Ep 155: Growing Apart in Middle School

Episode Summary

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.

Who the episode is for: Dads Moms Parents Single Parents

Who it's about: Preteens

Topics covered: Boundaries Communication Empathy

Show NotesParenting ScriptsInterview TranscriptGuest Bio

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.

Parenting Scripts

Word-for-word examples of what to say to your teen

1. Explain a pitfalls of status-seeking: (1 of 2)

“Being overly concerned with [popularity/status] tends to correlate with different forms of unhappiness, and it rests on externals.” 

Judith Warner

2. Explain a pitfalls of status-seeking: (2 of 2)

(Members Only)

3. Shift the focus on what really matters in relationships: (1 of 2)

(Members Only)

4. Shift the focus on what really matters in relationships: (2 of 2)

(Members Only)

5. Drop some knowledge about seeking popularity:

(Members Only)

Complete Interview Transcript

Andy: This book is what I read of yours. And then they stopped talking to me making sense of middle school. So much stuff that I thought was really, really interesting. A different way of thinking about middle school. And then you write about it in a really beautiful and thought-provoking way, I think. And you bring in so many stories and different people’s experiences. So I think it’s really cool. And I’m just curious, what got you interested in this topic or motivated enough to do all of this work, to collect all these stories and create this book?

Judith: It was really the experience of being a middle school parent, not having middle-schoolers so much as being in the world of middle school parents, and noticing a lot of kind of strange things going on in the parent behavior, which it seemed to me really changed noticeably when our kids got to be in sixth, seventh and eighth grade. This was a group of parents who had been together for a long time, so there was a frame of reference. And I just found that there were all these kind of weird middle schoolers’ things happening among the parents. And I found that on the inside I was kind of hyper-reactive to things that were happening, even if I wasn’t engaging in them, just how they felt on the inside.

Judith: And I thought there had to be something over-determined about the degree to which things were bothering me or things that happened to my daughters were bothering me. And I figured the same was true for the other adults as well. And I was really, really eager to find out who the 12-year-olds were, who were walking around inside of us. That was the original point of departure.

Andy: As you point out in the book, there’s so much of parenting that feels like you’re re-experiencing life through your kids. And middle school is not necessarily the most fun thing to re-experience or to kind of go through like that.

Judith: There’s so much about parenting that throws you into middle-schooler-ish situations in that, even though you’re in social situations where you’re with a bunch of other people who you wouldn’t necessarily choose as your friends, but you’re kind of stuck with them for the long haul because your kids are in class with them. And some of them you would choose as your friends, some of them you do, and they become wonderful friends.

Judith: And you have to learn to tolerate just as kids have to. And there’s a lot, I mean, there are a lot of stories in the book, way more out there than anything I experienced of parents treating one another in these kind of middle schoolers ways. And in talking about the book, I talked to more people and I hear more of these stories. So it really seems to be something that a lot of people see and experience. And, of course, it just reflects the fact that parents of kids that age tend to be having a really hard time. It’s a very hard time to be a parent.

Andy: You write that middle school is a sense of not belonging, not fitting in and feeling like the wrong sort of person, which I thought was just such a good description of this time of life.

Judith: That description came very much from my interviews. I mean, people have written about the way it feels to be a kid that age for centuries, really. I mean, they’re talking about the age of puberty, which was older in the past than middle school age. But really going back for centuries you find writing about this, that adults have been fascinated with this age and kind of sometimes, even in some ways obsessed with it. But the interviews that I did at the very beginning were with adults looking back on themselves, and then I got to interviewing parents and educators and experts. And this is what emerged from those stories which were just so powerful.

Judith: You know, I realized in doing them that if you ask somebody the question, tell me what middle school was like for you, or tell me your middle school experience. You sort of get their entire life encapsulated in a two-hour telling, partly because what happens then is very important. But partly also because of the importance that we bring to it. And the fact that what happens to us at that point hits us at a time developmentally where everything sinks in more deeply, and the memories are sharper, and things just kind of cling to us in a way that they might not at other ages.

Andy: You do something interesting in this book, which is you kind of look through the history of adolescents through time and you point out sort of that like, well, if you go back in time, people were sent out on apprenticeships or sent out of the house around 11 and 12 years old. We didn’t even have this period. So I guess, how did we get here? Then what created this phenomenon that we now have of parents and teenagers being at war with each other under the same roof?

Judith: Yeah. And also this place in the mind called middle school in the US. So hardly, as you say, in human history at least, it’s a relatively recent phenomenon that most parents and most kids are continuing to live under the same roof certainly after the age of puberty, but even as young as in this country, 11 or 12. Because until the mid to late 19th century, most kids were starting to live at least up to a certain point separately from their parents. At that point, if they were wealthy, they were sent off to boarding school, if their boys. If they were basically everyone else, they were being sent out to work, to work in the fields, to work as a servant in other people’s homes, let’s say, or sent out to apprentice. And it was really only with the industrial revolution when it became more important to get an education.

Judith: There became to be more opportunities for people in the growing middle class, office work, things that came from becoming more educated. That there became an emphasis on keeping kids in school longer and year round. And then the schools became overcrowded. And the junior high schools came into being at the beginning of the 20th century. And some of that was because of education reformer saying, this is a specific and important age. At that point, it was seventh, eighth and ninth grade. And these kids need an education that’s different from that of six year olds, because in the past many places, they were all in one school house. And also because of overcrowding that they needed new buildings. And through those two experiences of extended time to living together and then having kids in school together, the, in a sense, modern middle school was born. And parents started complaining about them in very much the same ways that they do now.

