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Elevating Resilient Tweens in Turbulent Instances

September 16, 2023
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This is an interview between Lisa Heffernan and Phyllis Fagell about her new book, Middle School Superpowers: Raising Resilient Tweens in Turbulent Times.

LH: One of the biggest heart breaks for parents and their teens is when they have been dumped by friends or excluded from a friend group they were once part of. The pain of this expulsion is searing. What can parents do to help teens through this very rough patch? 

PF: That kind of heartbreak may be even more excruciating for parents. I quote a mother in the book who told me she wanted to “stick daggers in the eyes” of several boys who kicked her son out of a group text chat. As that mom also noted, kids often make it worse for themselves by begging for inclusion or – alternatively – trying to exact revenge.

There are things parents can do to help. One is to front load information about friendships in this age group. I share statistics that highlight the mercurial, fragile nature of these bonds. For instance, if you ask a middle schooler to name their best friend, only half of the people they name will name them back.

Only one third of friendships stay constant from the fall to spring of sixth grade. Twelve percent of sixth graders have no one name them as their friend. And only one percent of seventh-grade friendships are still intact in twelfth grade.

Caregivers find the data alarming, but kids find it reassuring. They realize it’s not personal – that everyone is doing the hard work of figuring out who they click with and what it means to have a reciprocal relationship. That’s critical work if we want to raise children who know how to be a friend and choose a friend. 

Parents also can validate that it hurts to be dropped, focus on them rather than the person who injured them, and help them come up with a plan. I quote one father in the book whose child was devastated after a good friend dropped her like a hot potato. He praised his daughter for “giving a dubious friend the benefit of the doubt as long as they did.” He focused on her optimism and kindness rather than the other kid’s disloyalty. That’s key, because it’s not about the other person – it’s about their own journey.

The friend was a vehicle for their own self-discovery. We also can help our child think about ways they can exercise some agency. Maybe they could join an activity where they’re likely to meet potential friends with similar interests, or make an overture to someone else who is struggling socially, or distract themselves by exercising or watching funny videos. 

LH: Teens believe they need lots of friends, but this simply is not true. How can parents explain this to them in a way that is helpful? 

PF: We may need to shed some of our own biases first. Kids are not the only ones who fall into that trap. In fact, many tweens and teens are quite content with a few good friends, especially if they feel like they can be their real, goofy selves with them. There’s nothing worse than feeling like you’re on the periphery of a group that merely tolerates you, and the last thing we want to do is communicate to kids that their worth is tied to the size of their friend group.

Rather than focus on numbers, focus on interpersonal skills – are they adept at looking someone in the eye, giving an authentic compliment, being a good listener and setting healthy boundaries? If not, we can coach them and bolster their ability to connect with peers. 

On the flip side, deemphasize the importance of having a “best” friend. Tweens tend to overfreight the importance of having one best friend. It may feel protective, but if that friendship goes south, they don’t have a safety net. Meanwhile, everyone around them feels like a third wheel. It’s lose-lose.

Parents can help by noting that they have different friends for different purposes. Maybe you go jogging with one friend, call another when you have something serious to discuss, and lean on a third when you need someone to lighten the mood. Communicate that no one friend can meet anyone’s needs, and it’s important to learn to relate to a wide variety of people. In fact, the “floaters” become the most adept at social interactions. 

LH: You write that “By high school, they’re spending more time with peers and are less malleable. Which is why I view middle school as the ‘last best chance’ to impart self-confidence and problem-solving skills, two primary building blocks of resilience.”

PF: I should be clear that it’s the last best chance, not the last chance. Obviously, parents still can influence their high schoolers. But middle school is this magic phase when kids are sophisticated but still malleable and impressionable. Their friendships aren’t yet solidified, and while they’re beginning to pull away from their parents, they still very much care what they think.

They need a tremendous amount of support because they’re deeply insecure, lack life experience and perspective, are adjusting to the hormonal changes of puberty and must make decisions with a still-developing brain. All of this means that parents still wield enormous power to shape their values and build their resilience. 

LH: You quote stats that show that 80% of middle schoolers feel lonely at some point. From a parents point of view do we step in and try to help, maybe make suggestions or create gatherings with other families. Or do we step back and say this is part of life, and this is a good time to learn to deal with it?

PF: Look for the root cause of your child’s loneliness. What are the conditions that are present when they feel isolated? Maybe they’re not feel lonely at school because they have classmates to eat lunch with, but they’re lonely after school because they don’t know how to turn an acquaintance into a “real” friend.

They may need help scaffolding social risks. It’s easy to forget how hard it is for a 13- or 14-year-old to text someone and invite them over, especially if they’re someone who finds it challenging to merely make eye contact in the hallway. Or they might be totally fine at school, but feel lonely at practices because the other players on their travel teaml attend a different school. Once we know why they’re lonely, we can brainstorm possible solutions with them. 

LH: Can we talk about the romances of middle school teens? As parents we are able to put these early relationships into perspective but for our teens the ups and downs can be crushing. How do we show compassion and understanding, giving them the seriousness they deserve in our teens’ lives, while keeping it all in perspective?

PF: These relationships are sort of like turbo-charged friendships. Kids this age tend to be equal parts excited and overwhelmed at the prospect of being part of a couple. They’re also experiencing these crushes – including unreciprocated crushes – at a time when they’re exquisitely sensitive, uncomfortable in their own changing body, and struggling to get a handle on big emotions. So how can we help?

Often, they just want someone to bear witness to their pain and discomfort and to assure them that they’re lovable and that this too shall pass. Parents can simply be good listeners, offer empathy and share their own memories of rejection. They also can reinforce what it means to treat others well and end a relationship respectfully. Sadly, the one thing they can’t do is “fix” the situation. Even if they could, that would be counterproductive. Much like friendships, kids need to learn how to manage relationship ups and downs.

