The French call them “the ugly years”: that awkward, searing time of physical change and overwhelming emotion summed up by the phrase “middle school.” Judith Warner, a journalist and senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, has set out to make sense of this time, drawing on psychology and social science, as well as the experiences of teachers, students and parents, herself included. In her book And Then They Stopped Talking to Me, she makes a passionate argument for recognizing the fullness and richness of this age—a first step, she says, in helping our middle schoolers, and our relationships with them, not just survive but thrive. It’s an urgent message for a time when the COVID-19 pandemic has brought chaos to our schools and families. Warner answered questions from Mind Matters editor Gareth Cook.
[An edited transcript of the interview follows.]
When many of us think of middle school, we have an almost physical reaction—it’s so uncomfortable and so vivid. Why is that?
So many people remember it as the most painful time in their lives. At base, that’s because the early adolescent years are when a perfect storm of new social and educational developments in kids’ lives combine with biological changes that set them up to be supersensitive and vulnerable to their encounters with the world.
It’s the time when we’re most likely to encounter exclusion, rejection, harsh hierarchies of ranking (in looks and popularity)—and also the time when we care about these things the most and suffer over them the most acutely. People’s middle school memories tend to be quite similar, at least in general themes: They got “dumped” (or dumped others and lived to regret it). Or they were ostracized suddenly and were never given a reason. Or they went from fitting in unselfconsciously to being, or feeling, not good enough. They became aware of all the ways that they were different—by being late bloomers, perhaps, or being bookish in a school that venerated athletes or being less wealthy—at a time when different was not acceptable. And I’m not even getting into the issue of bullying, which is horrific but, fortunately, is far less common than the run-of-the-mill, day-in-day-out drama and meanness and insecurity and exclusion typical of the age.
People remember those years, too, as the moment when they became aware of things that were messed up in their families—when their eyes were opened in ways they hadn’t been before, and they were overwhelmed by what they saw. And all the awkwardness and confusion and rejection and pain cut extra deep. They are inscribed with a unique kind of immediacy in our memories because of brain changes that happen right around puberty.
How do brain changes figure into the “perfect storm”?
Those brain changes are set in motion by the very same events that start puberty: The hypothalamus triggers the pituitary gland to instigate the release of the hormones testosterone, estrogen and progesterone. These sex hormones then activate the visible physical changes we associate with puberty and also act upon the brain in ways that we don’t see or typically realize. They give the brain a kind of overall tune-up—sharpening our memories, making us more attentive to the world around us and also making us better able to think abstractly and consider a problem from various angles and perspectives.
We also, not so positively, become more sensitive and reactive to the things that happen to us. We become particularly reactive to stress, and what’s extra-stressful to us is how other people see us and whether they want to be with us. As University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill psychologist Mitch Prinstein explains in his 2017 book Popular, the brain changes of puberty mean that kids both crave “‘social rewards’—feedback that makes them feel noticed, approved, admired, and powerful among peers” and are highly motivated to go seek those rewards over and over again.
In a cruel trick of nature, that development in what scientists call the brain’s “reward circuitry” occurs hand in hand with a big spike in what psychologists call “social cognition” skills: the ability to read other people’s facial expressions and interpret their peers’ feelings and social cues. In other words, kids develop new abilities to both notice and interpret their peers’ smirks, eye rolls and sidelong glances just at the point when they’re biologically proved to suffer over them the most—and at the point when meanness and bullying in school reach their peak.
It’s hard to watch your kid at this age, but you argue that parents are actually making the situation worse. How so?
Parents of our generation typically struggle with maintaining their emotional boundaries with their kids. The whole way we parent, very often, is a reaction to what we perceived as adult absence—physical or emotional—during our own growing up years. It’s very well intentioned. But it means that we really run the risk of overidentifying with our kids, especially in the middle school phase of life, precisely because our own memories are so intense, and we so fear our children suffering the way that we did.
The problem, though, is that parents need to be parents—to think like adults, not like 12-year-olds. We need to dedramatize and put things in perspective, not spin out like our kids when they’re in pain. We also have a tendency to hold onto things long after they’re ready to make peace and move on or to dwell on painful things that happen to them and amplify them by asking for explanations or follow-up. Unfortunately, middle school parents, entering into early middle age, have a lot of the same insecurities and are facing a similar degree of uncertainty as their kids. So they get triggered super easily, which means they’re not in control of their emotions.
So am I to understand that middle age is the return of middle school? That might explain a lot.
