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Stages of Emotional Development and Age of Loss: 6-12 year olds

By: Mary Ellen Collins

We introduced you to the Stages of Emotional Development and Mother loss in an earlier blog .

Basically, the concept is:

 Age of loss + Stage of Emotional Development + the ability of our caretaker or support system to allow us to grieve our loss = Long term adult adaptability. In other words how emotionally balanced, centered, and adaptable we are as adult.

Now let’s go forward for those of you who experienced mother loss through death or absence from 6-12 years of age.

The major theme for this stage is industry vs. inferiority. 

Experiencing loss in the 6-12 age influences Erickson’s fourth developmental stage that is critical to healthy development. During middle childhood between the ages of about six and eleven, children enter the psychosocial stage known as industry versus inferiority.  As children engage in social interaction with friends and academic activities at school, they begin to develop a sense of pride and accomplishment in their work and abilities. Children who are praised and encouraged develop a sense of competence, while those who are discouraged are left with a sense of inferiority.

At each stage of development, people face a crisis. In order to resolve this crisis, children and adults are faced with mastering the developmental task primary to that stage.  If this skill is successfully achieved, it leads to an ability that contributes to lifelong well being. Failing to master these critical tasks, however, can result in social and emotional struggles that last a lifetime.

Let’s relate this to mother loss, whether through death or absence, a child who loses a mother during this age and stage of emotional development, gets stuck, and often ponders the question, “Is it my fault?”

 6-12 year olds do not have the psychological development, emotional maturity, and experience to know how to cope with a loss.  A child in this age group has a basic cause and effect belief system.  If something happens, there is a cause for it.  When it is the mother who she loses, her cause and effect belief system tells her that she must have done something wrong because mothers do not leave their children.  This is called “Magical Thinking.”  She truly believes she is the cause of the mother’s leaving or death. Mothers leave children because they are bad. This belief may be the root of a life-long inferiority complex as she matures into adulthood.

A motherless daughter once shared with me that her mother had died of cancer when she was 7 years old. She believes that she caused her mother’s death. At 6, in a heated argument, she told her mother she wished she were dead. As an adult, her rational side knows that she could not have caused her mother’s cancer, but her internal 7 year old, believes it to this day. She had been married three times and has been in and out of abusive relationships. Each time she experiences a loss, she believes it is always her fault and she often begs for the relationship to continue, even though it was not healthy for her.

What compounds “Magical Thinking” is when these young girls are not told the truth about an impending loss or death.  This may have been true for the above example. Their feelings intensify if they receive false information.  Many times adults believe that they are protecting the child when they do not tell them what is happening in their world. However, the child is left to make up a story and in their story, they are the ones who caused the loss. They are not adults and do not have the emotional reserve to manage that loss. As hard as it is, the child must know the truth about the loss. It is also critical that the caretaker or whoever the support system is, to allow the daughter to grieve her loss.  Sadly, that often does not happen since the adult is experiencing the grief and loss also.

Women who have experienced mother loss in the 6-12 year old group are said to have the hardest time as adults. They may take on the responsibility for any loss. “It is my fault. Some women will engage in co-dependent behavior to keep relationships from ending.

Most daughters, who experience loss at this age, do not want to talk about it. They will stuff their feelings, and refuse to talk about. However, their feelings often come out in their play.

A psychological coping mechanism for these girls is transference.  A child who experiences loss at this age may transfer her feelings of need and dependency onto the nearest available adult. This could be a father, older sibling, aunt, teacher, neighbor, etc. The transference she uses as a coping mechanism also makes her vulnerable and an easy target for a predator. We have had many women share that this was the time when they experienced abuse from a neighbor or an adult she thought was paying attention to her need. As an adult, she will continue to search for people throughout her life to transfer her feelings of need.

Another example is a motherless daughter whose mother had Multiple Sclerosis and died when she was 7. She was expected to take on an adult role, caring for her younger siblings, cooking, cleaning, and doing the household chores. This woman had to become the adult at age 7. She was not psychologically or emotionally equipped. There was no one to nurture her. As an adult, she was angry and exhibited behaviors that were overbearing, controlling, and bitter. Her relationship with her father was distant and strained as he aged. Part of her anger was pointed at the fact that he did not take care of her when she was a child and now he expected her to take care of him as he aged.  She worked hard to realize that she did not have a childhood. She needed to grief the loss of not only her mother, but the childhood that she did not have. 

A motherless daughter who experienced mother loss at age 12, had to assume the roles of caretaker not only for a sick mother but also for her sister and overbearing, critical father. This loss has translated into an overwhelming feeling of guilt if she cannot take care of things in her life. 

If you have experienced mother loss from the ages of 6-12, can you relate to any of these themes as an adult? How does this play out in your adult life? Are there ways that you act as an adult that connect with these themes? Share your stories. 

