It might be at nine-years old, it might be at eleven, but somewhere around ten years of age children’s brains change in a significant, but often overlooked way. It’s at this stage that the brain’s cells begin to develop a sheathing along their bodies, a bit like bark developing on a tree trunk; this new development makes the brain a little less open to new connections and much faster along the connections it has built. This change has important implications for learning, but also for feeling.
One result of this change is that the brain is now able to begin to engage more effectively in abstract thinking (i.e. symbolic representation). This neurological step, sort of like an invisible foreshadowing of the more obvious changes that happen in puberty, helps explain why children who learn a language earlier than nine or ten can speak like a native, while those who learn a new language after this period will always have some give-away trace of an accent. You could also think of this enhanced brain speed a bit like a faster level computer; the child who could manage multiplication and division, can now begin to work at algebra (although just begin) since it depends on symbolic representation (i.e. x=?) which requires this faster sort of brain to grasp fully. Of course the brain develops these changes slowly, and children have an uncanny way of understanding algebra on Tuesday and then not getting it on Wednesday… and grasping it after-all on Thursday.
This sheathing of neurons (called myelination) also changes a child’s ability to use good judgement, but the patchy quality of this process means that one minute things are working at a sophisticated level, and the next moment they are working at an eight-year-old level (which helps explain why teens seem like they are solid, and then do seemingly foolish/dangerous things). The long and patchy time it takes for this sheathing process to become complete (i.e. in the early to mid twenties) helps account for how challenging it is too parent teenagers.
On the emotional front, as far as ten-year-olds go, one key thing to keep in mind is that around this age I’ve seen many kids develop a deepening sense of angst, alienation and despair (from mild to severe). As a child who is “different” develops the mental capacity to understand their relationship to the group, and the ways in which they may not “fit in,” the capacity for deeper suffering emerges along with the ability to do higher math. And while we expect these feelings to emerge along with body-hair, they are often subtle but overlooked in the years preceding puberty.
Given that all kids feel “different” to some extent, and now that their self-concept is paired with a more powerful imagination (with which they can conjure awful scenarios of misery all the more vividly), they can suddenly seem very moody, disturbed and more remote around this age. They may also, due to the very patchy nature of things, only intermittently be able to explain anything about their own process. When this stage coincides with outer disruptions, like moving or parents’ splitting up, they may experience these things more trenchantly.
And since one of the hallmarks of angst and alienation is feeling alone and like no one truly understands us (most of us grown-ups are well acquainted with this feeling, which is ironic because we tend to think that it’s just us), we serve our ten-year-olds by deepening our compassion for how truly and deeply they may feel their human condition.
So, let’s dedicate today to giving another, softer and more insightful look to the nine, ten and eleven year olds in our lives, and in our collective world (and to sending love back to the kids we were, however misunderstood, when we were this age).