Do you remember when you were nine? Many people have vivid memories about particularly events or experiences at that age. Some people reflect back and become aware of how their connection with the world changed, how they began to notice new things, ask different questions. If you dig a little, a whole set of people report that this was the age when they actually got a first glimmer of their later life’s work.
What is most consistent, however, is that people remember feeling anxious. This age stands as a developmental eye of the needle, a passage, through which we first become aware of ourselves as true individuals and which naturally brings some anxiety with it.
It is vitally important to know about this threshold time of nine-years because it is now being misinterpreted. Children are too often now being diagnosed with an anxiety disorder at age nine, when we should actually view this period as an essential time of developmental transformation. We can do this if we know the context. There are good ways to help a child move successfully through this transition.
Of course, every child experiences certain aspects of individuality long before age nine. It’s good to review some of those experiences, because it is not uncommon for there to be shades of anxiety during these other transition times, too:
- The first big change comes when we are born, as the warmth, nutrition and protection we had been bathed in for nine months abruptly falls away. Suddenly we have to breathe on our own, learn to nurse, see, poop, and maintain our own warmth. That is a huge shift (we don’t usually think of newborns as having an anxiety disorder because we recognize right away that they are tremendously sensitive beings and need lots of protection, so most of our care instinctively goes towards soothing them and helping them orient to new rhythms of eating, sleeping, and breathing).
- A more recognizable emotional change comes at two- to three-years of age, when children start to realize that they can be distinct from their surrounding and that there is an actual border which marks what-is-me and what-is-not-me. This is a time when children practice saying “no” to all kinds of things, not so much because they hold deep moral objections as because they are practicing saying “no,” practicing being distinct. They need to practice sympathy and antipathy. The border between inside and outside is not yet well-established. It shifts all the time, because the thing that the child emphatically says “no” to one moment may be fine ten minutes later. These refusals are a practice in process, not principle. It is no mistake that this is also the time when many children are learning to potty-train, a related physiologic practice of feeling when something is still inside of me and when it goes outside of me, a body-oriented boundary learning.
- At about five years, children’s play changes as part of a new social awareness. Children start communicating more. Instead of just playing something together—whether running outside, building a “house”, or creating a game—now there is a new element of planning and discussing. There are more dynamics of personality. Perception of the other grows, and children start to have insights about many variations of life, realizing that there are children with different family structures, such as three sisters, or no sisters, one parent, two parents, three parents, or no dogs.
- At 6 ½ to 7 years, children begin to lose their baby teeth and their bodies lengthen, but the most striking change is the way that their thinking fundamentally shifts. Children begin to have abstract thoughts, so that letters and numbers, as symbols, have newer, deeper meaning. Thinking is no longer so literal, so connected to physical body and the limbs. Thinking becomes “body-free” in that a child can now begin to think about a thing in more flexible ways (such as doing addition problems through mental math instead of always needing to count it out on the fingers). A child can more and more often think about doing something without having to physically act it out. Children become much less imitative at that time. And jokes and puns are now accessible—they can hear the difference in a knock-knock joke between “aren’t you glad?” and “orange you glad?”, or a pun like “lettuce be friends.”
These changes mark predictable steps of developmental progression through which we become step-wise more aware of the outside world and learn to engage with it in new ways. Then comes age nine. The quality of that change is different, because each child is entering a whole new field of self-consciousness.
With the nine-year change, we find connection to our innermost our core, the kernel of our being, which is in truth completely different and distinct from anyone else. This developmental shift is as much about new inner awareness as it is about outward observation. In Anthroposophic medicine and Waldorf education this innermost aspect is known as our “I”—because we can really only say “I” about ourselves. Age nine marks an awakening of that innermost spiritual core, an awakening which can bring glimpses of how life intentions will play out in the future and which lays the foundation for true moral perception.
The first experience for many children at this age, however, is fear. Nine-year olds frequently express deep worries, and they circle around particular themes: death, loss of a parent, illness, robbers, accidents, and natural disasters (like hurricanes, earthquakes, or tsunamis). These all are expressions of the newly experienced vulnerability that comes from feeling separate, from feeling distinct and individual. When I come to realize that I am my own person, then that also means I can be separated from those I love. The protective “bubble” of unconscious protection that shelters a younger child grows becomes more transparent.
