Oh, the middle school years. Full of growing pains and struggles galore. Becoming more independent, taking harder classes, managing time and homework, and as if that’s not enough…social lives and social issues start to matter and change and it can just be really hard to navigate. “Play dates” become “getting together” and “hanging out”. Cliques begin to form, and those kids your child has been friends with since kindergarten or earlier, start splitting off and going their separate ways.
As a parent, it is so hard to watch your child struggle in any way. This is especially true when it comes to having friends and being accepted. There is nothing more painful than watching your child become alienated from his long-term group of friends and not knowing where he fits in. If he’s being shunned by his old friends, or worse, being teased or bullied, it is just an impossible situation. So what is a parent to do? How can you help your child through these difficult years and all of the challenges they hold?
First, try to remember what these years are all about. Being a tween is not supposed to be easy. Remember when they were toddlers and two years old? They wanted to be babies and big kids all at the same time? They wanted to walk and talk, but couldn’t always do everything they wanted. They’d get frustrated and one minute act like a baby and another act like such a big kid. This isn’t really that different. They just look different now.
In nursery school and kindergarten, generally speaking, all of the kids like each other. They are all encouraged to be friends, and they have no reason not to like each other (except maybe in cases where there was a situation, and even then, teachers almost always can help resolve these). All through grade school, your child will very likely have a large group of friends from school, of course gravitating towards spending more time with certain kids than others. His friendships seem solid and stable, and you are likely even friends with most of the parents.
Then, boom, middle school happens. Your child seems sad and angry and withdrawn. You start asking questions only to find out that his ‘friends’ haven’t been acting much like friends at all lately. They had a birthday party and didn’t invite him. They don’t want to eat lunch with him or play with him. When he calls to invite them over, they’re always busy. Could it really be happening? Your son’s friends don’t like him anymore?
Someone might as well have put a knife in your heart. That’s how much it hurts. But, as much as I hate to say this, it is normal for kids to drift apart around this age, as they are finding where and with whom they fit it. Personalities and “types” have emerged. The nerdy kids all start hanging out together, the athletes, the creatives, etc. The ‘groups’ shift and new ones form and it might be the hardest thing your child ever has to endure. But, you have to remember this is normal. By doing so, you are better equipped to help your child through this difficult transition.
Here is where your tough job comes in. You have to be both empathetic and supportive, and also realistic and diplomatic. Talk to your child about all the different kinds of changes that happen during these years, and assure him he will find his niche where he fits in and will be happy. Let him know that you understand how hard it is. Explain that this just might not end up being with the kids he’s known and hung out with most of his life. Sometimes it is, and then things are easy and your child is lucky, but remind your child that these are all normal growing pains and they will pass.
Try not to jump in and “fix” every problem, unless it really seems serious and your child is distraught. You can actually do more damage than good. Give your child practical tools for solving problems on his own, like being a good friend and exploring his interests to find where he fits. Help him find his voice if he is hurt or confused with his friends. Sometimes it can be helpful to talk to a teacher or administrator and let them know if you feel your child is struggling. They can keep an eye out and step in if necessary. Of course, if he is being treated in an unacceptable way, such as bullying, then you will definitely need to step in and advocate for your child.
At the end of the day, your child needs to feel loved and understood by you, first and foremost. He will figure out his friendships with the loving guidance you give him and the confidence you have in him. While he may need some help along the way navigating this, you must remember that he is growing up. There are plenty more changes coming soon, so brace yourself and hang in there. You can do this.