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Social Challenges of Middle School

Why middle school can be so psychologically demanding.

Carl Pickhardt Ph.D.
Source: Carl Pickhardt Ph.D.

None of what follows obligates a student to have a miserable social experience in middle school. In fact, I believe that most young people make the journey through grades 6-8 without acute or lasting distress.

However, that doesn’t mean they don’t see more push and shove in school relationships than they have before, or that they don’t have more moments when hurt, self-doubt, loneliness, or anxiety are part of the trip.

For causes to be discussed below, middle school can be a challenging social passage. It helps for parents to know some of the bruising possibilities to watch out for, and for young people to know that parents know, because then hard times at school can be shared, emotional support can be extended, and some coaching advice can be given.

In general, it is not helpful when a young person, in the pride of her or his independence, keeps these challenges to himself: “I should be able to handle my own problems.” Just because a student is starting to grow more independent from parents doesn’t mean she or he is obliged to keep them in the dark. Independence doesn’t have to mean isolation. Just because the code of the schoolyard says not to tell on peers doesn’t mean the young person has to "gut up and shut up" and undergo hard social challenges alone.

Growth Changes in Middle School

At least during the first year or two of middle school, most students go through times of feeling socially insecure and emotionally vulnerable. Consider three factors that can cause this insecurity.

First, there is the onset of early adolescent change (around ages 9-13) when the young person starts detaching and differentiating from childhood and parents in order to start developing more independence and individuality. Growing up requires giving up, and so some cherished old childish attachments to self and family must be let go. Now more painful distancing from parents begins. Where the 1st-grader loved having parents show up at school, the 6th-grader can find this public parental presence painfully embarrassing: “Mom, Dad! What are you doing here?” It’s a vulnerable time, the young person knowing that they can’t go back home again to that simpler, sheltered, more secure period of early life. Adolescence begins with insecurity from loss.

Second, there is the need to form a second social family outside of home, of friends who are all becoming different the same way they are, for companionship and understanding. But peer group membership does not come free of charge: To belong one has to conform. Among the unstated but well understood requirements are, “To be one of us, you have be like us, believe like us, behave like us, go along with us, look like us, like us best, and not do better than us.” Fitting in is complicated. And as socially insecure young people strive for standing and definition, the incidence of five social cruelty behaviors become more common: teasing, exclusion, bullying, rumoring, and ganging up. Often targeted for this mistreatment are young people who are perceived as “different” from the desirable social norm, who absorb the insecurities of their attackers. Adolescence increases the incidence of social meanness as young people strive for social membership and standing.

Third, usually during the early middle-school years, puberty begins as hormones drive growth to sexual maturity, altering physical appearance in maturing ways the young person does not control. They have to wait and see how their changing body is going to “turn out,” and what manner of body they will now have socially to work with when it comes to defining their sexual gender role. Now parents notice how the young person is more self-preoccupied with personal appearance, needs more privacy at home, takes more time to get ready to go out with friends, shows more particularity about dress, endures extended self-encounters in the mirror, and is easily upset by any questioning or critical comments about their looks. Adolescence increases physical self-consciousness and vulnerability to embarrassment, humiliation, even shame.

Taken together, these three factors create a level of insecurity that can play havoc in peer relationships at school, the major social gathering place in a young person’s life.

Common Social Concerns

Readers with a low tolerance for lists may want to skip what follows, but I know of no other way to specify and sensitize parents to this social complexity than by itemizing common discomforts with which many middle school students must daily contend.

This is a non-exhaustive list.

  • People wanting to be your friends just because you’re popular.
  • Gossiping about people.
  • Growing apart from a good friend.
  • Being teased.
  • Spreading rumors about people.
  • People ganging up on you.
  • Having a good friend turn against you.
  • Quarreling with a friend.
  • Having a friend share with other a secret you confided.
  • Feeling jealous when a good friend wants to be with someone else.
  • Seeing a friend change into a different person.
  • Competing for a boyfriend or girlfriend.
  • Bullying other people.
  • Taking or defacing another person’s belongings.
  • Having someone embarrass you.
  • Receiving messages that hurt your feelings.
  • Feeling like you have to follow the lead of a dominating friend.
  • Being threatened by someone promising “to get” you.
  • People boasting about doing what they’re not supposed to do.
  • Hurting people with nick names.
  • Fighting to prove how tough you are.
  • Worrying about whether anyone will like you.
  • People cutting each other down with insults.
  • Being excluded from a gathering when your friends were invited.
  • Going to a party when you feel shy and not outgoing.
  • Pretending to have a good time when you’re not.
  • Writing bad stuff about one person to another.
  • Breaking up someone else’s friendship.
  • Keeping others on the outside of a group.
  • Competing against a good friend.
  • Pressuring people to go along if they want to be included.
  • Wishing you had a best friend.
  • Wishing you had as much as other people.
  • Being spoken to one day and ignored the next.
  • People who exclude you from a group but are friendly one on one.
  • Being embarrassed by your parents in front of friends.
  • Having parents not like one of your friends.
  • Envying people more popular than you.
  • Not having the right clothes to wear.
  • Feeling trapped by a best friend who is too possessive.
  • Acting like you don’t care when you really do.
  • Acting like you care when you really don’t.

Back in the days when I was compiling these concerns and occasionally working in middle-school classrooms, after giving each student a copy of the list, I would ask them to individually check off any concern they had experienced and double-mark the five concerns each student considered worst of all. Then in small groups of four, I asked them to come to consensus on the three worst problems, brainstorming how to deal with them, each group then sharing their suggestions with the larger group, finally ending with a class discussion about ways to take care of oneself during a more complicated social time.

With so many social concerns preying on a young person’s mind, sometimes I think a 7th-grade teacher’s humorous comment was correct: “Maybe we should just declare a moratorium on teaching kids in middle school! They’ve got too much other stuff to think about.” True, classroom instruction is often not uppermost in a student’s mind; social survival is. This is why it takes a special kind of teacher to teach and reach students in middle school, like the one who ratified at the beginning of each year a student code of social communication and treatment to be followed where she taught. There would be no teasing, exclusion, bullying, rumoring, or ganging up allowed. Her classroom would be a safe place to learn: Did everyone understand? They did. Like a lot of very good middle-school teachers I have known, she combined four crucial elements in her relationship to students: She initiated contact, she expressed caring, she provided challenge, and she never gave up.

At this awkward age, common school experiences can be magnified by insecurity and emotional vulnerability so that even small slights can cause a lot of suffering. So, parents: When your middle-school adolescent comes home expressing in mood or words that it has been a hard day, first allow them some space and time to recover, then offer to give an empathetic listen if they would like to talk. In the words of one young person, “The hardest part of middle school isn’t what you have to study, but what you have to watch out for.” Making and keeping friends can take a lot of work.

And if, as parents, you have an adolescent who chooses to pursue a more solitary path through middle school to stay out of the stressful social fray, decompressing by sitting alone at lunch to read a book for example, in some cases this choice can be the better part of wisdom. As long as the young person is not isolated and without all social contact, and as long as she or he is not a target of social cruelty for being “different,” for some young people, middle school can be a great time not to have a lot of friends to mess around with, to mess with you.