Bestselling Author Judith Warner Advises Parents To Get Out of the Middle-School Mindset Themselves

In her new book, And Then They Stopped Talking to Me: Making Sense of Middle School (Crown, May), bestselling New York Times author and former columnist Judith Warner discusses why parents' behavior may be the worst thing about middle school yet, and how parents can change the dynamics by growing up themselves.

In this Q&A, Warner shares her advice on when and how parents should get involved in their middle schoolers' dramas, her own parenting weaknesses and what she likes to listen to in her spare time.

Judith Warner NINA SUBIN

Why this book?

To find answers to questions that kept running through my mind while my daughters were in middle school: Why is this phase of life so incredibly hard—for parents? Why is everyone (parents again) looking so unhappy and acting so weird? Why does it hurt me so much when my daughters have a hard time with friends? Is my emotion getting in the way of my helping them? What could I do differently or better? And why is no one talking about any of this?

What is your single most important piece of advice for parents about how to advise their children who are subject to middle school nastiness?

Acknowledge their pain without amplifying it. Listen closely and non-judgmentally. Ask open-ended questions that give them the opportunity to say what they need to say and think things through. Offer light suggestions, not edicts, drawing upon your mature, adult, thinking brain. And then ask them what they need and what they want to do and steer them in the direction of getting support at school.

You argue that when parents get involved in middle school drama, they tend to make things worse. But when should parents step in?

Parents should try always to be present for listening. I don't mean they have to be home right after school, but when they are there, they have to be as mentally and emotionally available as possible. They should empower their middle schoolers to seek help from school adults if necessary—whether a homeroom teacher or an advisor or a school counselor. If a child is in danger or is in a situation that is impacting their mental health, it's worth talking to the adults at school and seeing how they can help. But parents shouldn't micromanage. And trying to "work things out" with other parents just about always backfires.


What would you say are your own parenting strengths? Weaknesses?

I think that my greatest strength as a parent has been my willingness to question myself and try to change course if the way I'm interacting with my daughters is destructive. My willingness to question myself can also be a great weakness too, however, because it can make it hard for me to stand my ground. I also have a tendency to become flooded with emotion very quickly and to say things that I later regret. That's a terrible weakness.

Do you impose restrictions on social media on your children? What self-imposed restrictions do you follow?

My children are grown now—20 and 23—so that ship has largely sailed. I have, however, always insisted on basic courtesy: if we're having a meal together, we stay off our phones. Same for engaging in a conversation or attending an event, etc. Because I write, and have to focus deeply for long stretches in order to do it, I need to be able to disconnect completely from my phone and WiFi. I got in the habit, when they were in high school, of telling them when I was doing so and when I'd be reachable, so that they'd know that I was there for them—later—and if they needed something immediate, they should contact their dad. I think that particular "restriction" has been really healthy for all of us, because it helps curb everyone's anxiety and encourages more independent problem-solving.

Do you have any favorite podcasts?

The BBC Radio 4's In Our Time history podcast. My older daughter got me into it. Which pretty much tells you everything you need to know about what life was like for her in middle school.

What's next for you?

I did some reporting over the winter on the way that grassroots organizations have been working to get more people voting and participating in our elections. I'm hoping to continue following these groups for the remainder of this election year, because I think they're having a huge impact. And I have a new book idea that I'm currently turning into a proposal. Completely different topic, entirely focused on adults. Fingers crossed that it works—I really want to do it.