Emotional and Development Challenges Middle Schoolers Face

“Do you remember middle school?” This question makes many of us squirm. Many people think of their own 6th, 7th, and 8th grade years as their low point, emotionally and socially. Going back to middle school sounds like torture. We’d like to remind you that the sometimes annoying middle school students in our lives actually face a number of emotional and developmental challenges. Moreover, appreciating their challenges allows us to appreciate their incredible capacities.

Appreciating Challenges

Caregivers sometimes see their relationships with these students as “established.”  This means that most children can feed and clothe themselves, and complete schoolwork without supervision. Adults start leaning back and treating adolescents more like adults. However, the truth is, middle school students need adult support more than at any other point in their school careers. Consider the following:

  • New stressors arrive! During this time, teens experience academic pressure, puberty, sexual attraction, peer pressure, social media pressure, and/or drug and alcohol use by peers.
  • Big questions about identity increase the need for role models. Especially role models that share one or more “identity demographics,” such as gender, ethnicity, or disability status.
  • Adolescent development focuses the brain on one main task: independence. Children test primary relationships in order to push away adults and venture out into the world with more confidence. Chemical changes in the brain greatly increase risk-taking tendencies, and it takes years for the “consequences” part of our brain to catch up.

Middle Schoolers Need Time to Grow

With so many new changes and social pressures, no wonder many middle school students become obsessed with fitting in. Not only do adults often expect too much, such as good grades, but middle schooler’s brain development and personal histories may have taught them to achieve certainty instead of taking time to grow. Many of the middle schoolers that we might find the most frustrating have learned from teachers to be “right” or “good” instead of connected to others.

Instead of wanting to repair a relationship, Michelle may decide she needs to fight anyone who disagrees with her. Instead of expressing his values and making new connections, John may decide to hide behind his hoodie and choose not to share so that others will not notice him. Instead of facing academic and social risks, Nicki may intentionally hurt herself to be sent home or hospitalized.

Our team of therapists has known many Michelles, Johns, and Nickis in our outpatient mental health clinic and school-based therapy offices. These are examples of young people who are stuck in a cycle of solving problems the wrong way. To help them, teachers and mental health therapists must think beyond their behaviors. They must ask: Why does this child present this way? What do they need? What are they lacking?

Staying Connected

Research shows us that humans continue to grow the foundations of their identity and beliefs through most of their twenties. Middle schoolers still have a lot of growing to do – let’s give them the time and emotional support they need to get there! Here are four ways to support them:

1. Lean into the awkwardness. Offer to give input on hygiene, dating, body changes, etc. but don’t take it personally when middle schoolers say “no thank you,”… they will likely circle back to you once they know you care.

2. Accept their input. Entertainment and social media dynamics change every day, and they probably know more than you do. Cultivate and cherish any moments when middle school students can teach you about themselves. You can still set limits when things are unsafe; letting them teach you about their worlds will earn you the respect you need for those limits to stick.

3. Be the role model you needed when you were 13-years-old. Adolescents will rarely follow your advice if they never catch you following it yourself! Let them see you apologizing, repairing a relationship, handling anger effectively, or sticking up for yourself respectfully, and they will learn to do those things for themselves quickly and well.

4. Stick around. Children start testing social boundaries around them during adolescence – partly to see how far they can go, and partly to see who will stick with them. Teens may use aggression, emotional behavior, or risk-seeking behavior to see if adults will believe the best about them despite momentary lapses of judgment. We call it “trust testing.” Will you love them unconditionally?

5. Remember, please, that parenting changes during adolescence. For the first time, caregivers begin to form a friendship with children that will grow in the launching stage of life and throughout their adult years. Parents may forget to spend quality time with their teenaged children in the chaos of basic life tasks. Some of the most annoying “middle school” behaviors often try to say, “Come back! I still need your attention! I need you to be with me, not busy doing something else!”

Not the End of the Story

In our work with middle school students, we find endless creativity, resilience, and maturity. Middle schoolers we know decorate journals with cotton balls or fabric pouches, engage in creative conflict resolution tactics on a daily basis, and maintain incredible senses of humor. Last year, Michelle was suspended half a dozen times in a 30-day period – this year she wasn’t suspended once! John hid on the edges of every hall and every class – this year he has joined multiple school clubs and activities. Nicki no longer harms her body or thinks about suicide. Instead, she is rapping, dancing, journaling, and painting,

If you have a middle school student in your life – lucky you! Pay attention and enjoy their incredible talents, even if you can’t see them right away. We promise, they’re in there.

By Julia Patrick and Bob Nickles

Julia Patrick is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and a Registered Play Therapist, who works for the ChildSavers’ School-Based Services team. She was born in Georgia and lived in California and South Carolina prior to moving to Richmond a year ago. In her free time Julia enjoys painting, hiking, and cooking. She currently works at a middle school in the Richmond area.

Bob Nickles is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) and actor. He was born in South Carolina and has been moving around ever since. Bob lives on the Northside of Richmond and hails most recently from St. Louis. ChildSavers welcomed Bob to the Mental Health team in 2015 and recently, he became the Program Supervisor for ChildSavers and Greater Richmond SCAN’s Richmond Public Schools Resiliency Partnership. Bob will lead the delivery of clinical services within Richmond’s East End schools and supervise the mental health team.

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