Andy: I think it’s that’s so key because as you point out, a lot of these phenomenon are related to that group effect. And the fact that we take all the 12 to 15 year olds and put them in the same environment together as a big group.

Judith: It’s tough for them. Ever since the junior high schools came into being in 1909, it’s been really hard for parents because it’s the first time that their kids are kind of moving outside of their orbit. Making friends who they don’t know from the neighborhood. Going into homes of people who they don’t know. And just being in a much larger environment with kids from all over, where they feel like they can’t anymore control the cultural stuff that they’re up against the what used to be called the moral education of their children. That we don’t think of that way anymore, but that kind of is the same thing. And also, technology started changing in the 20th century, even if at the beginning it was used to be called motion pictures or radio. Each time there’s some technological change, kids at this age eat it up and parents are really worried about it, about it being a bad influence, like being a corrupting influence.

Andy: I found this really interesting. You talk about conflict. The idea that conflict is sort of central to adolescent development comes from Freudian thinking and from, I guess, Anna Freud in the ’30s. It never actually was really backed up by research, but was just sort of assumed to be true. I guess it kind of got into the popular thinking.

Judith: Well, there’s always been a big gap between the way… Or there has long been. I wouldn’t say always been. There has long been a big gap between the way experts talk about kids that age and the way parents perceive them. I would say at the early point in the history of psychologists specifically looking at kids in this age, there wasn’t that gap. So, this is an age group that adults have found displeasing for really, really long time. They’re difficult. They point out all your hypocrisies. They’re moody and they’re just generally it’s right after the period of their having been so sweet and cuddly and loving. So, it hits parents full force when the early adolescent behavior kicks in. And the complaints about them go back to the late 19th century, the most difficult time in a parent’s life.

Judith: They’re always criticizing, always fighting and bickering, especially girls with their mothers. And then what was really interesting when Anna Freud wrote about them, and Anna Freud was in the 1930s, the person who emerged just kind of the voice of psychological thinking about adolescents. Basically, her perceptions were formed by how difficult as psychoanalysts found them. So it was just speaking from the same perspective of personal difficulty, again, the way parents were rather than really doing any kind of objective research, which a psychoanalyst didn’t do back then, any kind of hardcore experimental research. So she just generalized from the experience in the office to a general rule about adolescents. And the thing is, much of what she said is true and it certainly makes for really great quotes, but the problem is it isn’t true of all adolescents and certainly not of all middle-schoolers.

Andy: So one thing that you point out that you say had changed about middle school today compared to when you were going through middle school is the amount of freedom and having, I guess, like the boundary.

Judith: The boundary between the adult world and the kid world?

Andy: Yeah. What do you mean by that?

Judith: Well, I think a lot of Gen X-ers remember this and talk about it, and certainly the older Gen X-ers of which I’m one, that we remember when we were growing up that our parents were just a lot less involved and invested in our day-to-day lives. And certainly not our friendships, in the kind of really down in the weeds kind of micro-managing way that parents very often are today. And it’s sort of ironic, at least in my own case, because I grew up in New York City in the 1970s, that much of what parents do today is driven by a concern with their kids’ safety. But in fact, the world generally, I mean statistics fact that said it’s not just New York City, is much safer for kids now than it was. Even going back to the ’90s, we live in a safer, cleaner, in many ways better time.

Judith: And there’s been, and I’ve written about this in other places too, it’s just this generation of parents has long had the issue of being enmeshed with their children. You know, of not being able to see you or not wanting to have emotional boundaries with their children, where they’re the adults and the children are the children. And that two stems from a good place, I think. I mean, I think for a lot of, well, for my cohort, sort of younger baby boomer parents and older Gen X-ers, we had parents who were kind of a little bit following the Mad Men model of benign neglect. And a lot of people didn’t feel seen. Now, I don’t know if that’s really so generationally specific or age specific for Gen X-ers, that may extend down in age a bit more too. I know, I think it’s different from millennials. I really do.

Judith: But there was this feeling of a need to make sure that their kids, our kids never felt unseen, unheard, emotionally invalidated the way so many of us did. As my daughter always teases me, like every emotion must be expressed and validated. And this comes through in parenting in a whole lot of different ways. And the unfortunate way that it comes through in middle school parenting is that when the cliquiness starts and the friendship drama starts, all of which is just normal and hardwired and kind of par for the course. I’m not talking about really out-there bullying.

Andy: Right.

Judith: They’re so enmeshed in it and they want to fix it. They feel like they need to protect their kids from feeling anything of the pain that they felt at the same age, and it always makes things worse. Always. Always. Always.

About Judith Warner

Judith Warner is a writer and author. Her work includes: And Then They Stopped Talking to Me, Perfect Madness, and We’ve Got Issues. She recently co-authored The New Campaign Playbook and previously wrote the New York Times column, “Domestic Disturbances.” A former special correspondent for Newsweek in Paris, she hosted “The Judith Warner Show” on XM satellite radio from 2005 to 2007, and wrote the 1993 best-seller Hillary Clinton: The Inside Story.

She is currently a Journalism Fellow for the Women Donors Network’s Reflective Democracy Campaign and speaks frequently on American family life, workplace issues, and mental health. 

Judith lives with her family in Washington, DC.

Want More Judith?

Find her on her website, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and LinkedIn.