I think it’s more that middle age marks the return of a lot of the same vulnerabilities and insecurities that we associate with middle school: an uptick in anxiety about who we are and where we’re going (not to mention what we look like) and worries about whether we’re good enough. In addition, we reenter a period of transition in family relationships. Only whereas once we were the ones pulling away from our parents, now we’re the ones being “left” (without our kids actually going anywhere), so while they’re struggling to navigate that push-pull and looking for new places to feel at home and fit in, we’re left with a feeling of abandonment that we usually don’t recognize as such until long after. We also go through a period of identity shift as our kids withdraw from us and refuse to let us make them the center of our lives in the ways that we have until that point. People get pretty disoriented by that. I was surprised, when I was going through it, to see the marriages around me falter. I had expected that to happen a few years later, when the kids left for college.
As with all the painful changes of middle school, though, there are a lot of silver linings. Many parents—though this, too, they don’t recognize as such until long after—find returning to themselves a very positive thing, filled with renewed opportunities. Sometimes the change in parental status actually strengthens their marriages (though generally not right away). It’s worth keeping in mind that those silver linings can exist, so parents can, as early as possible, start looking for the light at the end of the tunnel.
You seem to fall in the “popularity is overrated crowd.” My middle school self has a lot of trouble processing that. How would you convince a middle schooler that this is the case?
With a lot of subtlety—and indirectly. And it would really have to be contextual, because the argument in the abstract wouldn’t be convincing at all. But the social science evidence shows—and has shown for a long time—that the “popular crowd” is a very perilous place to be. Because it’s all about power and status. Because ruling the roost necessarily means that there’s a big mass of the ruled over who are angry and resentful and maybe hate you. And if you’re in a mean crowd, the meanness will, at some point, turn on you; it’s inevitable. So if you have a kid who isn’t in and wants desperately to be—and perhaps is turning him or herself inside out to try to get in, suffering greatly along the way—I think the worst thing you can do is feed that desire or reinforce that behavior.
Far more useful, both short- and long-term, is getting a kid to think “from the inside out,” as someone I interviewed put it to me—by which she meant: rather than obsessing on how other people feel about you, think hard about how you feel when you’re with them. If you feel nervous or insecure, like you always have to prove yourself and be good enough, if you feel you have to mold yourself into what they want, if you’re unhappy with the way that you or others are being treated but are going along for the ride because that’s what it takes to be popular, it’s worth remembering what good friendship really feels like. Think about what it’s like when you’re with a friend who makes you happy and values you for who you really are. And ask yourself how you want to feel as you move through life day after day.
She said that when she finally came to that way of thinking for herself—decades after being stuck in bad relationships—it changed her life forever. She was doing all she could to get that message across to her kids, early and often. I think she’d come to an incredible level of wisdom, and I’ve tried to share her words with other people—of whatever age—ever since. When it comes to sharing these thoughts with your middle schoolers, you have to get them across very lightly.You can’t sound judgmental or moralistic. And what I would never recommend doing is demonizing the “popular” kids. That doesn’t help anyone.
There is an irony in talking about middle school at a moment when the biggest problem has been “no middle schools” because of COVID-19. What advice do you have for parents who have been unexpectedly spending a lot of time with their middle schooler and may be doing so well into the next year?
There are some really interesting bits of information and experience that have come out of this period. For one thing, some parents are reporting that their middle schoolers are actually happier—because they’re not dealing with the daily ups and, especially, downs of their social lives. Those who didn’t fit in—who were always at loose ends trying to find a place to sit in the cafeteria or were never chosen as partners for group projects or never had a seat held for them in the classroom—are removed from these day-to-day indignities (which are particularly infuriating because they’re largely avoidable if school adults make the slightest effort to open their eyes and change their classroom or lunchroom practices through things like assigned seating and work groups). Some middle schoolers are reconnecting to elementary school friends they’d withdrawn from as not cool enough, because they’ve rebecome independent actors who don’t have to run, and judge, with the pack. Some are able to reconnect with interests or talents that once occupied a big place in their lives but fell by the wayside when their social lives became all-important.
Those are all great things. But for parents whose middle schoolers are miserable, who maybe aren’t doing any of that but are just staring despondently at their screens, they shouldn’t become something they use to bludgeon themselves. They’ve got to remember that kids this age vary enormously and that—as we all know is occurring among adults—social distancing is just fine for introverts (who tend not to be supersuccessful socially in middle school) and can be truly devastating for extroverts (who are more likely to be the kids who are supersocial and have lots of friends). The most important thing parents can do in this period is focus on their own self-management so that they can be in the best possible place and be a nonanxious, nonaggressive presence in their kids’ lives. That may well be the hardest thing of all—and a goal that doesn’t lend itself to lists of parenting how-tos. But I know for a fact, both through tough personal experience and my research for the book, that it’s also the most crucial.