The Mind of a Middle Schooler:

I’ve spent the last 5 years running a weekly lunch-time discussion group with 7th and 8th graders at a nearby middle school. The group is attended entirely by choice and it tends to attract mostly girls who are very intelligent and interested in sharing the drama of their daily lives. Hearing the stories of these kids on a regular basis has given me an opportunity to formulate my own theories about what drives the sometimes unpredictable emotions and behaviors of middle school students.

Sometimes when one of the kids is describing a dramatic event I find my mind wandering back to events that occurred when I was in middle school and thinking that the exact same scenarios played out in my life 40 years ago. So much of what drives behaviors at this stage is obviously developmental in nature, dictated by hormones and somewhat predictable patterns of  emerging maturity.  But then there are other stories that the kids tell that shock me and cause me to realize that the world the kids are living in now is very different than the one I grew up in and that plays a significant role in the way they feel, think, and act. 

The overarching developmental concept that captures a lot of middle school emotions and behaviors is that when kids are in the 6th grade, about age 11, they are still very trusting and idealistic about the roles that adults play in their lives. Certainly some kids have already suffered enough traumas at a young age to have developed a lack of trust in adults, but the vast majority still views their parents, teachers, coaches and other adults they interact with as smarter, stronger, and more capable than themselves.  A short three years later, that perspective has generally been replaced with a dose of skepticism about which adults can be trusted and a dose of arrogance about how much knowledge the adults possess beyond what the typical 8th grader thinks she knows. 

Middle school students become intense observers of the behaviors of the people around them and they compare the behaviors they observe with what they think they want for themselves. Without any intervention, this can easily result in a resentful attitude and insecurity. This outward focus causes the middle schooler to notice every little breach in good behavior that is exhibited by the adults around them.  If dad says “don’t smoke cigarettes” but he is a smoker himself, or if mom says “don’t talk behind people’s backs” but she is heard gossiping about her own friends, the middle schooler interprets this as a huge hypocrisy and it creates confusion. A typical middle school girl will act on her perceptions of this hypocrisy by vocally pointing out everything she sees, often acting out disrespectfully as if she is angry but isn’t sure what she is angry about. The typical middle school boy will take this confusion inward and become very very very quiet.  

While the developmental issues don’t change significantly over time, our culture and the influence of culture on teens has changed dramatically in the last few decades. Since information can be widely disseminated in a matter of seconds, the cultural world of our teenagers has been made a lot smaller. There isn’t any way to shelter them from seeing behaviors that used to be considered “adult” in nature.

Middle school students are more pressured to be sexually involved and more pressured to be involved in drug and alcohol use than they used to be.  As a result, even though they aren’t developmentally ready, many kids in this age group are attempting to be involved in sexual relationships and this is creating confusion and angst. If an 11 year old is not intellectually ready to be involved in a romantic relationship then it is more likely that this child will see sex as equivalent to love. Similarly, middle school students have much more access to drugs and alcohol now and they don’t have the intellectual maturity to understand the concept of risky behavior having long-term consequences. 

The best way to handle this stage as a parent is to really pay attention to the behaviors we exhibit ourselves with the thought in mind that our kids are noticing our indiscretions even if they seemed to have never noticed for the previous 12 years.  Nobody is perfect.  Parents can’t just drop every bad habit and become ideal people.  But recognizing that our middle school children have a new awareness of how we behave can be a motivating factor in changing some of our own behaviors.  The second key to getting through this stage well is to make an extra effort to communicate with our children, particularly if there are things we know they see that we aren’t proud of. Pretending they don’t notice or ignoring their criticism is probably not the best approach.

An effective strategy for parents  who are confronting  the issue of too much exposure to adult behaviors isn’t to try to shelter kids from this exposure but to talk to them about it. Denying a 7th grader a cell phone or a Facebook page isn’t going to prevent him from finding other ways to communicate with his friends. I have said many times that an extra 15 minutes a night of uninterrupted time spent with each child is critical to keeping communication open in families. The kids are being bombarded with confusing information and it is the responsibility of the adults who take care of them to talk to them about what they are seeing and hearing and doing. 

I am always interested in hearing other people’s opinions on topics like this one. Feel free to contact me at youngadulttherapy@gmail.com or leave a comment here. 
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