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6.7: Psychosocial Development

Now let’s turn our attention to concerns related to self-concept, the world of friendships, and family life.

Self-Concept

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Children in middle childhood have a more realistic sense of self than do those in early childhood. That exaggerated sense of self as “biggest” or “smartest” or “tallest” gives way to an understanding of one’s strengths and weaknesses. This can be attributed to greater experience in comparing one’s own performance with that of others and to greater cognitive flexibility. A child’s self-concept can be influenced by peers and family and the messages they send about a child’s worth. Contemporary children also receive messages from the media about how they should look and act.   Movies, music videos, the internet, and advertisers can all create cultural images of what is desirable or undesirable and this too can influence a child’s self-concept.

The Tweens

Advertisers have created a new consumer group known as the “tweens”. This group spends an estimated $51 billion dollars annually and has another $170 billion a year spent on them (Irvine, 2006). Tweens range in age from 8 to 12 years and are characterized as sophisticated, early-maturing teenagers concerned primarily with their appearance, weight, and sexuality (“The ‘Tween Market'” Media Awareness Network, 2007). Tweens are primarily targeted as consumers of media, clothing, and products that make them look “cool” and feel independent. For example, attitude t-shirts have been very popular among female tweens for the past several years and the slogans on these shirts reflect what might be considered “cool”. Here are a few found in a national retail clothing store that focuses on fashion for tweens.

  •    Your boyfriend gave me this shirt.
  •    I live to shop
  •    It’s all about me
  •    You wish

In general, toys are not marketed to this age group as they once were. However, some toys designed to appeal to slightly younger children tend to sexualize children (Harmanci, 2006). For an example of such sexy children’s dolls, go to www.bratz.com.  Jean Kilbourne, a noted expert on the impact of advertising on self-image, responds to the promotion of such products as examples of how “marketers are hijacking our children’s sexuality” at the expense of childhood (Squire, 2006).

Sexual Abuse in Middle Childhood

Being sexually abused as a child can have a powerful impact on self-concept. Childhood sexual abuse is defined as any sexual contact between a child and an adult or a much older child. Incest refers to sexual contact between a child and family members. In each of these cases, the child is exploited by an older person without regard for the child’s developmental immaturity and inability to understand the sexual behavior (Steele, 1986). The concept of false self-training (Davis, 1999) refers to holding a child to adult standards while denying the child’s developmental needs. Sexual abuse is just one example of false self-training. Children are held to adult standards of desirableness and sexuality while their level of cognitive, psychological, and emotional immaturity is ignored. Consider how confusing it might be for a 9 year old girl who has physically matured early to be thought of as a potential sex partner. Her cognitive, psychological, and emotional state do not equip her to make decisions about sexuality or, perhaps, to know that she can say no to sexual advances. She may feel like a 9 year old in all ways and be embarrassed and ashamed of her physical development. Girls who mature early have problems with low self-esteem because of the failure of others (family members, teachers, ministers, peers, advertisers, and others) to recognize and respect their developmental needs. Overall, youth are more likely to be victimized because they do not have control over their contact with offenders (parents, babysitters, etc.) and have no means of escape (Finkelhor and Dzuiba-Leatherman, in Davis, 1999).

Researchers estimate that 1 out of 4 girls and one out of 10 boys has been sexually abused (Valente, 2005). The median age for sexual abuse is 8 or 9 years for both boys and girls (Finkelhor et. al. 1990). Most boys and girls are sexually abused by a male. Although rates of sexual abuse are higher for girls than for boys, boys may be less likely to report abuse because of the cultural expectation that boys should be able to take care of themselves and because of the stigma attached to homosexual encounters (Finkelhor et. al. 1990). Girls are more likely to be abused by family member and boys by strangers. Sexual abuse can create feelings of self-blame, betrayal, and feelings of shame and guilt (Valente, 2005). Sexual abuse is particularly damaging when the perpetrator is someone the child trusts and may lead to depression, anxiety, problems with intimacy, and suicide (Valente, 2005). The topic of the sexualization of girls in media and society was of chief concern by the American Psychological Association in 2007 and their findings and recommendations to reduce this problem can be accessed here.

