Why You Can't Fix Your Pre-Teen's Social Angst

Middle school is a treacherous time for kids, but I didn't anticipate how tough it would be for a parent. I didn't expect to relive that time again so painfully as a mother, nor did I anticipate that the parental remove can bring not only perspective, but also extra heartache.
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Middle school is a treacherous time for kids, but I didn't anticipate how tough it would be for a parent. In lower school, the worst that could happen socially was being left out of a birthday party or not asked on a playdate. Or perhaps a boy flipped up your skirt in second grade, so you'd wear only pants until high school. In lower school, everyone had friends, and you knew that your friend today would still be your friend tomorrow. We played at hurting feelings, but harmonious social interaction was the rule rather than the exception. Even as adults, we recall with painful clarity the expulsion from the relative sanctuary of elementary school into the social turbulence of middle and high school. I didn't expect to relive that time again so painfully as a mother, nor did I anticipate that the parental remove can bring not only perspective, but also extra heartache.

Middle school friendships -- and, I suspect, female friendships in particular -- are forged, shattered and refashioned fast enough to make an adult's head spin. A friend recently reminded me of the "bad boyfriend" analogy: Remember how you'd tell all your girlfriends about your terrible boyfriend's awful flaws and transgressions? They'd sympathize and rally round you -- "You deserve so much better!" -- only to hold a permanent grudge against him when you got back together. It is similarly confusing as a parent to keep track of who's on the Nice list and who's on the Naughty in your child's middle school experience; and even if you can, it's likely to have changed by next week. Yesterday's mean girl is tomorrow's BFF, and vice-versa. Quicksand looks nice and stable when compared to the middle school social whirl.

I didn't share much about my social life with my parents as an adolescent. It took my mother by surprise recently when I told her that seventh grade was the low point of my life -- I felt even then, at age 12, that I could never be unhappier. I knew that awkward, friendless, ugly year of my life was the depths, and the good news is that I was right. The bad news is that I have two daughters headed into that territory, and it is gut-wrenching to be the parent looking on. I don't know how much my parents worried about my inner emotional life -- they grew up so differently from me, in boarding schools from a young age, and it also wasn't the norm then for kids to share their feelings with their parents. In contrast, I hear a lot from my children about what goes on in school and how it makes them feel, and while I'm so grateful they talk to me, it's extremely tough to keep that emotional distance I know they (and I) need.

Intellectually, I know where my priorities lie. Parents should acknowledge and perhaps even embrace our essential powerlessness in the face of middle school social trauma. The alternative is much worse: micromanaging our children's' social lives only postpones the lessons they need to learn themselves, however painful. It also injects us too directly into a world where we have no business meddling (hello, Texas Cheerleader Mom). Broken friendships and betrayals, inextricably woven into the fabric of adolescence, are as essential to developing emotional grit as loyalty and love. As parents, we must soothe hurt feelings and share our experience and wisdom, but we can't teach resilience unless we step aside enough to let our children handle both negative and positive emotions for themselves.

Emotionally, this unnatural distance is the toughest part of having a middle schooler so far. It contradicts all my parental instincts. When your child is little, you can comfort them and fix whatever is making them unhappy. I am still astonished how much braver and fiercer I am as a mother than I've ever been on my own behalf. Parenthood brings out the tiger in all of us: If you hurt my child, I will come after you. Crossing the street, I place myself between them and turning cars, in the hopes that if an accident happened, my body would be crushed instead of theirs. But as the emotional risks facing my preteen daughters begin to accelerate, that protective instinct becomes a liability. I can't put myself in their place when a friendship goes off the rails or a group gangs up on them; I can't get crushed instead of them, however much I might wish I could. This explains why bullying claims spread like wildfire -- true bullying merits parental intervention, so parents seized on it as an excuse to justify overstepping their roles. But what seems like bullying to parents is often normal, if excruciating, adolescent behavior.

So, we parents suit up and wade unwillingly into adolescence once again, listening and offering advice, feeling the wounds even more keenly the second time around, wanting to step in but knowing we mustn't. We become, at best, the proverbial shoulder to cry on, the tear-stained pillow, the sympathetic ear. But we must do our damndest at the same time to let children feel for themselves as well, to let them learn how to navigate sadness, rejection and loneliness.

Adolescence is a time of such intense emotions: We feel so much, so strongly for the first time. By intervening inappropriately to prevent this crash of feelings, we might believe we're protecting our children, but we run the very real risk of stunting their emotional growth. Stepping aside is so hard, so heartbreaking, so counterintuitive; but I know I'm going to have to learn how to do it, over and over again.