How to Talk to Kids about Middle School

This podcast is about how to help ourselves and our children navigate middle school successfully. Dr. Robyn Silverman interviews Judith Warner, author of “And Then They Stopped Talking to Me,” about middle school friendship, relationships, emotions, frustrations, screen-time and more.

Guest Expert: Judith Warner

The Middle School years are characterized by a perfect storm of developmental changes—physical, psychological, and social—they are a time of great distress for children and parents alike, marked by hurt, isolation, exclusion, competition, anxiety, and often outright cruelty. In fact, the French have a name for the uniquely hellish years between elementary school and high school: l’âge Ingrat (LAH_JONG_ RA), or “the ugly age.” Some of this, perhaps, is inevitable; as children individuate during this time, pushing away what they had once embraced to try on new hats and find out who they really are independent of how they were raised, who their friends were and who their parents are known to be. We all know that there are intrinsic challenges to early adolescence. But according to my next guest, these years are harder than they need to be—perhaps in part because the adults in the lives of our middle schoolers are complicit.

Judith Warner is the author of the New York Times bestsellers Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety and Hillary Clinton: The Inside Story, as well as the multiple award-winning We’ve Got Issues: Children and Parents in the Age of Medication. A senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, she has been a frequent contributor to the New York Times, where she wrote the popular Domestic Disturbances column, as well as numerous other publications. She has a new book out called “And Then They Stopped Talking to Me: Making Sense of Middle School- and I, for one, am excited to talk to her as my daughter just started middle school so I have a personal and professional interest in this topic.

Important Messages:

  • Triggered memories from middle school while parenting middle schooler.
  • Parents behaving strangely.
  • This phase of life is painful for everyone. Lose sight of that sometimes. Social aspects are tough. Developmental, linked to brain development, social is most important- emotionally salient- packs the biggest punch. Insecure.
  • Smaller, cozy elementary school bigger middle school. Structural change. Adults don’t know them. Discipline. Academic teacher.
  • Adults- early middle age- insecure. Irony. Who am I? Where do I fit? Am I good enough? Am I where I want to be?
  • If their kids are having a hard time, parents are going to feel like crap. On top of that, overinvestment. A lot of insecurity. Then looking at kids’ status and how they fit into the world. Social problems for kids- triggers adults, laden with insecurity. So many parents tied up in knots.
  • Lolita affect- early fertility does not mean ready for sex or interested in sex. We talk about raging hormones. Tends to mean- sexual connotation. Mystery. Remember identity validation but not sexual way. Put on them- it’s a myth. Puberty earlier- but this does not mean sexual. Imposing assumption on these kids when they aren’t actually interested in a sexual relationship.
  • “If a 12 year old wants to wear a mini skirt and the adults in her life are telling her it’s slutty, I happen to think that’s a serious problem.” All this does it makes her feel slutty even if this has nothing to do with her choice to wear the garment. As an adult, we can step back and realize this is ridiculous. As a 12-year-old, you don’t yet have this perspective. This gets internalized. Gets mixed up with popularity and status.
  • Parents have talked about middle school as one of the most painful time with their kids. Parents complain that this is the hardest time- but the kids are less negative. Lots of bickering. Most of it is not that disastrous. Become less frequent.
  • Mothers and daughters- arguing. Corrosive for parent. The contrast is great. Change from what was the way it was before. Feels abrupt. Different ages for different kids.
  • Can’t control everything- but you can scaffold.
  • Screentime- maybe we weren’t that different in terms of the amount we used to be on the phone or how we used 3-way calling. Not that different. We wrote horrible notes, we did hang up calls, prank calls, etc.
  • Today’s kids, like us, want to be in touch with their friends all the time, they want to know where they stand, they are dealing with in-group/out-group stuff, they are capable of cruelty as well as powerful, nourishing and nurturing friendship.
  • Social media and phones- value neutral. Can be good or bad. Have to remember that- don’t demonize. We do have power- helping our kids interpret what they see online, how they treat others, what they do when they see others being treated badly.
  • Would love to see screen-use rules at this age and stick to it.
  • Community-wide rules are best so no outliers.
  • Hyper-vigilance with the kids isn’t good for anyone. “The psychological fallout for kids isn’t good- and the psychological fallout for parents isn’t good either. The more that parents give into that urge to monitor, the more anxious they become, the more there is to be anxious about.”
  • Our generation might be over-parenting because they may feel that they were under-parented.
  • There is some good that’s happening in the pandemic as it relates to our kids and their friendships in school- as school is different right now.
  • One parent came to learn- think about friendships from inside out rather than outside in- how did she feel with that person? Not if that person was accepting her or validating her. Did that person make her happy? That’s the compass. Ask yourself; “when I’m with this person, how do I feel?” How do I make them feel?
  • Careful not to put OUR fears onto our children and their choices. Also can come from a good place- sometimes triggering for us because we don’t want them going through what we went through.
  • Michael Thompson: “If I hear a parents say that their child is just like them, I know they aren’t really seeing their kid.”
  • Can learn from our kids—especially if they are different from us.
  • The only things we really should try to shape are our own reactions to things.

Notable Quotables:

  • “Middle school should come with a trigger warning”
  • “Middle school is when kids are the most insecure about where they belong and where they fit—and when cliquiness peaks. It’s the perfect storm.”
  • “Middle schoolers, on the one hand, want some distance from adults, and on the other hand need guidance. Everything is more complicated for them.”
  • “As you enter middle age, you are dealing with a lot of the same insecurities [as middle schoolers] all over again. Who am I? Where do I fit? What have I accomplished? Is it good enough? Am I good enough? Am I where I want to be? The older versions of the identity questions that kids are confronted with when they get to adolescence.”
  • “If a 12-year-old wants to wear a mini skirt and the adults in her life are telling her it’s slutty, I happen to think that’s a serious problem.”
  • “Middle school is a time when kids are trying on lots of different identities. They are figuring out who they are going to be- from what they like to do to what their aesthetic is to what kind of person they want to be. They try on different roles and different masks.”
  • ‘Screens and social media are tools and vehicles for communication.”
  • Hyper-vigilance with the kids isn’t good for anyone. “The psychological fallout for kids isn’t good- and the psychological fallout for parents isn’t good either. The more that parents give into that urge to monitor, the more anxious they become- the more there is to be anxious about.”
  • “Parents, very often, can confuse physical vigilance with emotional presence.”
  • With people you are close to, when they say; ‘we’re very different,’ tends to feel like a rejection. It shouldn’t have to be. It should be ‘we feel very different about these things and how to handle these things’ and have it be neutral or even admiring- because maybe our way isn’t so great!”
  • “We tend to be sold a bill of goods about what we can control and where our powers lie in terms of shaping our children’s destinies. In reality, the only things we have control over is our own behavior and our own emotional reactions to things. That’s where our focus has to be. If we are calm and at peace, to the extent that we can be, we will do a good job with our kids. That’s the best thing we can do for them is to be ok- and that means being aware of when we are not ok and what we need in order to be ok.”