Industry vs. Inferiority

According to Erikson, children in middle childhood are very busy or industrious. They are constantly doing, planning, playing, getting together with friends, achieving. This is a very active time and a time when they are gaining a sense of how they measure up when compared with friends. Erikson believed that if these industrious children can be successful in their endeavors, they will get a sense of confidence for future challenges. If not, a sense of inferiority can be particularly haunting during middle childhood.

The Society of Children

Friendships take on new importance as judges of one’s worth, competence, and attractiveness. Friendships provide the opportunity for learning social skills such as how to communicate with others and how to negotiate differences. Children get ideas from one another about how to perform certain tasks, how to gain popularity, what to wear, say, and listen to, and how to act. This society of children marks a transition from a life focused on the family to a life concerned with peers. Peers play a key role in a child’s self-esteem at this age as any parent who has tried to console a rejected child will tell you. No matter how complimentary and encouraging the parent may be, being rejected by friends can only be remedied by renewed acceptance.

Peer Relationships: Most children want to be liked and accepted by their friends. Some popular children are nice and have good social skills. These popular-prosocial children tend to do well in school and are cooperative and friendly. Popular-antisocial children may gain popularity by acting tough or spreading rumors about others (Cillessen & Mayeux, 2004). Rejected children are sometimes excluded because they are shy and withdrawn. The withdrawn-rejected children are easy targets for bullies because they are unlikely to retaliate when belittled (Boulton, 1999). Other rejected children are ostracized because they are aggressive, loud, and confrontational. The aggressive-rejected children may be acting out of a feeling of insecurity. Unfortunately, their fear of rejection only leads to behavior that brings further rejection from other children. Children who are not accepted are more likely to experience conflict, lack confidence, and have trouble adjusting.

Family Life

During middle childhood, children spend less time with parents and more time with peers. And parents may have to modify their approach to parenting to accommodate the child’s growing independence. Using reason and engaging in joint decision-making whenever possible may be the most effective approach (Berk, 2007). However, Asian-American, African-American, and Mexican-American parents are more likely than European-Americans to use an authoritarian style of parenting. This authoritarian style of parenting that using strict discipline and focuses on obedience is also tempered with acceptance and warmth on the part of the parents. And children raised in this manner tend to be confident, successful and happy (Chao, 2001; Stewart and Bond, 2002).

Family Tasks

One of the ways to assess the quality of family life is to consider the tasks of families.

Berger (2005) lists five family functions:

  1. Providing food, clothing and shelter
  2. Encouraging Learning
  3. Developing self-esteem
  4. Nurturing friendships with peers
  5. Providing harmony and stability

Notice that in addition to providing food, shelter, and clothing, families are responsible for helping the child learn, relate to others, and have a confident sense of self. The family provides a harmonious and stable environment for living. A good home environment is one in which the child’s physical, cognitive, emotional, and social needs are adequately met. Sometimes families emphasize physical needs, but ignore cognitive or emotional needs. Other times, families pay close attention to physical needs and academic requirements, but may fail to nurture the child’s friendships with peers or guide the child toward developing healthy relationships. Parents might want to consider how it feels to live in the household. Is it stressful and conflict-ridden? Is it a place where family members enjoy being?

Family Change

Divorce: A lot of attention has been given to the impact of divorce on the life of children. The assumption has been that divorce has a strong, negative impact on the child and that single-parent families are deficient in some way. However, 75-80 percent of children and adults who experience divorce suffer no long term effects (Hetherington & Kelly, 2002). Children of divorce and children who have not experienced divorce are more similar than different (Hetherington & Kelly, 2002).

Mintz (2004) suggests that the alarmist view of divorce was due in part to the newness of divorce when rates in the United States began to climb in the late 1970s. Adults reacting to the change grew up in the 1950s when rates were low. As divorce has become more common and there is less stigma associated with divorce, this view has changed somewhat. Social scientists have operated from the divorce as deficit model emphasizing the problems of being from a “broken home” (Seccombe &Warner, 2004).  But more recently, a more objective view of divorce, repartnering, and remarriage indicates that divorce, remarriage and life in stepfamilies can have a variety of effects. The exaggeration of the negative consequences of divorce has left the majority of those who do well hidden and subjected them to unnecessary stigma and social disapproval (Hetherington & Kelly, 2002).

