Bestselling Author Judith Warner on How Parents Screw Up Their Middle School Kids

Middle school is widely considered to be one of the most difficult periods of adolescent development and socialization. Understandably, parents want to ease their children's passage through these difficult years. In her new book, And Then They Stopped Talking to Me: Making Sense of Middle School, bestselling author Judith Warner discusses how adults' experiences in middle school color their own behavior and how they respond to their children's challenges. In this excerpt from her book, Warner discusses why parents' interventions may actually be exacerbating rather than helping a period of fraught
social interactions.

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Start With the Parents

Middle school should come with a trigger warning for parents. We all know it can be a psychologically treacherous time for kids. It's the point when old friendships abruptly end, new alliances form, and everyone is subjected to a brutal process of "sorting," as I once heard the psychologist and author Michael Thompson say, which arranges kids into unforgiving hierarchies based on looks, wealth, athleticism and that ever mysterious ingredient that in my day was called "cool." A sixth-grade teacher I interviewed referred to it as "social power." We all want to shepherd our kids though this phase of life with as little emotional damage as possible. What we don't realize, though, is how at risk we ourselves are of being knocked off course by the overwhelming powers of our own worry and concern.

I came to that realization when my daughter (I have two, but for the sake of privacy, I've merged them into one here) was in middle school, the period of years which I—like many other parents—found the most difficult of my whole parenting life. The reason wasn't that, as stereotype would have it, my daughter was particularly challenging. It was more that seeing her go through a phase I recalled as extraordinarily painful was, as a mother I later interviewed put it, "like death by a thousand cuts." And while we never discussed it directly, I had a very clear sense that other parents, too, were dealing with a lot of unpleasantness that was being triggered by their kids' middle school passage.

Every school year would begin with a grim sense of inevitability—that sixth, seventh, and eighth graders were destined to be mean; that middle school sucks, sucked, and would always suck—and that there was nothing anyone could do about it. But I was struck by the way that parents who formerly had not been willing to accept anything for their kids without a fight—not chocolate milk in the cafeteria, not a camp bunk assignment, nor even rules to limit cell phone use at school—seemed willing to throw up their hands and embrace the idea that the middle school years were fated to be horrible. I was even more surprised by the extent to which, at times, they seemed to turn into middle schoolers themselves. Gossiping, watching with anxious vigilance as the kids' dramas took off...and then taking sides. Using labels like "mean girls" or "problem boys," "players" or "sluts," micromanaging their kids' social lives to further their popularity ambitions or protect them from social pain.

I wondered: What was going on?

Same Old, Same Old?

It perhaps wasn't that much of a mystery. I knew that the mothers and fathers around me were a pretty anxious lot. And the mere thought of middle school played into their worst fears. By the time our kids were in sixth grade, the Tina Fey movie Mean Girls was already a slumber party cult classic. Terms such as "queen bees" and "alpha boys" had come, in many if not most of our minds, to define the middle school experience. And as the iPhone appeared, and all the varied forms of social media proliferated, the sense deepened that whatever loathsome behavior we might have remembered from our own junior high years was now far worse—more public, somehow "more degrading," as one middle school mother, whose own memories of early adolescence in the mid-1970s seemed straight out of Fast Times at Ridgemont (Junior) High, put it to me.

Yet I discovered, watching my daughter and her classmates, that middle schoolers were about the same as when I was growing up. They made one another miserable with the same friendship machinations and in- and out-group maneuvering. The technology at their disposal had changed, but they were putting it to pretty much all the same uses as junior high schoolers had back in the analog days of landlines and notes passed hand-to-hand in class. They made screen shots of cruel texts to "help" their friends see who liked or hated them; we had the horrible practice of calling a friend and tricking them into bashing another friend who was listening in on another extension. They created anonymous posts and sent untraceable emails; we passed around "slam books" to express our unsigned cruelty.

The one thing—one really big thing—that had changed, and for the worse, was the world of middle school parenthood. Whereas, in my day, sixth grade had marked a point where kids started to have a great deal more freedom, in my daughter's world, middle school was a time when parents leaned in even further. They "monitored" their kids' activities, both on- and offline, and they straight-out meddled. Sometimes, in the course of "advocating" for their kids, they engaged in what looked a whole lot like classic "mean girl" (or boy) behavior—ostracizing, bullying, even physically fighting other parents—sometimes with their kids on the sidelines, begging them to cut it out.

