Navigating the middle school years
Phyllis Fagell
Licensed clinical professional counselor, journalist and author

The transition from childhood to adolescence is not easy – for kids or their parents. Suddenly, old friendships are ending and new ones are forming. Hormones kick in. School gets more intense. And almost every middle schooler has something every adult has: a cell phone. Sure, it all feels like a whirlwind, but there are so many opportunities for parents to navigate the changes and guide their middle schoolers. Phyllis Fagell can help. She’s a licensed clinical professional counselor, certified professional school counselor, journalist, mom of three, and author of the book Middle School Matters: The 10 Key Skills Kids Need to Thrive in Middle School and Beyond – and How Parents Can Help. She joins us to talk about the big changes middle schoolers experience. And, she offers parents practical advice on how to love and support their children through them.

Listen to this episode to learn:

  • Tips to proactively build character and confidence in your tween children
  • How to have more mindful communication with your middle schooler (hint: some emotional distance is key)
  • Ways to set your kids up for academic success as they gear up for high school and beyond
  • How to help tweens navigate shifting social dynamics and make good friend choices
  • Advice on how to empower middle school girls during these pivotal years
  • Why having positive male role models helps boost empathy and self-awareness in middle school boys
  • Why middle schoolers sometimes bully and turn to mean behavior, and strategies for parents on how to deal with it

Click here to read the full episode. 

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Full Transcript


Navigating the Middle School Years - brought to you by Care@Work by Care.com

Intro: Welcome to the Equal Parts Podcast brought to you by Care@Work.


Emily Paisner: Being a working parent is hard and as soon as your son or daughter hits middle school, well that is when things get even harder. Today's guest is going to try and help us decode your middle-schooler. Her name is Phyllis Fagell. She's a licensed counselor, a journalist, mom of three, an author of the book, Middle School Matters. Let's face it. Middle school can be an enormously stressful time for kids and their parents. So much is changing so fast, friends' bodies, minds, attitudes, academics. The list could go on and on. Here's Phyllis to help us understand tweens and learn how to guide them during these pivotal years. Have a listen. Phyllis, thank you so much for being here today.

Phyllis Fagell: Thanks so much for having me on.

Emily: Let's get right into this. You are an expert on middle schoolers and we all know that this transition from being a child to being a tween to adolescence is not easy for anyone. It's not easy for the kids. It's not easy for parents who are trying to raise these children. My kids are getting to those tween years and I can't believe how quickly it's happening. Can you just talk a little bit about some of these big changes that kids are experiencing during this transition?

Phyllis: Sure. I think one thing that's important to point out is that kids who are entering puberty or entering middle school are changing more rapidly than they have at any other time in their entire life, other than from birth to age two. They're not only changing physically, they're changing emotionally, socially, athletically, really in every way possible. What's particularly hard about all of these changes is that they're happening at the exact same time, when they're suddenly keenly aware of how they stack up to others and are feeling particularly vulnerable and insecure and probably are in transition even in terms of the setting that they are in as well.

Emily: This insecurity, I remember it well. I don't have fond memories of my middle school years if we want to be honest, but this is an opportunity for parents to proactively really help to build confidence and character in their children. How can we support them and help them do this?

Phyllis: I think that that is one of the biggest roadblocks to effectively parenting a tween, this whole concept of middle school is this negative phase to dread and parents do bring all of their negative experiences to the table. I like to remind them that their experiences weren't inherently worse than the experiences they had at other times in their life. It just seems that way because you were going through puberty and you were experiencing all of your emotions as a 10 on a scale of one to 10, and you had no life experience, and you had no perspective and probably no coping. You didn't understand that feelings didn't last forever or that you could survive a social setback. Parents bring all of that to the table and on top of it, they are suddenly unsure of what their role is in the school setting. Maybe they were volunteering in the elementary school, but in middle school, they're not sure if they're welcome in the community.