The tasks of families listed above are functions that can be fulfilled in a variety of family types-not just intact, two-parent households. Harmony and stability can be achieved in many family forms and when it is disrupted, either through divorce, or efforts to blend families, or any other circumstances, the child suffers (Hetherington & Kelly, 2002).

Factors Affecting the Impact of Divorce

As you look at the consequences (both pro and con) of divorce and remarriage on children, keep these family functions in mind.  Some negative consequences are a result of financial hardship rather than divorce per se (Drexler, 2005).  Some positive consequences reflect improvements in meeting these functions.  For instance, we have learned that a positive self-esteem comes in part from a belief in the self and one’s abilities rather than merely being complimented by others.  In single-parent homes, children may be given more opportunity to discover their own abilities and gain independence that fosters self-esteem.  If divorce leads to fighting between the parents and the child is included in these arguments, the self-esteem may suffer.

The impact of divorce on children depends on a number of factors. The degree of conflict prior to the divorce plays a role. If the divorce means a reduction in tensions, the child may feel relief. If the parents have kept their conflicts hidden, the announcement of a divorce can come as a shock and be met with enormous resentment. Another factor that has an great impact on the child concerns financial hardships they may suffer, especially if financial support is inadequate. Another difficult situation for children of divorce is the position they are put into if the parents continue to argue and fight-especially if they bring the children into those arguments.

Short-term consequences: In roughly the first year following divorce, children may exhibit some of these short-term effects:

  1. Grief over losses suffered. The child will grieve the loss of the parent they no longer see as frequently.  The child may also grieve about other family members that are no longer available.  Grief sometimes comes in the form of sadness, but it can also be experienced as anger or withdrawal.  Preschool-aged boys may act out aggressively while the same aged girls may become more quiet and withdrawn.  Older children may feel depressed.
  2. Reduced Standard of Living.  Very often, divorce means a change in the amount of money coming into the household.  Children experience in new constraints on spending or entertainment.  School-aged children, especially, may notice that they can no longer have toys, clothing or other items to which they’ve grown accustomed.  Or it may mean that there is less eating out or being able to afford satellite television, and so on. The custodial parent may experience stress at not being able to rely on child support payments or having the same level of income as before.  This can affect decisions regarding healthcare, vacations, rents, mortgages and other expenditures.  And the stress can result in less happiness and relaxation in the home.  The parent who has to take on more work may also be less available to the children.
  3. Adjusting to Transitions.  Children may also have to adjust to other changes accompanying a divorce.  The divorce might mean moving to a new home and changing schools or friends.  It might mean leaving a neighborhood that has meant a lot to them as well.

Long-Term consequences: Here are some effects are found after the first year.

  1. Economic/Occupational Status.  One of the most commonly cited long-term effects of divorce is that children of divorce may have lower levels of education or occupational status.  This may be a consequence of lower income and resources for funding education rather than to divorce per se. In those households where economic hardship does not occur, there may be no impact on economic status (Drexler, 2005).
  2. Improved Relationships with the Custodial Parent (usually the mother): In the United States and Canada, children reside with the mother in 88 percent of single-parent households (Berk, 2007). Children from single-parent families talk to their mothers more often than children of two-parent families (McLanahan and Sandefur, 1994). Most children of divorce lead happy, well-adjusted lives and develop stronger, positive relationships with their custodial parent (Seccombe and Warner, 2004).  In a study of college-age respondents, Arditti (1999) found that increasing closeness and a movement toward more democratic parenting styles was experienced.  Others have also found that relationships between mothers and children become closer and stronger (Guttman, 1993) and suggest that greater equality and less rigid parenting is beneficial after divorce (Steward, Copeland, Chester, Malley, and Barenbaum, 1997).
  3. Greater emotional independence in sons. Drexler (2005) notes that sons who are raised by mothers only develop an emotional sensitivity to others that is beneficial in relationships.
  4. Feeling more anxious in their own love relationships. Children of divorce may feel more anxious about their own relationships as adults.  This may reflect a fear of divorce if things go wrong, or it may be a result of setting higher expectations for their own relationships.
  5. Adjustment of the custodial parent.  Furstenberg and Cherlin (1991) believe that the primary factor influencing the way that children adjust to divorce is the way the custodial parent adjusts to the divorce.  If that parent is adjusting well, the children will benefit.  This may explain a good deal of the variation we find in children of divorce. Adults going though divorce should consider good self-care as beneficial to the children-not as self-indulgent.

