On MY Way

Social Development

During the middle years, children begin taking steps into new social worlds where different types of relationships and influences outside the family home become increasingly important. They enter elementary school and make new friends. They may also join after-school and community-based programs.

This is an important stage for children, and it brings with it increased individual freedoms. There is tension as well, because increased freedom brings new challenges, responsibilities and greater expectations. There are new rules to understand and follow. Children are expected to regulate their behaviour, follow personal conduct guidelines, develop good work habits, sit quietly for longer periods of time, show respect for adults and cooperate with their peers.139

While children are building new relationships outside the home, they still continue to need the stability and familiarity of caring parents/caregivers at home. They also need dependable other adults, strong attachment to quality schools, access to quality health and mental health services, and safe participation in neighbourhood, school and community activities.140, 141

Social competencies

Ability to recognize faces and facial expressions

Throughout the middle years, children become better at remembering unfamiliar faces. They also become very good at differentiating facial features. Although children can identify many intense expressions of emotion by age five (particularly happy faces), they are still prone to misidentifying certain emotions and their ability to identify subtle expressions of emotion is still quite immature. Between the ages of five and 10, their sensitivity to subtle expressions of surprise, disgust and fear improves. After age 10, they become more sensitive to expressions of anger and sadness. Importantly, children who have experienced significant stress or abuse are more likely to misinterpret ambiguous faces as angry, and can experience greater brain responses to angry faces than children who have not had these experiences.142

Empathy and perspective-taking

Empathy is the ability to understand, at an emotional level, what others are feeling. "Perspective-taking" involves the ability, at a cognitive level, to see situations and events from the point of view of others.143 One of the most significant social developments in middle years children occurs when changes in the brain result in the strengthening of both empathy and perspective-taking.

Increased perspective-taking helps to strengthen the networks in the brain that support prosocial behaviour and safe decision-making.144

Children's Artwork

Children in the early middle years tend to be focused on their immediate reality. As they age, they progressively become less so. In the early middle years, children’s empathetic responses tend to be very emotional. What is lacking, but develops during the middle years, is the kind of cognitive processing that allows them to understand what others are thinking, feeling or intending. This more mature empathic understanding, or "cognitive empathy," involves perspective-taking. Puberty plays an important role in the development of perspective-taking, as the social network of the brain and the way it functions matures. Increased perspective-taking helps to strengthen the networks in the brain that support prosocial (positive, empathic, helpful) behaviour and safe decision-making.145 Children begin to understand that others have different points of view and different knowledge, and that these differences have consequences for their interactions. There is also an emerging ability to engage with others in making agreements and compromises.146, 147, 148

Social connectedness

During the middle years, children develop a sense of belonging — a connectedness to people and places of importance. This begins with parents/caregivers and family, and extends to friends and then out into the community.

Studies show that children who feel disconnected from parents/caregivers, friends or other caring adults in the community have lower optimism, self-efficacy, self-esteem and empathy.149, 150 On the other hand, children who are socially connected tend to have better relationships with their family and peers. They also have better social skills, better behaviour, higher self-confidence, and they generally develop better academic and leadership skills.151, 152, 153, 154

Social-Emotional Learning

Social-emotional learning is a learning approach that helps children to develop the knowledge, attitudes and skills required to identify and manage their emotions, understand others’ perspectives, show empathy and achieve positive goals, and develop and sustain positive relationships.155, 156, 157 In addition to improving social and emotional skills, these competencies support improved connectedness to school, academic achievement, planning, decision-making and problem-solving skills, mental health and wellbeing (including mental health literacy) and later employability. Benefits have been found for students with and without behavioural problems.158, 159, 160, 161, 162, 163

Social wellbeing for Indigenous peoples is directly linked to family and extended family and includes the wellbeing of communities.164 Consequently, for Indigenous children, social connectedness is central. For example, relationships among the Inuit are based on mutual interdependence, including collaborative partnerships, extended family kinship patterns and relationships within the immediate family.165

It is important to note that while the Inuit do not have a clan system and do not come from a "tribe," kinship and community ties are the common form of self-identification.166 There is an interdependence between family and kinship that involves activities such as going on the land together, sharing food together, hunting, camping, spending time with traditional knowledge keepers, making traditional tools, making skin clothing, building igloos, and other Inuit beliefs and customs.167 To the Inuit, "wellbeing is family"168 and families are trusted to determine and shape their own paths forward. There is also the belief that children learn by seeing and doing and this is reflected strongly in Inuit child rearing.

