On MY Way

Emotional Development

Over the course of the middle years, children undergo extremely complex emotional development. Their concept of self evolves dramatically, and they develop more complex images of who they are. In addition, their sense of competence—what they believe they are able to achieve—changes significantly. All of this is coupled with their growing understanding of moral behaviour and fairness, and an increased capacity for emotional understanding and expression. It is important to note that how children develop emotionally varies by a child’s circumstances and other influences.

Developing a sense of self and identity

As they progress through the middle years, children gain a greater awareness of how they appear and relate to others, and see themselves with greater complexity — as sons or daughters, friends, students, members of a community, in relation to their culture or areas of personal interest (e.g., arts, athletics). Middle years children also gain greater understanding of their personal attributes and abilities with respect to appearance, behaviour, academics, athletics and social competence. At this stage, the way they see and think about themselves is mainly influenced by parents, caregivers, mentors and cultural role models, although experience at school and with peers can also have an impact.104, 105 Children at this age are exploring their concept of self and often intersecting identities, including their social identities (e.g., cultural, racial, ethnicity, gender expression) and their personal identities (e.g., preferences, values, beliefs, abilities). Children at this age can be supported to develop respectful and inclusive attitudes about diversity.

In the middle years, children begin to develop the identities and form the behaviours, moral beliefs and values that will come to define them as adults. They are increasingly able to examine themselves inwardly and in the abstract, and have a growing sense of themselves as an independent individual.106, 107

Their friendships are increasingly based on compatibility of personal characteristics,108 and interaction with their peers can influence identity formation.109 By age 12, they assess themselves with increasing understanding of the various areas of self-concept (physical appearance, behavioural conduct, academic competence, athletic competence and social competence), and the importance of those areas in their lives.

As they mature into adolescence, children who are racialized, Black, Indigenous, newcomer, from diverse ethnic, religious and varying socio-economic backgrounds and those living with disabilities or special needs, or questioning their gender or sexual orientation, may tend to engage with friends who they relate to, based on a shared sense of identity. It is beneficial for parents to support children’s identity exploration, while supporting a sense of shared belonging in the broader society. Engaged, responsive and supportive families can act as buffers or help children overcome challenges. Supportive families can also nurture children’s self-worth and belief in an inclusive society.110

Children from equity seeking groups may experience challenges in their identity formation, particularly where their community, school, social or family environment conveys a sense of "other" or being an "outsider," or lack of acceptance regarding that aspect of their identity. Connecting with adults and peers with shared social identities (e.g., LGBTQ2S, Deaf culture, racialized and/or cultural communities) can support children to develop a positive, and more stable sense of identity and community/group belonging.

It is also important that parents, caregivers and other caring adults help middle years children to broaden their identity horizons by having them explore a wide variety of potential future opportunities in the educational, employment and recreational spheres.111

Children's Artwork

Cultural identity

For many children, developing a connection to their ethnicity, culture, spirituality or faith supports positive identity development, which continues to evolve over time. Early in the middle years, for example, a child’s feelings and understandings about their culture tend to be oriented to ceremonial practices and food norms. Later in the middle years, these feelings may start to become more abstract and ethically oriented, involving issues associated with cultural beliefs and shared values.

Research has shown that children who feel they belong to a cultural community and understand what membership in that group means to them tend to experience more optimal development.

Children who form strong connections to their cultural groups tend to have better self-esteem, develop better social and behaviour patterns, and experience greater peer acceptance. They also tend to have higher academic motivation and achievement, fewer mental health problems, and take fewer health risks.112 This is particularly important for newcomer children who may be navigating across different cultural contexts. For Indigenous children, immersing in their culture and participating in traditional cultural activities and practices supports the development of pride, identity and spirit, which have far-reaching lifelong impacts.

Families, teachers, school staff, communities, cultural leaders, traditional knowledge keepers and service providers have a role to play to support children who are exploring, building and sharing all aspects of their cultural identities.

Middle years children may turn to the Internet for opportunities to build, manage and experiment with various selves and identities. This can present opportunities as well as risks. Some experts have suggested that the many different ways children can express their identities online — and the many different identities they can express — can undermine their ability to create a strong coherent sense of self.

Developing a sense of competence

Competence is defined as the ability to do something successfully or efficiently. When we talk about children developing a sense of competence, it is important to understand that we are not talking about them simply "getting good at something." Instead, a sense of competence is children feeling that they are being successful. This is an important distinction, because children develop competencies at their own pace, and according to their own abilities. What is a success for one child may not be a success for another, and that is perfectly acceptable. Competence can be understood subjectively based on culture, context and personal experience. For example, children with disabilities or special needs, children who are newcomers, and children from various cultural communities may have different perspectives on what competence means. These differences should be understood and supported accordingly.


Children generally enter middle childhood with confidence in their ability to master various tasks, so they have relatively high self-esteem. In fact, at this stage, they are less able to distinguish between their desire to be good at something and their actual competence. This can lead to overestimations of their abilities.

Later in the middle years, children have increasing self-awareness and more ability to view their own qualities relative to others. Due to this, there is a stronger relationship between their sense of what they are able to do, and their actual performance. Their self-assessment and descriptions of themselves begin to reflect these changes.


There is growing evidence that it is better for children’s development to raise their sense of competence in specific areas — referred to as "self-efficacy"— than to simply raise their self-esteem. Research suggests that the importance given to self-esteem alone may be overestimated and high levels of self-esteem could have negative effects if it is based on unrealistic feedback. On the other hand, developing self-efficacy involves developing social, physical, educational and other competencies, along with confidence and pride in those abilities.113 Self-efficacy, and not self-esteem, often predicts academic achievement.

