Phoebe was in the 7th grade when her mom brought her to my office to help with issues adjusting after moving to California from the east coast.
A classmate of Phoebe’s befriended her on her first day of school. She and Cassidy became lunch buddies and started spending time together on the weekends. Cassidy had been a shy girl and was delighted to feel she had a new best friend.
But Phoebe had her sites on “the popular” girls. After a couple of months, she began ignoring Cassidy when others were around for fear of diminishing her status. Unfortunately, the cool girls never accepted Phoebe into their clique and Cassidy got tired of her friend’s inconsistency. Phoebe found herself friendless and alone. Both Phoebe and Cassidy fell prey to the challenges of navigating the complexities of middle school life.
I will be exploring issues like these next week in a free series called Raising Teens and Tweens: Less Drama. More Joy. One of my interviews is with Dr. Lisa Damour, author of Untangled: Guiding Teenage Girls Through the Seven Transitions Into Adulthood. I loved a phrase Dr. Damour used during our conversation: There is no cure for the 7th grade. Social hierarchies create a hotbed of insecurities for middle schoolers who so desperately want to feel that they belong.
I asked Phoebe to help me understand her draw to the girls she viewed as popular. She said, “You just want them to like you so other kids will notice you and invite you to things. Also, if they like you they won’t spread rumors about you or say mean things and embarrass you. It’s like a kind of protection, if the popular girls want to hang out with you.”
“Thank you for helping me understand a little better, Phoebe. Can you tell me something else? How do you feel when you’re around these girls?” She confessed that she felt nothing but anxious but went on to describe the relief she imagined she would experience if she could win these girls over.
There really is no cure for the 7th grade. Most of us have our own tales to tell of tripping over ourselves in an attempt to feel accepted—pretending to be who were weren’t or abandoning friends in the hopes of securing better ones. It is a time of tremendous growth—and upheaval. Even as our kids are separating from us, they still need the wise counsel of a caring sounding board.
Here are a few of the things I offered Phoebe which may be helpful for those of you with tweens struggling to navigate thorny social issues:
• Listen. Phoebe’s mom lectured her when she began to distance herself from Cassidy. This only led to Phoebe clumsily trying to figure things out on her own. Our kids need our support as they are learning to untangle difficult issues. Let them tell their truth—as painful as it may be to hear― without interrupting, scolding, or offering unsolicited advice.
• Help her become self-referential. One of the greatest gifts we can give our kids is the capacity to know their own hearts. Much of my work with Phoebe focused on asking her to check in with herself, beneath the noise of her mind’s anxiety and fears, so she could locate her true feelings. The more we help our youngsters develop the ability to tune in to their own wisdom, the better the choices they will make.
• Allow her to feel sad. As painful as it is to watch our kids struggle, sometimes the best we can offer is a shoulder for them to cry on. Phoebe needed to feel the weight of her sadness before she could let go of the dream she had been nurturing about inclusion into the popular girl’s click. Once she did, she was able to seek our friendships with girls like Cassidy who had the potential to go the distance.
For more practical guidance on helping tweens and teens through the sometimes bumpy road of adolescence, please click here to join me for a free series with some of the brightest experts in the field, including Dr. Dan Siegel, Byron Katie, Prince Ea, Julie Lythcott-Haims, Dr. Lisa Damour, Dr. Laurence Steinberg, Michele Borba, Rosalind Wiseman, Dr. Michael Durian, Rachel Macy Stafford and more. We’ll cover everything from puberty, sex and drugs to motivation, independence, and friendship.