Here are some tips for taking care of the self during divorce:

  1. Take care of your own mental health. Don’t be a martyr. Do what is necessary to heal.
  2. Allow children to grieve and express their feelings without becoming defensive. Give the child the freedom to express feelings and be supportive and neutral as they voice their emotions over the loss.
  3. Try to have an amicable relationship with the ex-spouse and keep the children’s best interests in mind.
  4. Do not put-down or badmouth the ex-spouse. This puts the child in a very uncomfortable position. You don’t have to hide the truth from them either, but they will uncover the truth on their own. Be neutral. Children want to love their parents, regardless of the circumstances.
  5. Focus on establishing a comfortable, consistent healthy environment for the children as they adjust.

Repartnering

Repartnering refers to forming new, intimate relationships after divorce. This includes dating, cohabitation and remarriage.

Parental considerations about dating: Dating as a single parent can pose certain challenges. Time and money are considerations. A single mother may not have time for dating and may not have the money needed for child-care while she is out. Children can also resent a parent taking time away to date. Parents may struggle with whether or not to introduce a date to the children or to demonstrate affection in front of the children. When a dating relationship becomes serious, a boyfriend or girlfriend might expect the parent to prove their concern for them above the children. This puts a parent in a very uncomfortable situation. Sometimes, this vying for attention does not occur until the couple begins to consider sharing a long-term relationship.

Parental considerations about cohabitation: Having time, money and resources to date can be difficult.  And having privacy for a dating relationship can also be problematic.  Divorced parents may cohabit as a result.  Cohabitation involves living together in a sexually intimate relationship without being married. This can be difficult for children to adjust to because cohabiting relationships in the United States tend to be short-lived. About 50 percent last less than 2 years (Brown, 2000). The child who starts a relationship with the parent’s live-in partner may have to sever this relationship later.  And even in long-term cohabiting relationships, once it’s over, continued contact with the child is rare.

Is remarriage more difficult than divorce? The remarriage of a parent may be a more difficult adjustment for a child than the divorce of a parent (Seccombe & Warner, 2004).  Parents and children typically have different ideas of how the stepparent should act.  Parents and stepparents are more likely to see the stepparent’s role as that of parent.  A more democratic style of parenting may become more authoritarian after a parent remarries. And biological parents are more likely to continue to be involved with their children jointly when neither parent has remarried.  They are least likely to jointly be involved if the father has remarried and the mother has not.

Characteristics of Stepfamilies

About 60 percent of divorced parents remarry within a few years (Berk, 2007). Largely due to high rates of divorce and remarriage, we have seen the number of stepfamilies in America grow considerably in the last 20 years although rates of remarriage are declining (Seccombe & Warner, 2004).   Stepfamilies are not new. In the 1700-1800s there were many stepfamilies, but they were created because someone died and remarried. Most stepfamilies today are a result of divorce and remarriage. And such origins lead to new considerations. Stepfamilies are different from intact families and more complex in a number of ways that can pose unique challenges to those who seek to form successful stepfamily relationships (Visher & Visher, 1985).   Stepfamilies are also known as blended families and stepchildren as “bonus children” by social scientists interested in emphasizing the positive qualities of these families.