Parents I've spoken with in recent years have told stories that never cease to amaze me: Adults decide who's in and who's out for parties and even carpools based on how cool the kids will look on Facebook. ("There won't be enough room for a group picture on the front steps" was the bad-optics excuse one mother used to exclude her son's unpopular friend from an eighth-grade pre-dance get-together.) Parents slide right into their middle schoolers' social obsessions.

Parents, by and large, don't do middle schoolerish things because they're terrible people. They do them because they're scared. Or helpless. At their worst, they can even feel—if their middle schoolers seem sad, lose friends, spark tearful family fights or simply disappear for long, angry stretches into their rooms—like they're failing at the most important job in their lives. A 2015 study showed that the start of puberty is actually a trigger for marked declines in parents' feelings of "self-efficacy"—that is, the degree to which they feel up to the task of parenting their children in a positive way. That's long been true. And for this generation of parents in particular, middle schoolers' "sorting" struggles are particularly painful. They push our own buttons regarding class and wealth and status—long-simmering issues that tend to come to a head in early middle age. Given all these triggers, it's not surprising that parents end up engaging on the level of kids, trying desperately to take control. The problem is, as desperately controlling parents always do, they make a bad situation worse.

It's the Values

However well-meaning they are, American parents tend to worry about the wrong things. They fear "sexting" and bullying—both extreme behaviors that occur far less frequently among middle schoolers than we all tend to think. But what they don't tend to consider—and what I've come very strongly to think—is that the greatest danger facing our middle schoolers now is actually not their phones or their peers. It's us—or more specifically, it's the common values that hold sway in our world and that we reinforce through our parenting: selfishness, competition and personal success at any cost.

Research shows that those values, which have everything to do with external markers of status and self-worth, are psychologically damaging for all people, at all ages and in all communities. They create a lot of individual unhappiness—and they're bad for our society. But, precisely because early adolescence is a critical period in which our brains are super-sensitive, particularly to anything that tells us who we are and how we rank, they hit middle schoolers extra hard.

This means that a lot of the things we do to advance our kids' interests and bolster their feelings can backfire badly. When we teach our kids to put themselves first and focus narrowly on results, we not only encourage them to ignore or trample on the needs of others, we also rob them of the key building blocks of psychological well-being: good relationships and a sense of belonging. When we lose our boundaries and enter into their battles, we preempt their chances for developing competence and feeling skilled—the core elements of lifelong resilience.

Instead of spiraling into the affective realm of middle schoolers, we adults must raise our own level of emotional functioning. We have to learn to listen without immediately rushing in to fix things and to tolerate distress—our own and theirs—without falling to pieces. We have to figure out how to acknowledge, without excessively dwelling on, the bad things that happen. And bring a light touch and a sense of humor to middle school's dark places, always bearing in mind that few social situations are black-and-white.

This is incredibly hard to do. I myself rarely, if ever, did it successfully. But I always keep in mind now an example I heard in my interviews of a mother who sat up with her daughter's middle school friends when they had sleepovers. She played the role of a nonjudgmental sounding board, trying to lead them, to "help us figure out what was going on with our friends," her now-adult daughter and a middle school teacher, recalled. "She would explain how self-esteem and the need to be liked were really the things driving most of these weird/bad choices our friends were making...She urged us to have compassion for the girls we were so ready to write off as 'skanks.'"

Compassion is the salve of the middle school parent's soul. Teaching it, modeling it and getting your middle schoolers to expand their thinking and feeling beyond the bounds of their own minds are by far the best gifts you can give them. If we can pull all this off, even imperfectly, it will send a message to our kids that they are competent and capable and that their friendship losses or dramas are problems to be solved rather than existential catastrophes. And that is extremely empowering—for them and for us.

I firmly believe that by rethinking the middle school years, we have the opportunity to become better and happier adults.

It's certainly worth a try. Because we don't want to stay in seventh grade forever.

→ Excerpt adapted from And Then They Stopped Talking to Me by Judith Warner, published by Crown.