Social responsibility

Middle childhood is also a time when children start to develop a sense of social responsibility. They are learning to contribute and share responsibility in their social and physical environment. They are also learning to treat others fairly, and better understand rights and responsibilities.169

Cultural Connections for Indigenous Children

For Indigenous children, cultural connection supports the development of personal knowledge and social skills. It includes learning traditional knowledge, rituals and ceremony and supports the development of beliefs, values, spirit and worldview. It supports better relationships with family, extended family and community, a wholistic sense of wellbeing and, importantly, strong cultural identity, connection and traditional knowledge. Elders, Senators and traditional knowledge keepers are key in supporting cultural transmission and learning for Indigenous children.

Indigenous children develop within multiple contexts—urban, rural, on-reserve, traditional or non-traditional. Indigenous cultural learning often takes place at the same time as children are learning the norms of the non-Indigenous society at-large that they must also navigate. Thus, Indigenous children in their middle years are developing competencies in the cultural practices of two or more cultures and worldviews.

Indigenous children who experience a sense of belonging and connection with their families (including extended families) and community (including Elders, Senators and traditional knowledge keepers) can develop greater confidence, self-esteem, self-respect, resilience, social relationships and aspirations for the future. This engagement also promotes a sense of collective responsibility and action related to people in their community and the land.

Relationships with family and friends

Parents, caregivers and families

Parents, caregivers and families have an enormous effect on their children’s social, emotional, behavioural and learning development. Children who are more engaged with their families tend to have higher self-worth and social competence, and exhibit fewer antisocial behaviours such as arguing, bullying and conduct problems.170, 171 Parents and caregivers play an important role in bonding, social buffering and easing stress.172 Regular family dinners have been found to play an important role, and are associated with greater life satisfaction, strong sense of self, a greater willingness to help others and fewer feelings of sadness, anxiousness and loneliness.173, 174 Experts suggest that dinnertime discussions about personal shortcomings, such as poor grades, should be avoided in favour of more encouraging topics, such as the child’s activities and interests and current events.175 In general, children should be encouraged to interact with the family and to spend limited time alone in their bedroom—and not to have electronics in their bedroom.176, 177

Strong and supportive parenting can be a buffer against risk factors, such as the effects of poverty, living in a high-risk neighbourhood, or having a mental health or physical problem.178 It is particularly important for low-income parents/caregivers to be involved in their child’s education,179 and for parents/caregivers of children with disabilities to be highly engaged with the school and other support agencies.180 Part of supporting parenting involvement is identifying and reducing potential barriers to their full participation.

It is important that parents and caregivers set high expectations for their children and provide a warm, supporting environment in which children can develop. Parents/caregivers should support their children by taking an interest in their school work and social life, and by encouraging and helping them to develop confidence. Engaging children in activities, such as sports, culture, arts and music, promotes the development of skills and motivation that contribute to the successful transitions from childhood to adulthood.181

Parents/caregivers can also help children explore their options for the future, and the middle years are a crucial time for that to happen. Canadian studies show that an optimal time for parents and caregivers to begin having career discussions with their children is when they are in Grade 5 and 6. During these discussions, it is important to emphasize the importance of connecting with other people, and making a contribution to society.182

Developing greater autonomy and independence from the family

As noted earlier, the middle years are a time when children start taking tentative steps toward independence and autonomy. The process of identity building that is occurring during this time involves developing an identity independent from their parents/caregivers, and with that a desire for greater autonomy. By later in the middle years, children increasingly want and are ready for greater independence and responsibilities. This process may be unsettling for parents and caregivers, but is a natural part of the puberty/adolescence evolution that begins to develop in the middle years.183, 184 While research shows having greater autonomy supports children’s growth, it also indicates that the amount of autonomy given should align with the child’s level of development.185