Comments(7)

  1. Reply
    KRIS FENSKE says

    I’m not sure where to go from here, but this is me and I’m actually very relieved that I’m not broken. The youngest of three by 15 years and a motherless daughter at the age of 8 due to pancreatic cancer. Sadly, I’m just discovering the motherless daughter complex as I’m 48. I’m a good mother, not a great one. I’m a poor wife, married for nearly 20 years to a man that ignores and invalidates me and has definite narcissistic tendencies. I’m angry that I chose him and angrier yet that I’m still married to him next year I will be the same age as when my mother died and I can’t help but feel that her 49 years on Earth were valid and well spent and mine are insignificant and I bet she wouldn’t have been proud of the life I developed. Nothing in this world has changed due to my birth. I am special to no one.

    • Reply
      Mary Ellen Collins says

      It is not surprising that you are just discovering the motherless daughter connection. Mother loss affects every aspect of our life. Losing your mother at age 8 is devastating and sets you up for a lifetime of grief and loss. You do not mention who cared for you after her death? Did they help you mourn her loss? The thing is that grief is a scar and it does not have to control you. You must know that it is there but learn how to manage that grief. Being angry is OK. You must deal with the anger so that you can understand it and it no longer has any power over you. You are entering what is called the Neon Year. It is when you reach the same age as your mother was when you lost her. I have linked a blog I wrote on this that might be helpful. https://www.motherlessdaughtersministry.com/getting-neon-year/
      We are here to help and support you on each step of your journey.

  2. Reply
    Motherless Daughters Ministry says

    It is not surprising that you are just discovering the motherless daughter connection. Mother loss affects every aspect of our life. Losing your mother at age 8 is devastating and sets you up for a lifetime of grief and loss. You do not mention who cared for you after her death? Did they help you mourn her loss? The thing is that grief is a scar and it does not have to control you. You must know that it is there but learn how to manage that grief. Being angry is OK. You must deal with the anger so that you can understand it and it no longer has any power over you. You are entering what is called the Neon Year. It is when you reach the same age as your mother was when you lost her. I have linked a blog I wrote on this that might be helpful. https://www.motherlessdaughtersministry.com/getting-neon-year/
    We are here to help and support you on each step of your journey.

  3. Reply
    mary ellis says

    Thank you for this site- as it is mother’s day – thoughts of her always are more apparent at this time- I lost her in 1964 – she had a stroke and died one week later – I was 12 and I had a 17 yr old & 5 year old brother- there was no grief counseling at that time- things just continued- looking back and reading stories of others makes me feel I was fortunate in many ways. My Dad understood my sadness & we kept a strong relationship with my moms family. My childhood was normal & enjoyed school- was a majorette, prom queen, class President & did well in school- I think I accomplished these things to make my mom proud of me- I went on to college and eventually got a PhD & have had a wonderful career teaching in universities overseas. I guess I followed my mom; she graduated From college & was in the WAC in Europe during ww2. I was not always wise in relationships but have been a stable one with a good man for over 20 years- I believe the key to coping was a wonderful dad who loved me even when was rebellious as a teenager- I lost him in 2003- he was 89. It’s good to have this opportunity to share – it’s a sad club to belong to and I’ve missed my mom my whole life- thank you for letting me share these thoughts

    • Reply
      Motherless Daughters Ministry says

      Mary thank you so much for sharing. This mother’s day please celebrate your father for the mothering he did. One of the most important things a caretaker can do after the loss of a mother is to make it safe for her to grieve and it sounds like that is what he did. You sound like a wonderfully accomplished woman and must be a blessing to the learners that you have had the privilege to help. So glad our site gives you comfort and peace. Where are you located? Always remember we are a click away whenever you need us. Don’t be a stranger. Visit us on our Facebook site also, Motherless Daughters Ministry.

      • Reply
        mary ellis says

        I’m so appreciative of your prompt and empathetic reply- thank you. I did as you suggested and acknowledged my dad and from now on will consider Mother’s Day as Parents day. As a result, I reached out to friends who are single parents and admired them for raising their children; “paying it forward.” What a wonderful resource you are providing for those of us who experienced mother loss.

        • Reply
          Motherless Daughters Ministry says

          Oh Mary, I am so glad we could help. I love your idea about parents day for motherless daughters whose fathers supported them. I am going to remember and share that with others. Thanks! And thanks for your kind words about the ministry. This is why we exist — to serve you. And now you are ministering to others. That is what I always say, when you come to this ministry for your own healing, you are charged to go out and pay it forward by ministering to others. You are GREAT! Also wanted to make sure you saw that we did a facebook live event for Mother’s day. Go to https://www.facebook.com/Motherlessdaughtersministry/videos/531156000904634/ The feedback we got is that it was helpful. Stay in touch! And keep serving others!

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