Sense of industry

The middle years are a time when children develop greater motivation and readiness to take on new challenges, which is often referred to as a sense of "industry".114

Supporting children to develop this sense of industry is important. If they believe their efforts influence their own success, it affects their willingness to strive to succeed. Once their efforts contribute to a successful result, it motivates them to try to achieve even more. But children need to believe in their own ability and how they can influence results. If children believe they have failed because they lack ability, they will be less engaged than if they believe they just need more knowledge or practice.115

Parents/caregivers and others involved in children’s lives can help them build a sense of industry by helping them to focus on setting goals and learning from failure — seeing failure as motivating rather than demoralizing.116

Parents and caregivers who set high but realistic challenges, and help children through these challenges, can encourage higher levels of industry and self-efficacy. As well, adult endorsement of their abilities can reduce child frustration with failure and promote the expectation of future success.


Literature suggests that the early development of a sense of selfefficacy is important, as it can result in better outcomes in the future. There is some concern, however, that those with unrealistically high levels of self-efficacy who lack the judgement to understand their limitations spend less effort as a result of their overconfidence. Experts suggest that teachers and counsellors should help these students become more realistic about their skill levels so as to increase their focus on the effort needed to increase those skills.117, 118

Children's Artwork

Moral behaviour and fairness

Moral reasoning and a sense of right and wrong

Moral and ethical development characterizes the middle years,119 Children are developing a greater sense of right and wrong and fairness.120, 121

In the early part of the middle years, the moral behaviour of children is shaped by the standards set by adults and the consequences of following or breaking adult rules. Later, children begin to recognize that individuals can have different viewpoints about right and wrong, but they still have difficulty separating their perspective from that of others. For children experiencing developmental delays or who do not have a "neurotypical" brain, such as those on the autism spectrum, moral reasoning can be delayed and/or may not develop along this trajectory.

As they age, children begin to act based on what they perceive will gain them a reward for doing the right thing or will gain them social approval. They begin to understand and adopt the moral standards of adult role models, and their perspectives on social conventions, law, justice and duty all deepen.127, 128 This is a prime time to engage children in discussions about racism, discrimination, injustice and inequity and empower them to be advocates for themselves, for their peers, and for a more inclusive and equitable society.

There is evidence that computer and Internet use can lead to more ambiguous moral reasoning. There is real concern that time spent in front of screens can decrease empathy, lead to poor behaviour, and limit ability to identify and describe one’s feelings and the ability to read emotions.122, 123, 124, 125, 126

Emotional regulation

Emotional understanding and expression

During the middle years, children are learning how to identify, express and regulate their emotions, and they are also developing a greater awareness of the emotions of others. They begin noticing when others are upset. During this stage, children begin developing strategies to manage their own emotions, and also to help others.

Around age seven, children generally become aware that how they think can affect the way they feel. This is the first stage in regulating emotions. Suddenly, they begin to realize that there is a crucial difference between experiencing an emotion and expressing it, and that not all emotions should be expressed externally. By age eight or nine, most children are able to competently regulate their emotions. They are better able to adapt to situations, problem solve and behave appropriately.132

The onset of puberty brings with it increased emotions and reactions, as well as mood fluctuations and sensitivity to stress that can influence a child’s response to their emotions.133 This is where an ability to control emotions can dramatically affect a child’s future. Greater emotional regulation is related to many critical factors, including better academic performance and learning, increased literacy, more creativity, higher self-esteem, increased ability to cope with stress, and better moral reasoning. In addition, it is related to better social competence, including peer group acceptance, social skills, friendship quality, less loneliness and less bullying.

Supporting children to build skills to manage emotions early can help to support them later on as they navigate the complex world of adolescence and adulthood, and will help them to more effectively navigate the effects of hormonal changes brought on by puberty.

Culture positively shapes the development of self-regulation. The ways in which children from various cultural and ethnic backgrounds interact with family, friends and their community can help them learn to accept societal rules, tolerate frustrations, control their emotions and impulses, and persist in meaningful activities. Moreover, children’s emotional regulation is influenced by culture, based on emotional behaviour and norms specific to their culture.

Dealing with stress

High levels of stress, and particularly sustained, chronic stress, can threaten the emotional development of children in the middle years and affect their resilience later in life.137 This kind of stress can negatively affect how the brain is wired, and how it develops in terms of memory, concentration, the filtering of information, processing of emotions and regulation of behaviour. For children who have faced high levels of stress due to factors such as poverty, racism, family conflict, abuse, and trauma, chronic stress can compound other problems. For example, children who experience chronic stress may experience challenges such as hypersensitivity and trouble with paying attention and self-regulation.

Helping children cope with stress can improve their health, mental functioning and academic performance, and also reduce sleeplessness, fatigue, memory and concentration problems, irritability and anxiety. Interventions at an early age are particularly important for children who are highly sensitive to stress and at greater risk for developing mental health challenges. The earlier the intervention takes place, the more positive the outcomes. Techniques such as mindfulness-based approaches, teaching children to build awareness of their thoughts, feelings or perceptions in the present moment, are producing successful outcomes.138

Key supports for families and children could include safe and affordable housing, basic income supports and affordable and accessible transportation, especially for those in rural and remote communities, to buffer the stresses associated with living in isolated communities.

Greater income inequality has been associated with increased anxiety.129, 130 Inequality can be perceived by children at young ages and can result in a stress reaction that has the ability to impede their cognitive and social development.131