Does anyone have fond memories of their middle school years? I certainly don’t. Not only was my prepubescent body morphing in alarming ways—in my case, a deadly combo of zits, comically crooked teeth, and lank, stringy hair—but every day also seemed to bring a new social catastrophe.
As a kid in my small New Jersey town, I had a tight circle of friends. When we were younger, we ran around the playground in a happy, chattering pack. But once we hit sixth grade, things suddenly became a lot more complicated. My formerly sweet, carefree friends—going through their own mental and physical turmoil, I see now with adult eyes—began to turn on each other.
Almost every night throughout middle school, I lay awake, staring at the ceiling, marinating in anxiety. In the morning, I had a stomachache before school, because I was caught up in one exhausting drama after another. After school, I’d often run home, flop on my bed, and weep disconsolately into my cat’s fur. And—let’s be honest here—I was not always the blameless victim. I jumped into the fray, too, gossiping and backstabbing.
I’ve always locked those unsavory memories away, but now that my fourth grade daughter will soon be bound for middle school herself, I’ve begun to have flashbacks—and worries. Is Sylvie going to undergo the same hell that I did?
A few months ago, I met a woman at a party who said she was the mother of 11-year-old twins. Her kids were being tormented day after day, she told me, with no change despite many meetings with teachers and school officials. She decided to home-school her kids during the middle school years, perhaps having them re-enter the system when they hit high school. They were much happier, she said.
I couldn’t help being intrigued by the idea. According to a 2014 survey by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, as well as other research, bullying increases during elementary school—and peaks during the middle school years. (It declines during the high school years.) A 2010 study of preadolescents, meanwhile, found that their self-esteem hinged on how other kids treated them (which is why they can become completely derailed if, say, a friend decides not to sit next to them in the school cafeteria).
So why not have my daughter sit out conventional middle school entirely?
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Dr. Victor M. Fornari, director of child and adolescent psychiatry at Northwell Health’s Zucker Hillside Hospital and Cohen Children’s Medical Center, wasn’t too keen on my idea.
“Home schooling certainly has its place,” Dr. Fornari told me, “and there are people who really believe in it for children.” But he cautioned me that having my child home-schooled to somehow protect them from the drama and chaos of middle school was not the solution to my worries.
What would be better, he suggested gently, would be to keep the lines of communication wide open when my daughter enters those turbulent years. “Middle school age is when you’re beginning to separate and become your own person, so you want to keep that connection strong,” he says. “Parents really need to stay grounded and calm and supportive during that time.”
And that means being a good listener. “This is so important, and parents really have to cultivate those skills,” Dr. Fornari says. “The way they listen will determine what their kids will tell them, so listen openly, without judgment or criticism. It’s helpful if you can really say honestly, ‘You know, there’s nothing you can’t tell me, and you don’t have to worry. I just want to know what you’re thinking and how you’re feeling.’”
That means that if they drop any sort of bomb, it’s vital not to overreact. If you do, warns Dr. Fornari, your kid will shut down, and think twice about telling you anything next time.
As a friend of mine with two middle schoolers told me, “If you tell your kid that they can tell you anything, you have to really be prepared to hear anything, and not flip out.” That means no crying. No burying your head in your hands. No looking heavenward like some saint in a 16th-century painting and wondering aloud why you’re being punished.
My friend said she could have won an Academy Award for the skilled way she kept her face neutral during their chats, when inwardly she was pretty much screaming. “When my oldest boy started having ‘drama,’ as he put it, with some girl, believe me, I heard details that made me want to get up and run out of the room,” she said. “But I pasted a calm smile on my face and kept nodding. Because it’s really frickin’ hard to get a 13-year-old boy to confide in his mother.”
The open communication applies to teachers and school staffers, too. I now realize that part of the reason middle school was such a misery for me was that I kept all of my worries to myself (and my tear-stained diary). I would never have dreamed of telling a teacher about mean behavior. In those days, it was rarely talked about (and in fact a guidance counselor once told me that getting teased and taunted was actually a good thing, because it “toughened kids up”).
Nowadays, schools no longer turn a blind eye to mean behavior. Many have implemented kindness initiatives and strict anti-bullying programs, and Dr. Fornari says to impress upon my daughter that the school wants to know if she’s having a hard time with someone. What’s especially heartening is that this compassion can extend to both the children who are teased and the ones doing the teasing. “I’m forever saying to both parents and kids, ‘Remember that the child who bullies or teases or is mean is the child with the problem—and it’s our job to help the child with the problem,” Dr. Fornari says. “It’s generally a reflection that they’re troubled and need attention.”
After my conversation with Dr. Fornari, I stopped researching home-school options. There are many great reasons for home schooling, but it shouldn’t be used as some sort of refuge. I can’t protect my daughter from mean kids, but I can give her the tools to cope, and offer a listening ear. My job is not to shield her from the world, but to prepare her to move through it, and persevere through pain and disappointment. I shouldn’t remove challenges, but guide her on how to face them so that she builds resilience and confidence.
Sylvie’s already a stronger and savvier kid than I ever was. I do plan to share some of my own middle school horror stories to let her know I’ve been there. But I’ll just have to be careful not to transfer my own anxieties about my suboptimal middle school experience to her. I’ll try my hardest to be receptive, not reactive.
To that end, I’ve started rehearsing my Carefully Neutral Listening Face with my sister, a teacher with a son in eighth grade.
“Now, I’m going to pretend I’m Sylvie,” she said one day when we met for lunch. “Are you ready? ‘Mom, my friends don’t want me to sit with them in the cafeteria anymore.’”
I leaned forward. “Who? Which ones? I’ll bet I can guess, it’s—”
My sister laid a hand on my arm. “You’re going to have to dial it way back.” She sighed. “This may take longer than I thought. OK, from the top. ‘Mom, some kids are making fun of me because I won’t try vaping.’”
I frowned. “Hello, you do know that vaping can have serious health risks, right? Because—”
My sister held up her hands. “Let’s try again,” she said wearily. Looks like I still need some practice.