- First, where previously it has been largely possible to reassure and shield a child from any particular worry or fear, many parents find that the realities of this new experience can’t simply be whispered away. If a child says “I am worried that you (the parent) will die,” you can’t honestly say that “that will never happen.” (You might have been able to say that to a four-year-old, but it doesn’t work well with a nine-year-old). Hearing about the death of a relative, seeing a TV show about murderers, or learning about serious illness or injury are often proverbial “cats” that can’t be so easily stuffed back into their bags. Parenting has to change a little and be more companioning, sharing more about coping and response. Some possible examples of answers to worries are given below. Feel encouraged to find your own—they need to be spoken with authenticity (but these might give you a place to start):
- Worry: “I am afraid you will die.” Answer: “I certainly don’t want that to happen, and I don’t think that is something we need to worry about now. But if I did die, I would still love you and be around you all the time and tell good things to your heart.”
- “I’m worried about tornadoes” A: “If there was a tornado, then we would go down into the basement or into a room without windows, and wait quietly until it was all over.”
- “What if someone smashes into our car?” A: “If we were hurt we would go to the hospital and the doctors would take care of us, and if we needed to we would get the car repaired, too.”
- Second piece of advice—don’t take things too personally! It is not uncommon for children to ask at this age about who their real parents are. This can be unexpectedly wounding for the adoptive parents of a child, though it is a question that is also regularly voiced by children who are living with their biological parents. Just as you shouldn’t take personally a two-and-a-half-year old’s yelling “No!” it is similarly good to remember that these kinds of questions are about orienting to a new way of being in the world. Being an individual brings experiences of loneliness and wondering if we are really in the right place (this still often happens for adults who are going through a biographical change, too).
- DON’T OVER-INTELLECTUALIZE: Though we do need to meet a nine-year-old’s worries with honesty, it does not mean that they are ready to now hear about all the challenges of adulthood. Awareness of those greater realities will come naturally around age twenty-one (the time that our “I” takes its next big step towards greater individual consciousness). Sometimes nine-year-old children are taken to a therapist who wants to treat the child with techniques that are really only appropriate for an adult, with lots of practice in voicing self-analysis. Those techniques are developmentally inappropriate for nine-year-olds, over-emphasize self-awareness, and can actually makes things worse. Help the child answer the questions he or she already has (without added a bunch more). Expecting heightened self-awareness to help a child who is already struggling with disorientation from sudden new self-awareness is not healthy.
- A small caution: because the child is trying to find a new way of being in the world, it is nice (as much as is possible) to not make major outer life changes at this age. Of course, many life changes unfold in ways that are beyond our control, but if you have been thinking about randomly taking a year off and traveling the globe with repeatedly changing sights, it would probably be better to wait and not do it with your nine-year-old. Let some of the foundations for a new sense of self be build first, which will be aided by familiar surroundings and predictable rhythms.
- Celebrate new strengths and capacities! Look to see the sparks of true originality that are coming through. What are ways for a child to be active in the world, interested in the world, kind in the world? These are healthy steps forward toward the future!
- The best therapeutic supports at this age work to bring more “courage!” There are a variety of anthroposophic medicines that act in a grounding, calming, fortifying way. Most children will not need them, but if someone is really stuck in worry, unable to separate from the parent, or has badly disturbed sleep, there are good treatments available.
- This is also an age when certain types of illness make their appearance. Obsessive-compulsive behaviors can appear, which can be partly viewed as an unconscious adaptation for controlling vulnerability to the outside world. With OCD, the nervous system gets stuck in looping worries (obsessions) with a need to repeatedly physically orient in the environment (handwashing, touching things, ordering the room). Children also can develop tics at this age, a different but related expression of a looping in the nervous system, but now related to movement. Age nine is also a time when many children get warts on their fingers and feet—an immunologic challenge that comes when children are working to determine “What is part of me?” Many children’s warts will disappear naturally over the next several years as the immune system matures. Our immune system is an essential physiologic tool of our “I”. OCD patterns, tics, and warts all represent some of the physiologic challenges children may experience as part of trying to navigate this change. There are similarly good anthroposophic treatments for each of these imbalances.
What are some of the fruits that come with this change? The first is the newly developed sense of self. An outgrowth of this self-awareness is the reciprocal capacity to recognize another person as an “I”, as a completely individual, unique being. The nine-year change is the foundation for developing a true moral sensing of the other. That’s an important revelation! So, we don’t want to suppress or shame this burgeoning sense of individuality, and we avoid medicating it away. We need the world, now and in the future, to have as many individuals as possible who have learned to be comfortable and capable in their individuality so that they can recognize and honor the uniqueness of the other (without being threatened by it).
We don’t need to fear this change, we should celebrate it.
Hip, Hip, Hurray for the nine-year-old developmental change!