The Developmental Challenges Of Middle School: It’s Not So Much Who You Are, But Whom You’re With

Middle School - Young teen standing at lockers with other teens in the background

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Posted in: Podcast, Teenagers

Topics: Child + Adolescent Development

Let’s talk about middle school. When does adolescence begin?  What is it about, and why is it for some an exhilarating time of new thinking, positive exploration of the world and emotional self-discovery, and for others, dismal, crisis-oriented and dangerous?  Why is it that taking risks proceeds with caution for some, while utter recklessness for others?

These questions are timeless.  Parents often ask mental health professionals for advice, seeking therapy for their children or guidance for themselves.  As a clinical and developmental psychologist and a child and adolescent psychiatrist treating young people and their families—and in Dr. Gil Noam’s case, someone who has conducted many research studies on this topic—we are still amazed at the variety of ways young people traverse these difficult waters to bridge childhood to adulthood.

Erik Erikson, the giant in this field, along with his active wife/collaborator, Joan Erikson, tied this time of life to the need of young people to develop an identity, a firmer ground to stand on—defined not only by where one has come from, but also what future one wants to have.  In their view, the key question that teenagers ask is, “Who am I?”  And, this question then plays out through experimentation: trying out different roles, joining this or that group—essentially figuring out what kind of individual that teenager is and is to become.  No doubt it is emotionally tumultuous.

But, there’s always something that has nagged us—a discrepancy we’ve experienced between what is considered normal adolescent “turmoil,”   and the problems revealed by the many teens we interact with in therapy, school settings and youth organizations.  We’ve found that the core problem is not simply one of a developmental “identity crisis;” it’s actually something quite different.

The key question, particularly for young teens in middle school is really,

“How do I fit in?”

They often speak less about charging forward with conflicts around who they are, or seriously questioning how to choose to be whom they want to be.  Instead, what we’ve seen and heard are experiences of longing to be accepted, and the dread of being placed outside the peer group, the family and the school.

Young teens are really asking:  “Am I wearing the right clothes?”  “Am I seen as cool?”  “Am I really liked as the best friend?”  Or, the opposite may be true:  “Am I rejected or unpopular?”  “Will I feel isolated?”

For this age group in middle school and early high school, these questions highlight the difference between their experience of misery on the one hand, nirvana on the other, and anything in between.  And, as we know from our own childhoods, the shift from one to the other state can happen within minutes or hours.

For that reason, we have argued for the need to rethink our expectations of early adolescence, and to shift away from the focus on individual identity toward a more collective view of the group experience.  To say it simply, this particular phase of adolescence is in large part about whether a teen feels included or alone.  Kids at this age want to belong to something; they want to feel a part of the team, not a solo pilot.

What are the implications for parents, teachers, and youth workers?  We all want our children to be successful, and we equate success with leadership and autonomy.  Typically we want our kids to be captain of the team, class president, star of the school play—or at least the director.

But leadership requires some sense of direction, and firsthand knowledge of what the needs of the team are.  And, this may only be understood as feeling included, accepted and living within a group.  A teen can only become a leader if he or she knows the rules of the game by playing it with others.  In addition, the experience of feeling accepted, appreciated and included is a fundamental requirement for positive self-esteem, personal strength and determination of one’s own values and beliefs.

Thus, inclusion in a group is required for the formation of identity—and is simultaneously a critical preparation for future leadership.  How can one establish a strong self-image if he or she has not learned it firsthand, and it hasn’t been reinforced through affirmation from the group?  And, how can one truly lead if he or she has not been a part of the group itself and accepted as an equal?

What we have to do for this early adolescent phase is to understand that the wish to be accepted, and the conformity that comes with that, must come first.  And then, with a growing sense of security and identity, the individual develops a greater capacity to lead.

This step-wise process is often something that seems threatening to parents.  None of us want to view our child as a future follower who will not develop the strength to be individually accomplished and successful in life.  We want our child to be strong—a key decision maker, a great role model for others, someone who is admired for his or her strength and leadership.  We worry about our child getting into a good college, and becoming a successful adult who will rise to the top.  We also may pressure him or her to be exceptional, and to serve leadership roles a bit prematurely.

Further, as parents, we know that our teens have struggles.  We want our kids to share their experiences with us—their struggles, their successes, their failures.  How else can we help them navigate such difficult times?  Yet, far too often we hear radio silence.  We also want to be included!

But wait a minute.  Let’s step back and get our anxieties a little more under control.  Here is what we can do if we shift our perspective a bit.

Why don’t we set up the conditions under which young adolescents can thrive?  Let’s be more accepting of their need for inclusion, their wish for others to make decisions.  If parents come to accept the need for young teens to fit in and thus refrain from pressuring them to be leaders, our kids will feel considerably more understood.  Far too often we hear that teens do not share their feelings, hopes and dreams with their parents.  But, it isn’t true that adolescents don’t want to share anything with their parents.  It’s just that they begin to respond with silence when they feel misunderstood.

So, what are some ways we can help our young teens feel better at their current developmental level?  The key is to help them become part of a group.

Take the example of doing schoolwork with others.

Some parents may believe that their kids have to do homework on their own.  Otherwise, how else are they to learn?  Learning with others is really just an opportunity for them to take a shortcut.  But, learning can also feel very lonely, as all of who have to work on projects by ourselves are well aware.  Why not allow for young people to do their homework together if that’s what they want?  We know what will happen if we don’t—they’ll be with their friends virtually via social media while doing their homework.  Have you tried to get an adolescent to focus solely on his or her homework without keeping in touch with friends?  Why fight it?  It’s a losing battle.

This very example is why many middle school curricula are now focusing on group projects inside and outside of school.  Teachers appreciate that learning to work and function in team structures provides a blend of academic and interpersonal skills that are useful in both education and group cohesion.

We can and should encourage leadership and identity in our kids, but middle school is not the developmental place to start.  It’s a misunderstanding of this phase of life; it will come a little later.

And as for leadership, it’s group leadership and inclusion that have to be learned in our 21st-century economy anyway, where we all must display problem solving and interpersonal awareness.  Ask Google what they’re looking for in their workforce – it’s social skills first and foremost, so why not start young and just at the time when youth are yearning to be in teams and groups?  Why not give young adolescents a chance to hone those skills, instead of asking them to be individual leaders of their own destiny?

Don’t fight development—work with what is most important for your child at his or her level, and you will have far more success.

For more on this topic, visit the Program in Education, Afterschool & Resiliency (PEAR), the mission of which is to create and foster school and afterschool settings where all young people can be successful. Dedicated to “the whole child–the whole day,” PEAR continuously integrates research, theory and practice for lasting connections between youth development, school reform and mental health. 

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Gil Noam, Ed.D., Ph.D.

Gil Noam, Ed.D., Ph.D.

Gil Noam, Ed.D., Ph.D. (Habil) is the founder and director of the Program in Education, Afterschool &am...

To read full bio click here.

Gene Beresin

Gene Beresin, Executive Director

Gene Beresin, MD, MA is executive director of The MGH Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds, and a staff child and adolescent psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital. He is also...

To learn more about Gene, or to contact him directly, please see Our Team.