  1. Stepfamilies have a biological parent outside the stepfamily and a same sex adult in the family as natural parent. This can lead to animosity on part of a rejecting child. This can also lead to confusion on part of stepparent as to what their role is within the family.
  2. Child may be a part of two households, each with different rules.
  3. Members may not be as sure that others care and may require more demonstrations of affection for reassurance. For example, stepparents expect more gratitude and acknowledgment from the stepchild than they would with a biological child. Stepchildren experience more uncertainty/insecurity in their relationship with the parent and fear the parents will see them as sources of tension. And stepparents may feel guilty for a lack of feelings they may initially have toward their partner’s children. Children who are required to respond to the parent’s new mate as though they were the child’s “real” parent often react with hostility, rebellion, or withdrawal. Especially if there has not been time for the relationship to develop.
  4. Stepfamilies are born of loss. Members may have lost a home, a neighborhood, family members or at least their dream of how they thought life would be. These losses must be acknowledged and mourned. Remarriage quickly after a divorce makes expressing grief more difficult. Family members are looking for signs that all is well at the same time that members are experiencing grief over losses.
  5. Stepfamilies are structurally more complex. There are lost of triangles and lots of ways to divide and conquer the new couple.
  6. Sexual attractions are more common in stepfamilies. Members have not grown up together and sexual attractions need to be understood, and controlled. Also a new couple may need to tone down sexual displays when around the children (can bring on jealousy, etc.) until there is greater acceptance of the new partner.

Sociologist Andrew Cherlin suggests that one reason people remarry is because divorce is so socially awkward. There are no clear guidelines for family/friends, how to treat divorcees, etc. As a result, people remarry to avoid this “displacement.” The problem is that remarriage is similarly ill-defined. This is reflected in the lack of language to support the institution of remarriage. What does one call their stepparent? Who is included when thinking of “the family”? For couples with joint custody, where is “home”? And there are few guidelines about how ex-spouses and new spouses or other kin should interact. This is especially an issue when children are involved

In light of this incompleteness, here are some tips for those in stepfamilies. Most of these tips are focused on the stepparent. These come from an article entitled “The Ten Commandments of Step parenting” by Turnbull and Turnbull.

  1. Provide neutral territory. If there is a way to do so, relocate the new family in a new, more neutral home. Houses have histories and there are many memories attached to family homes. This territoriality can cause resentments.
  2. Don’t try to fit a preconceived role. Stepparents need to realize that they cannot just walk into a situation and expect to fill a role. They need to stay in tuned with what works in this new family rather than being dogmatic about their new role.
  3. Set limits and enforce them. Don’t allow children to take advantage of the parent’s guilt or adjustment by trying to gain special privileges as a result of the change. Limits provide security, especially if they are reasonable limits.
  4. Allow an outlet for feelings by the children for their natural parent. This tip is for the natural parent. Avoid the temptation to “encourage” the child to go against your ex-spouse. Instead, remain neutral when comments are made.
  5. Expect ambivalence, not instant love. Stepparents need to realize that their acceptance has to be earned, and sometimes it is long in coming. The relationship has to be given time to grow. Trust has to be established. One day they may be loved, the next, hated. Adjustment takes time.

Developmental Stages of Step-famililes

Stepfamilies go through periods of adjustments and developmental stages that take about 7 years for completion (Papernow, 1993).  The early stages of stepfamily adjustment include periods of fantasy in which members may hope for immediate acceptance.  This is followed by the immersion stage in which children have to adjust to their parent’s date being transformed into a new stepfather or stepmother.  This acceptance can be accompanied by a sense of betrayal toward the natural parent on the part of the children.  The awareness stage involves members beginning to become aware of how they feel in the family and taking steps to map our their territory.  Children may begin to feel as if they’ve been set aside for other family members and the couple may begin to focus their attention toward one another.  Biological parents may feel resentful.

The middle stages include mobilization, in which family members begin to recognize their differences.  Stepparents may be less interested in pleasing family members and more interested in taking a stand and being respected as family members.  Children may start to voice their frustrations at being pulled in different directions by biological and stepparents.  The next step is that of taking action. Now step-couples and stepparents begin to reorganize the family based on more realistic expectations and understandings of how members feel.

The later stages include contact between stepfamily members that is more intimate and genuine.  A clearer role for the stepparent emerges.  Finally, the stepfamily seems to have more security and stability than ever before.

Conclusions

Middle childhood is a complex period of the life span. New understandings and social situations bring variety to children’s lives as they form new strategies for the world ahead. We next turn our attention to adolescents.

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