05/08/2012 12:55 pm ET Updated Jul 08, 2012

Middle School 'Mean'?

Middle school can be tough on kids. And while most of the stress and frenzy of these often difficult or awkward years thankfully fades with time and understanding, a mom or dad may nevertheless be quite shocked to discover that their own daughter has, in middle school, taken up behaviors that can only be described as, well, mean -- not to mention the ways in which their son may be behaving.

It can be an extremely worrisome and disconcerting time for a parent who, remembering their lovely little girl from elementary school, finds how readily their middle school daughter criticizes her peers, talks behind their backs or betrays secrets shared in confidence to curry favor with whomever she wants to impress.

Whatever lessons of loyalty or integrity mom or dad may have tried to instill in her suddenly seem to have been chucked out some middle school window, leaving behind a girl who may seem more manipulative than compassionate, and apparently ready to sacrifice others to prop herself up.

So what happened?

Did all your diligent efforts to teach her to be kind and compassionate with others simply fall on deaf ears? Did all your lessons about respecting her peers and being a good friend wither at the root?

Actually, they did not wither, or go unheard, even if it doesn't seem so during much of middle school.

If you endeavored to teach them the difference between right and wrong, your child DOES know the difference, and that's what makes much of middle school so socially complicated, especially for girls.

Consider the fact that your children are facing some very harsh and extremely precarious and complicated realities, certainly far more than mom or dad likely ever did.

Their lives, their every utterance or action, can be judged in the court of community review via Facebook, Twitter -- or virtually moment to moment, given how many kids now carry their own smart phones and communicate in real time across campuses.

And it can make your otherwise conscientious daughter (or son) feel so scared, so intimidated, that she is willing to betray even what she knows to be right, just to avoid becoming a social outcast, or even worse, an object of merciless mockery or communal criticism.

But even without this new dimension of scrutiny, let's also consider the profound changes middle school girls bodies are undergoing, developing even faster physically than many of their male classmates, triggering all kinds of insecurities, uncertainties, unwanted and unwelcome attentions or self-image deficiencies.

Because like so many in our world, middle school girls most commonly compare themselves with what they see in the media: the skinny, ample-breasted, super-model icons of female beauty that smile or pout on websites, TV commercials, billboards and magazine ads -- never mind that their images were finessed by skilled make-up artists and savvy photographers, then airbrushed by experts into flawless perfection.

How can a middle school girl, much less grown women, hope to compete with that?

And yet, very often, that is exactly what they think they have to compete with because the iconic, omnipresent female images are, they believe, what the boys prefer.

In coming up inevitably short, some girls may further feel a need to suppress their smarts or hide what they know, worried that they will intimidate the very boys, or girls, they hope to impress and attract.

In this highly stressed time, the desire for any some sense of safety can cause otherwise lovely little girls from elementary school to behave in ways they normally wouldn't.

When understood by mom and dad in this light, their daughter's (or son's) fear-driven behaviors need not seem so disconcerting or incomprehensible.

Likewise, it may also be a life-truth that part of growing up and developing compassion for ourselves and others may often derive, in part, from discovering just how unkind we can be, all in a desperate effort to gain the approval from a chosen few.

Yet when your daughter (or son) becomes a little more comfortable with herself and finds her pace and place socially, her need and desire for enduring friendships will find her rekindling the very qualities you might have thought she abandoned.

In contrast to middle school, high school girls often come to enjoy very close and loyal friendships, transforming their earlier insecurity-driven behaviors into the stuff of close, life-long relationships.

So view most of their middle school "mean", if it is that, as a phase. And while it may be a trap for an unhappy few in life, the vast majority of girls will move beyond their difficult days and, by high school, value, protect and luxuriate in their friendships in ways that are, well, wonderful.

Have faith that the lessons you instill about loyalty, compassion and integrity will take root; just know they may also take a little time, and sometimes a detour.

With your support, they will find their way.

We'll be back with more on boys in this regard soon.

For much more on middle school girls and boys, as well as high school-age young adults, we have just completed our new Parenting Guides: "STOP YELLING, START LISTENING -- Understanding Your Middle School Child", and "HOW TO BE THE LOVING, WISE PARENT YOU WANT TO BE...even with your TEENAGER!", available now at our site, "", or on iPad, Kindle, Nook or in paperback. "Sage advice for frustrated parents" -- Kirkus Reviews