LH: One thing parents worry about is not being supportive of their teens when they need it or missing the signs of depression. You quote Dr. Ken Ginsberg about how teen depression can look like rage or anger and a teen ends up getting punished instead of helped. How can we avoid that mistake? What are the signs of depression that we should be looking for?

PF: Particularly with young adolescents, we tend to assume that wild mood swings are par for the course. But depression can resemble the mood fluctuations of puberty, and a tween can present as happy and light even if they’re in a dark place. Middle schoolers also are less adept at naming their emotions and less likely to ask for help than older teens, and they’re more impulsive.

We want to be alert to obvious worrisome signs – such as sleeping or eating too much or too little or losing interest in friends and activities that once brought them joy – but we also need to take note when they present as irritable or defiant or start behaving in uncharacteristically risky, mean, or hateful ways.

LH: You talk about the importance of teens having other reliable adults in their lives who they can go to if needed, what is the best way to help your teen find a person like that?

PF: Very explicitly. Say, “I want you to know you can always come to me in a crisis, but I also want to make sure you have other adults you can trust and call on when you need extra support.” Then brainstorm names with them. It could be a neighbor, a school counselor, an older cousin. You want them to consider this question in advance  rather than when they’re in crisis and unable to think clearly.

As an added benefit, you’re normalizing help-seeking behavior, which isn’t intuitive for kids in this age group, and you’re also underscoring the importance of asking an adult rather than another overwhelmed eighth grader for support. 

LH: You talk about making a pact with other parents to exchange information when you might be worried, tell us more about why this might be essential?

PF: As a school counselor, I’ve gotten used to parents calling me when they’re concerned about something they overheard while driving carpool or while spot-checking a kid’s texts. Group texts in particular tend to trigger alarm. I’m always happy to help parents, and I appreciate knowing what happened, as everything that happens online tends to leak into the school setting, but I’m often surprised that parents don’t reach out directly to one another.

All children benefit when their parents make an effort to get to know their friends and their friends’ parents. It’s important that adults agree to share worrisome information with one another, such as hearing that a child is giving away their possessions, as that can save lives.

LH: When our kids do something wrong we want to emphasize that it is the behavior we disapprove of, not the child, of course. What kind of language helps us do this?

PF: Tweens need to believe that adults see them as redeemable. We need to give them a path back to being a “good” kid, otherwise they can get stuck in shame and fail to learn from their mistake. We can say something like, “I’m guessing you cheated because you didn’t want to admit that you didn’t know what you were doing,” or “I’m guessing you were pretty angry if you tossed the contents of Max’s backpack in the trash.”

Giving them a plausible excuse increases the odds that they’ll let down their defenses enough to engage in a problem-solving conversation. (As a bonus, if you’re totally off-base, they’ll correct the record, which also gives you information.) Once you identify the root cause, you can think about solutions, whether they need better strategies for managing anger or extra academic help. 

I quote psychologist Ross Greene in the book, who says:

We adults are famous for thinking we know what’s going on, imposing solutions, and getting mad at the kid when the solutions don’t work. But the kid was not party to those solutions…The biggest complaint I get from kids is their parents aren’t listening, and the biggest complaint I get from parents is their kids aren’t talking. But they’re not talking because we’re not listening.

Dr. Ross Greene

We need to listen to understand.

LH: A common theme we hear from parents is teens who just will not open up, even though it is obvious that something is bothering them. SO many of our efforts can backfire, just landing us with an angrier teen. What tools do you find might work best in this situation?

PF: Kids will say to me, “Can you please tell parents to stop asking us if we’re okay all the time?” One girl explained that she’ll always say, “I’m fine,” even if she isn’t. But then she feels like she missed the opportunity to ask for support. It’s more effective to simply check-in with your kid regularly, to simply knock on the door when they’re studying and offer a snack rather than peppering them with loaded questions. 

Be ready to listen when they’re ready to talk, which is likely to be late at night when you’re ready to crash, and broach topics with some emotional distance. For instance, talk about a situation unfolding on a reality show or in the news, or ask them for advice about a problem you’re having, or talk to them about something that’s happening in one of their friend’s lives. As you have these conversations, try not to be too reactive.

No kid wants to disappoint their parents, and they’re alert to any sign of judgment or criticism. Practice your poker face and process big feelings with another adult before you attempt to talk to your child about a loaded or triggering topic.

LH: You talk about reappraising stressful situations to see experiences as excitement instead of stress. This sounds like a useful tool at any age. How can we help our teens with this?

PF: It’s the “power of and.” You can be brave and scared, or anxious and excited. Parents can work with their kids to set brave goals – to help them articulate why they want to conquer a specific fear, and then help them take steps toward that goal. Maybe they’re afraid to give a wrong answer in class, but they want their teacher to know they’re bright and have good insights. That can be the basis for a brave goal.

Kids also can use one emotion to trump another. I share an example in the book of a boy whose friends told him he wouldn’t make their travel soccer team. The boy was afraid to try out, get cut, and prove his friends right, but he also felt deeply frustrated because he thought they were wrong. In the end, he leveraged his frustration to overcome his fear of failure. He tried out and made the team.

About Phyllis L. Fagell

Phyllis L. Fagell is a licensed mental health counselor, a certified school counselor, a frequent contributor to The Washington Post, and the author of the bestselling books MIDDLE SCHOOL MATTERS, The 10 Key Skills Kids Need to Thrive in Middle School and Beyond – and How Parents Can Help, and the recently released MIDDLE SCHOOL SUPERPOWERS, Raising Resilient Tweens in Turbulent Times. Phyllis lives with her husband and three children in Bethesda, Maryland.

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