They don't know if they should be contacting the teachers on their child's behalf, or if their child should be doing it themselves. Even if they were to contact the school, maybe there are seven teachers or five teachers instead of one homeroom teacher. They don't know their kids' friends as well. They don't know their kid's friends' parents. It's a very discombobulating, unsettling time for parents and it's very tempting to take a step back. Particularly since kids at this age seem to be signaling, I want more autonomy, I want more independence, I want you to take that step back and not pry into my life too much and that's true. They do want to separate from parents and spend more time with peers, but they very much care what their parents think, and they very much need coaching and mentoring and modeling during this phase. The absolute worst thing that parents can do is to take that giant step back. They actually probably should be more involved than they have at any other point in their child's life but in a completely different way.

Emily: In what way is that?

Phyllis: You have to be really mindful of how you communicate with them. You have to have some emotional distance when you're asking them questions. If they feel like you're being too intrusive, they're going to shut down. They already are inaccurately interpreting feedback 40% of the time, so if they sense any inconsistency between your tone and the language and your body language and what you're saying, then they are going to sniff out that inauthenticity right away, and they are again going to shut down. Parents have to really practice that poker face. I know another writer who calls it Botox brow, but really practice being both non-reactive and consistent in what you're expressing to your kids.

As an example, if you have a child who you have repeatedly told it's okay to get a bad grade. It's fine, it happens. We want you to take risks. We want you to learn. It's a great time in middle school to-- It's a low stakes time to take those risks. Your child comes home and tells you they got to a C and you pause for a full minute before you say, "That's fine," they're going to really fixate and notice that pause. You might have been washing the dishes. It may have had absolutely no underlying significance, but they're just looking for that.

Emily: You just mentioned academics, and I think things do seem to get a lot more intense academically when kids do enter middle school. How can we as parents help to set our kids up for academic success as they gear up for high school and even beyond?

Phyllis: There are a lot of things parents can do. One of the mistakes parents make is to try to smooth all of the roadblocks and ensure that their child is successful. I say that the stakes are low in middle school because you can fail and bounce back and there are no long-term negative repercussions. But the stakes are high in that if they don't develop those study skills, if they don't learn how to set realistic expectations for themselves, if they don't learn what their strengths and interests are, and where their strengths and interests align and don't recognize that it's okay to have weaknesses, don't learn to study skills and don't learn how to self-advocate and talk to a teacher, then the stakes are really high. This is a really prime time to get in there and help them with those skills.

A parent can make sure that their child has an uncluttered study space. They can help them run through their activities and think about time management with them. They can perhaps suggest they take a break before they start or get some exercise. They can make sure they have the supplies they need. If they need to get in touch with a teacher, they can model how to write a proper salutation and send that teacher an email. Then, what you want to be doing is removing those supports as they gain that independence. Once they can send that email on their own, you don't want to be doing it for them. If they're forgetting their assignment, you don't want to be running to the school to bring it to them. If they are struggling to put together an essay, you don't want to be writing it for them. You need to trust the process and take that step back and not focus as much on perfection as on the process itself.

Emily: As kids enter middle school, the social dynamics tend to get a lot more complex. Sometimes they are drifting apart from kids that they've been friends with forever in elementary school, they're making new friends, they have different friend groups. How can we help to guide them and support them to making good friend choices?

Phyllis: This is actually a time when it's normal to make a lot of friendship mistakes. This is a time when kids might want to be popular and might try to insert themselves somewhere where they don't really fit. This is a time when they're going to have fair-weather friends and friends who are unkind to them. As parents, it's really excruciating to watch them make these choices that we know are harmful. Maybe they're hanging out with the boys who convinced them to throw hamburgers in the cafeteria or to cheat or to vape in the bathroom. All kinds of choices can happen at this age that parents would prefer did not happen. When you look at the statistics, only 1% of friendships from seventh grade make it all the way through 12th grade. That is how much shifting is going on during these years.

The reason is that they are learning all of these skills. If we tell them who they should choose to be friends with, if we mandate that they not hang out with someone, first of all, they're just going to bristle and do the opposite. Also, they won't learn on their own how it feels to hang out with somebody who is supportive of them versus somebody who's just a taker, or how it feels to hang out with somebody who sometimes invites them to their sleepovers and sometimes doesn't. I do recognize that for parents, this requires a lot of patience and we can hurt as much for our kids as they hurt for themselves.