How parents and caregivers respond to this transition is important. The fact that their children are asserting some independence is not an indicator that they should stop being involved, or that their guidance is no longer needed. In fact, children are in a period of identity formation that can lead to conflict and questioning of family rules and roles, and strong guidance is still needed from parents, caregivers and caring adults.186, 187, 188 This balance is particularly important for parents and caregivers of children with disabilities. There are many opportunities to promote resiliency and opportunities for autonomy and independence for children with disabilities, and the active exchange between the home and schools and other services is critical.189

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Parent/caregiver involvement remains extremely important and research reveals that parenting style is also critical. Being over- or under-controlling, being too permissive, demanding unquestioning obedience, and giving negative or ambiguous feedback, weak communication and weak affectionate bonding can all threaten healthy identity exploration.190 Parenting style also has an impact on self-consciousness and self-confidence, and behaviour in children.191, 192, 193, 194

Experts point to the benefits of "authoritative parenting" that is sensitive to children’s needs and allows for independent problem-solving, critical thinking and proactive exploration of ideas. This parenting style means providing consistent rules and high expectations for behaviour. Research has shown that this will result in better conduct and behaviour, social competence and academic achievement.195

Authoritative parenting is warm but firm, structured parenting with consistent rules and high expectations for behaviour.

Other caring adults

As children begin to develop a certain amount of autonomy from their parents/caregivers, they may benefit from the input of other caring adults, which is an important alternative to turning to their peers for guidance.196 Out-of-school activities and programs play an important role, allowing for greater interaction with other adults in the community.

The Importance of Schools

Schools have a particularly significant influence on the social development of children in the middle years. This is where most children first begin to look for a sense of belonging outside the family home.

Students with strong connections to school are more likely to have better academic, social and mental health outcomes, and to plan for a postsecondary education. They are also less likely to experience depression or antisocial behaviour.

During the middle years, teachers play an important role in providing praise and encouragement to help students improve their skills and strive for and achieve their goals. This is also true for children with behavioural and mental health concerns; educators need to focus on the areas in which the child is doing well and provide praise and encouragement. Having a positive relationship with a teacher is associated with greater social skills, being more engaged in academic work and higher math and literacy skills.197 A positive school climate, which sets high expectations for students and provides them with meaningful participation and caring relationships with adults, is a protective and safe experience for children.198


Friends play an increasingly important role in the development of a sense of belonging, connectedness and self-worth during the middle years. During this time, children often develop one deep friendship with someone who, in addition to being a playmate, becomes someone of trust and confidence.199 Children who have supportive friends have higher self-esteem, and sharing feelings and experiences with friends can provide emotional support and protection from loneliness and social exclusion.200 Friends also can help to ease stress, which in the middle years is often caused by difficulties with other peers or family members. Strong friendships and peer acceptance are associated with better mental health, social competence, academic performance and physical activity.201, 202, 203

In the early part of the middle years, children have more interactions with their peers, through which they learn to cooperate and develop greater social self-confidence. As children get older, greater priority is given to social activities with their peers. Friendships become increasingly important, and early forms of dating relationships sometimes emerge.204

Parents and caregivers should be aware that during this time, children are becoming increasingly aware of gender role expectations and stereotypes, and it is important to discuss issues related to the harmful effects of bias, discrimination and stereotypes based on gender, gender identity and power relationships.205

In early adolescence, peer conformity peaks. The acceptance and approval of peers becomes extremely important to children, and is associated with their sense of self and self-worth. The self-esteem of children at this stage is more closely tied to social acceptance and how they feel about their physical appearance than how confident they are in their cognitive and academic abilities.

