Ep 155: Growing Apart in Middle School

Judith Warner, author of And Then They Stopped Talking to Me, speaks with us about why the middle school years are such trying times for parents and teens. Judith shares her thoughts on how to make things better for everyone.

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Full show notes

We all remember middle school….probably not too fondly! Between the relentless social drama to the embarrassing body changes, middle school is pretty much the worst. Not only are kids today dealing with the things we dealt with, they’re also juggling the pressures of social media, an intense political climate and a terrifying pandemic as the cherry on top! Growing up through all this is no easy task, and neither is parenting our kids through it.

It’s hard enough watching teens struggle with these difficult years, but when they won’t talk to us, it can feel impossible to be a good parent. Unfortunately, it's not uncommon for pubescent kids to suddenly shut parents out with no explanation. With everything going on in their lives, a lot of kids feel overwhelmed and afraid to open up, or they think it’s their job to go at it alone. How can we get through to preteens and remind them that we’re here to help them get through the perils of middle school life?

To find out, we’re talking with Judith Warner, author of And Then They Stopped Talking to Me: Making Sense of Middle School. Judith is the bestselling author of multiple parenting books as well as a senior fellow at the Center for American progress–and those are just a few of her many accolades! In her work and personal life, Judith recognized that parents of middle schoolers seemed to really be struggling, but not sharing their woes with one another out of embarrassment or fear. That’s why she’s decided to write this book: to help parents wrap their heads around this wild time, and realize they’re not alone.

In the episode, Judith and I are covering why middle school is one of the most painful periods–but also one of the most important. We’re discussing why this age is so hard on parents, and what we can do about it. Plus, we’re addressing how you can get a middle schooler to finally open up, even if they’ve been shutting you out!

Why Middle School Matters

With all the hormones and heartbreak, middle school can be a time we’d all frankly like to forget. So why is it that we seem to remember the pain of puberty so well? Judith explains that the experiences kids have during these years are incredibly formative and often shape adult life! In our interview, we get into some fascinating research about how those cringey middle school moments can actually inform our way of seeing the world.

For growing kids, the early adolescent years contain the most dramatic brain changes since their first three years of life, says Judith. New connections are made and old connections are shut down by a process called pruning. With all the changes going on, kids’ brains are more vulnerable than ever to acquiring new capabilities, which is awesome...but they’re also more susceptible to social conflict, mental health issues, substance abuse, and more. In the episode, Judith and I get into how marijuana is a particularly important force to look out for during these pre-teen years.

All these puberty problems aren’t just a sign of the times. As Judith explains in our interview, kids have been struggling with middle school since middle schools were created in the early 20th century! For the first time, kids are really getting out of their social bubbles and entering a larger pool of classmates. Often, it’s a brutal introduction to critical decision making and independence. In our talk, Judith and I go over some troubleshooting strategies to help pre-teens who are really going through it.

But middle school isn’t just hard for kids...it’s also tough on their parents.

Parenting Through Puberty

There are a lot of reasons why this period is so hard for parents. For some, it’s challenging to give their kids the independence that middle school requires. Others are frustrated by how their child suddenly shuts them out when they hit age eleven or twelve. There's no shortage of frustrations in the family when kids are in the midst of growing and figuring out the world.

Judith and I chat about how this wasn't always a problem for parents of gen X-ers! Adults were typically less involved in what kids were doing in those days, and didn’t have as much trouble letting kids do their own thing. But our culture has changed. For better or for worse, parents have become a lot more cautious and protective over kids’ well-being. Judith explains how social drama and cliques are totally normal happenings for middle schoolers, but parents who are used to being enraptured in their kid’s lives might really struggle with letting it all unfold in front of them.

In the episode, Judith suggests practicing self awareness and thinking about where you’re at emotionally before stepping into a kid’s situation. If you’re feeling anxious about your teen’s day-today life it’s likely you’ll end up looking for info to confirm your worries–and finding it even when it’s not there. Plus, if kids are going through something, Judith emphasizes that throwing your own feelings and opinions in the mix will likely just make things even more complicated for your kid.

But what do you do when you’re kid won’t talk to you at all? One day, they’re your closest pal, and the next, they won’t even tell you what they did in class that day. Although it might be tough, Judith and I are here to help!

Getting Kids to Open Up

As we’ve mentioned, kids in middle school usually don’t want to talk to parents about what’s happening with them...or talk to parents at all. And although kids probably aren’t trying to hurt your feelings, it can be super painful when it feels as though the line of connection between the two of you has been severed. Luckily, Judith has a tried and true method for prompting a teen to talk to you again.

For a more fruitful conversation with a middle schooler, Judith suggests showing interest in their lives–but not too much. The last thing kids want is to feel like they're being interrogated or put on the spot. If you open up, you’ll have to tread lightly so they feel comfortable. Instead of throwing a million questions as soon as they walk in the door at 3 pm, try casually bringing up a concern while the two of you are driving. Your eyes are on the road, not staring deep into their soul, so they might feel a bit more at ease!

Beyond initiating a talk, Judith and I cover how to have all kinds of tough convos in the interview, whether it’s handling the teenage obsession with popularity, dealing with social rejection, or handling substance use.

In the Episode….

My talk with Judith was incredibly informative and surprising! In addition to the topics mentioned above, we discuss:
  • What middle schoolers did in the nineteenth century
  • How to be a positive presence for a pre-teen
  • What psychologists are saying about marijuana use during puberty
  • How our competitive culture might be hurting our kids
If you enjoyed listening to Judith, check out more of her work at judithwarner.com. Don’t forget to subscribe and share with another middle school parent! We’ll see you next week.

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Creators and Guests

Andy Earle
Andy Earle
Host of the Talking to Teens Podcast and founder of Write It Great
Journalist, podcaster, and best-selling author of "Hell Is Other Parents" trilogy. Latest installment: AND THEN THEY STOPPED TALKING TO ME. https://t.co/lDzbJJe4Bn
Ep 155: Growing Apart in Middle School
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