Emily: Say you do have that situation where your son or daughter isn't invited to that sleepover. I know that you feel that pain for them. What would be a good way to react in that situation?

Phyllis: One way that parents can help is to really be mindful of how much time their kids are spending online. A really horrible story I heard was a kid who had been invited to a sleepover and she was really excited. It was somebody whose house she wanted to go to. Then she realized that the invitation was for her only to participate in this sleepover using Instagram Live. She wasn't actually invited. She could watch the sleepover from afar, really cruel. The parent didn't know what was going on. The girl was online interacting intermittently with these friends who had essentially not invited her to the sleepover. Whenever her concentration would drift, which it would, because it wasn't that interesting to watch other people having fun without you, the girls at the sleepover would do something subtly offline to get her attention and reel her back in, maybe say her name.

When the mother got wind of this, she was bewildered. The entire concept of this really blew her mind. She couldn't even understand why her kid would think that this was an attractive offer in the first place. What she really had to do with this child was work with her to ensure she was having more face to face interactions offline with other kids as opposed to looking online. It wasn't just that one sleepover, it was a pattern of behavior.

Emily: There's just story after story about children who are being bullied in these ways. What are some tips that parents can put into place to try and help their children deal with this kind of bullying?

Phyllis: Make sure you're not perpetuating the negative cultural rhetoric about middle school. This idea that kids this age are drama seeking and mean because when kids don't assume positive intent, they actually fare worse and they have a worse middle school experience. What you want to be doing as a parent is not interviewing for pain or mining for misery. If they are genuinely getting bullied, you never want to promise you won't tell any and you very well may need to help them. Often, it's not bullying, it's mean behavior, but they're on equal footing and kids are testing out new behaviors.

Boys and girls during this phase will jockey for position and they will step on the heads of the people below them in the hierarchy in order to ascend. Some interesting research is that when kids get to the top of that hierarchy, they no longer bully, which suggests that this is not behavior that has anything to do with being a good or a bad person. It has to do with trying to get power. If you're at the top very top of the hierarchy, you no longer need to use aggression in order to get status. Really explaining to kids that most of the time they're friends, meanwhile, that everyone is learning. This is yes, bullying peaks between ages 12 and 14 but really what it has more to do with is the fact that their empathy is still building, they're still learning these social skills. They're making a lot of mistakes.

Emily: Do they assume that they're always being recorded? Do they assume anything they say will get shared broadly? I mean, what is the mindset around that?

Phyllis: This is something that baffles adults all the time because you can bring in a cyberbullying expert or somebody who can talk about how a picture can end up on the Russian porn ring and it's almost a Scared Straight presentation and the very next day a middle schooler will send a sext. Yes, intellectually, at some level, they understand that everything is permanent, but they also are tweens and so they think they're invincible and they're also impulsive. They also forget what someone told them the day before. Even if you have a child who knows you're monitoring their posts and at this age, you do want to be monitoring their feeds. You don't need to be reading everything you probably don't want to, but you do want to have eyes on the ground so you can point out mean comments and use it as teaching moments. They're still going to forget.

Emily: How can we help to empower girls at this age?

Phyllis: One statistic that I find shocking that as the parent of a daughter doesn't surprise me at all now that she's been through middle school is that between the ages of eight and 14, girl's confidence drops by 30%. Their confidence that other people like them drops by 46%. Girls, in particular, are likely to credit other people for their successes. If something goes wrong to internalize the blame and assume people will hate them, even if it has nothing to do with them. I was speaking to parents not that long ago, and I explained that if you have a soccer goalie, and it's a boy, and he lets in a goal, he is going to say, "Wow, the wind really got in the way of that save." If it's the girl, even if it's not her fault, and the ball got through midfielders and defense, she will say, "I blew it, my whole team is going to hate me."