For children with disabilities, close peer relationships can be an important source of support. However, children with disabilities may experience greater challenges forming friendships, consequently may have fewer friends, and may experience challenges sustaining friendships.206 Parents, caregivers and other caring adults should look for ways of supporting children with disabilities overcome the barriers to friendship that sometimes exist, such as travel distance to friends, problems with accessibility, or promoting an inclusive, accepting social environment. Parents, caregivers and other caring adults should also be aware that children with disabilities can also be targets of bullying, with an occurrence rate ranging from 25 per cent in elementary school to 34 per cent in middle school (about 1.5 times the national average).207

Some children have a hard time with friendships. Parents and caregivers can help them with these challenges by arranging opportunities to interact with other children, and talking about how to be a good friend.

Bullying and cyberbullying

On average, it is estimated that 25 per cent of students are involved in bullying as a victim, perpetrator or both.208 As the use of technology increases (up to 97 per cent of children ages 6-17 access the Internet regularly), online harassment and cyberbullying are also becoming more common. Distinct features of cyberbullying believed to increase its risk for harm include the vast potential audience of online content, difficulties with parental supervision of online activity, as well as the "long reach" of technology and nearly unlimited access to victims.209

Approximately one-quarter of early adolescents report having had a special romantic relationship. Typically, these relationships are short-lived and do not advance beyond handholding and kissing. Children who start romantic involvement too early or who do not follow this social path may have greater difficulties developing and maintaining healthy romantic relationships.210

Romantic relationships

As children develop through the middle years, they start to understand the difference between friendships and romantic relationships. By age nine, there is increased awareness and thinking about romantic relationships, and between ages 11-14, children become more interested in romance. These interests are often explored during activities such as sports, movies and dances, which allow children the opportunity to explore their emerging romantic feelings in a less awkward manner.

Helping children build healthy and positive, inclusive friendships can support their development of healthy positive romantic relationships later on in life. Research shows that secure, trusting relationships with peers in the middle years are associated with later stability and deeper connection with romantic partners. Children who have positive peer experiences during the middle years are more likely to participate in long-term committed relationships in adulthood.211

Parents and caregivers have a role to play in helping children develop positive romantic experiences. They should attempt to balance supervision with encouragement of their children’s growing interest in relationships outside the family. It is recommended that parents and caregivers of children in their middle years know about and monitor their social lives and romantic interests, but try to avoid completely restricting romantic activities or prescribing overly strict codes of conduct. However, it is important for parents and caregivers whose children start romantic relationships too early to promote alternatives, such as hobbies and other activities.212 Children with special needs are also developing romantic interests and just like their peers, need help to navigate this new terrain.

Children with Disabilities and Romantic Interests

By late adolescence, children with disabilities are just as likely as their peers to report an interest in romantic connections and to have begun dating.

Parents, caregivers and other caring adults should be aware that they may face challenges shaped by the nature of their individual abilities and limitations. For example, children with Autism Spectrum Disorder can experience challenges related to understanding social cues and having the interpersonal skills for appropriately expressing romantic interest, initiating dating, and establishing committed and healthy partnerships.213

Gender identity

Gender identity refers to one’s lived experience of gender, which may be different from their sex assigned at birth. Gender identity can be fluid, and can also shift throughout one’s life. A child may express their gender identity through ways that they act, dress and talk about themselves. Children in the middle years are beginning to explore who they are, and this includes their gender identity. Parents, caregivers and other caring adults can provide support during this period by talking to their middle years children about assumptions regarding gender roles and expectations, and helping them to identify and think critically about gender bias, stereotypes and discrimination. It is important that parents and caregivers let their children determine their own gender identity and expression and that middle years children feel supported in their identities and comfortable expressing who they are and what they feel.

Sexual orientation

Sexual orientation refers to a person’s sense of attraction to people of the same sex, the opposite sex or both sexes. Many suggest that sexuality should be understood as a spectrum rather than categorized with specific labels, especially during identity formation in middle childhood.214, 215 Indigenous peoples use the term two-spirited to refer to a person having both the feminine and masculine spirits. It includes a broad range of gender and sexual identities. Traditional Indigenous approaches support children’s right to self-determine their gender, dress and define the language around their gender and sexual identities.216 Parents, caregivers and other caring adults can provide support during this period by talking to their middle years children about healthy relationships and more specifically, about homophobia and assumptions with respect to sexual orientation.