them (and others) safe, give them room to express themselves, and then help them find equanimity as they step off the ride. And they will always, eventually, step off the ride. Just as surely as strong feelings arrive, so they will leave, only to reappear another day. Happily, though, young children do b egin to l earn through this how to navigate their feeling life. Not an easy task, but one that is critical to a healthy adult life.
While the 6/7 Year Change may seem daunting to both children and adults alike, it is important to remember that this time is a necessary and healthy phase of development. It will pass. But the only way out, is through. There is growth and evolution on the other side. I often liken this time to a child looking out of a window. The blind goes up, they look out, and then the blind goes back again. But they’ve learned something from that glance at the outside world. They’ve learned that the world is an exciting, inspiring place with limitless possibilities before them. They’ve learned that they are loved, not just at home, but elsewhere, too. They’ve learned that, though first steps can be scary, they are stronger and more capable for having taken them. And, most importantly, they are on their way to becoming the fullness of themselves. One step at a time.
About the author Wendy Dougherty
Wendy Dougherty, M Ed, is a certified Waldorf teacher and has been teaching in Waldorf schools for well over 20 years. She is the author of “Growing Great Girls”, a training manual for working with at- risk youth. In addition to her many years as a Waldorf educator, Ms Dougherty has a background in curative education with a focus on child and family therapy.