We really need to be cognizant of helping girls at this age, maintain their confidence, and continue to take risks and to really reassure them that it's okay to be imperfect to combat any perfectionist tendencies they often start to emerge around this time and to model for them that we are fallible and that we make mistakes. If you flub a line in a presentation or if you have a fear phobia, all of that is really great to admit to girls during this phase.

Emily: What about boys at this stage? How do we instill self-awareness and empathy in them?

Phyllis: I actually find boys this age to be incredibly empathetic and sensitive. Unfortunately, they're getting pummeled with these masculine expectations right around this age. Again, it's as they're forming their identities as they're determining what they're supposed to be and whether they're a real man, these things start to matter to them. They squelch a lot of what makes them human. I ran a boy's group and, in that group, they were able to really reveal how hard it was to have to pretend something didn't bother them. One time they told me, if somebody really offends you, or insults you, you have to be like, "Dude, don't do that." You can't just be like "Man, that that really was hurtful and what it actually ruined my whole day." They want to have meaningful friendships. They want to be able to express their feelings and I think we need to give them a space to do that, but it's hard because they're up against so many cultural expectations.

Emily: As the parent of a boy, how do we try and debunk some of those expectations that they may be feeling pressure around?

Phyllis: One way to do it is to really tap the men in their life. It doesn't have to be a father, it can be an uncle, a neighbor, a family friend, somebody who is willing to model that masculinity can look very different depending on the child and that there's no one right way to be. Some of that is modeling coping strategy. If your dad comes home and he's upset, and he won't communicate or if he has a beer, that's telegraphing that you don't deal with your feelings that you just bury them. If on the other hand, he comes home and he says, "I had a really rotten day, I'm super stressed. I'm going to go for a run" or "I'm going to call a friend," then you're modeling that it's okay to have these feelings. It's okay to handle them in a healthy way and really labeling what those strategies are that they can use. If you see something that your kid is doing that's working for them, not only point it out, write it down, hang on to it and remind them and really cement that strategy so they can use it in other contexts.

Emily: I loved one of your quotes that said, 'Middle school is a stew of simmering hormones'. What advice do you have for parents on how to have open and honest conversations about all these changes that are going on with their bodies and their sexuality and stuff that kids don't really want to talk about, especially with their parents?

Phyllis: Number one, you have to recognize that this causes them tremendous anxiety. I happen to have taught middle schoolers sex ed today. We were talking about periods with the girls, and we were talking about their body changes with the boys. They are super curious. They want to know, they want that information, but they are incredibly unlikely to bring it up themselves. Parents, of course, feel awkward too. I always say, tell them it's uncomfortable. Tell them you know it's awkward but then have the conversation anyway. Don't be reactive and share your own experiences and then give them that emotional distance. Instead of saying, "Tonight we're going to sit down and talk about contraception," use a story in the news or if there's inappropriate locker room talk, use that to say, "Why do you think they were talking like this?" They hear that a friend of theirs send a sext, use that to talk about it, but don't pry directly into their personal life or they're likely to shut down.

Emily: Phyllis, you are an expert in this subject. You've raised three children, two that have gone through these years, and you still have one in the middle school years. What would your best piece of parenting advice be for parents who have kids in middle school right now?

Phyllis: To really love them unconditionally, and unwaveringly and to be consistent and nonreactive and make it safe to fail. Just keep in mind that these are kids who are forming their identity. We want them to form a positive identity. We want them to continue to take risks at an age when their desire to fit in and conform is so strong. We want to encourage their creativity and we have to model for them that it's okay to be imperfect.

Emily: Phyllis, thank you so much.

Phyllis: Thank you for having me.

Outro: Thanks for listening to this episode of Equal parts. See you next time.


Emily: Wait, before you go, I just want to tell you a little bit about Care at Work by care.com. They work with some of the world's largest companies to offer family care benefits to their employees. If you're one of the lucky ones who already has care benefits at work, use them. If you don't ask for them. It's a real lifesaver. To learn more, visit care.com/careatwork. Again, that's care.com/careatwork.