Dear Don and Jeanne:
Our concern is over our 6 1/2 year-old daughter's recent change in disposition. She was a carefree, pleasant, fun-loving child who played with and easily met other children. She has become a rather withdrawn, sullen, and disinterested first grader. School used to be a joy for her! She was bright and eager to learn and thoroughly enjoyed her pre-school and kindergarten years.
After the early months of first grade she seems to have lost the "gleam in her eye" when going to school (although she is doing well and still loves to read everything!). She shys away from others during lunch and recess and wants to play mostly one-on-one with a few neighborhood friends. She has not changed dramatically at home, although she seems a bit moodier. We're not sure how much to attribute to "growing up," to being the youngest in her first grade class, a new school (same kids, just different bldg.), or the beginnings of something more serious. So sudden a turn in her otherwise beautiful personality has us confused and frustrated.
JEANNE: Your daughter is leaving the stage of development we call the "willing years"-from birth to seven. During these important years, the focus of growth is on the control and delight of her physical body, such as walking, talking, potty training and so on. She becomes master of her environment--tying her own shoes, throwing a ball, drawing a picture, making a craft, for example. We call these the "Watch Me Years," because she delights in her accomplishments and beams when acknowledged by parents and peers. Around 6, the next stage of development begins to peek through. The "feeling years" (8-12) look confusing from the outside, because most girls at this age are extremely confident and adventurous, while at the same time becoming more moody, angry, and sensitive. This occurs because the brain now allows more complex feelings and more sensitive experiences that last longer than the delightful moment-to-moment changes of the willing years. The feeling years give a girl the ability to feel deeper, longer, and with more passion.
DON: At ages 6, 7, and 8 feelings are bigger than your daughter is, and she can't just snap out of it with a change of attention. This is the time for her to learn about her feelings and what they are for--self-guidance. Anger can mean, "Something is wrong." Sadness can mean, "I just lost something important." Happiness can mean, "This is what I really like." At first, a girl has difficulty understanding the meanings of her feelings. She may need room to have her feelings without fixing them. As the feeling life peaks around 9, 10, and 11, a girl uses her emotions with more awareness and learns to trust her feelings without being totally dominated by them.
JEANNE: The new intensity of a daughter's feelings may confuse parents, because they were accustomed to the more quickly moving feelings of the younger years. Staying in contact with her by listening to what she needs to say is crucial to help a girl grow into her new phase of development. Becoming depressed is common and normal, unless it does not lift. Then a girl needs more help than good parenting. Check with a doctor to rule out physical ailments. See a therapist for more insight. More than likely, her more complex feeling rhythm is the feeling life phase of development. Talk with her, listen to her feelings, and let her know that feelings are sometimes bigger than she can handle. Advise her to give herself time to feel and to understand what her feelings are telling her. With your encouragement and understanding, she'll grow into the bigger shoes that have magically appeared on her feet.
Don and Jeanne Elium are co-authors of the national bestselling parenting books "Raising a Son", "Raising a Daughter" and "Raising a Family: Living on Planet Parenthood" from Celestial Arts Publishing (over 350,000 sold.)
Don is a psychotherapist and author, Jeanne is a parenting advisor and writer.