Empowering Middle Schoolers to Thrive

middle school students

Written by: Where Parents Talk Staff

Published: Sep 15, 2023

by Katherine Johnson Martinko

“Middle school is a magical time where kids are still very connected to you and haven’t yet pulled away, and you do have a lot of influence over their choices and the kind of person they become.”

Phyllis Fagell is a certified school counsellor, child and family therapist in private practice, and mother of three who wants parents to enjoy the wonderfully unique stage in life that is middle school, when children are typically in grades 6 to 8.  Her latest book, published in August 2023, is called, “Middle School Superpowers: Raising Resilient Teens and Tweens in Turbulent Times.” She spoke to Lianne Castelino, host of Where Parents Talk, from Cape Cod, Massachusetts.

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Welcome to where parents talk. My name is Lianne Castelino. Our guest today is a Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor, a certified professional school counselor, and an author, Phyllis vagal is also a therapist in private practice working with children and families. She’s a frequent contributor to publications, including the Washington Post, and she’s a mother of three. Her latest book is called Middle School superpowers, raising resilient teens, tweens in turbulent times. Phyllis joins us today from Cape Cod, Massachusetts, thank you so much for being here.

It’s so nice to talk to you again. I love your podcast.

Thank you so much. And it’s such an important topic that we’re talking about, about an age group that I think often gets overlooked. I’m keen to know what you think about, you know, are we having enough of the discussion about what’s going on in the tween years these days?

You know, in my new book, I’m referring to them as extreme tweens. Because they’re the same middle schoolers, we’ve always seen developmentally, they’re insecure, they’re vulnerable. They’re trying to figure out how they measure up to their peers, if they’re good enough, all of the things we think about with that age group, but right now, they’re themselves only more so. And I think that’s a reaction to the times that they’re growing up in this hyper connected world, where they’re constantly exposed to what’s happening internationally, in terms of what’s happening in their own communities. And not to mention that this is on the heels of COVID, and a few years of so much disruption in their lives. So yes, they need a tremendous amount of support. And they’re an age group that typically gets neglected, either lumped in with elementary school kids, or with older high schoolers. And now especially, I think that the kids who are going through middle school are so impacted by what’s happening in the world, and what’s happened in the last few years that we, as always need to pay attention to them. But now even more so.

And you know, there has been so much right, when you start to think about all the things that are coming out them, we’re talking about violence, in schools, and in the world at large, we’re talking about, you know, the political landscape, as it has been in recent years, certainly not just in North America, but elsewhere. You know, file family dynamics, not being what they were, perhaps when you and I were younger, social media, all kinds of external pressures that, you know, people have a certain age group and certain generation just did not have to deal with. So when you look at that entire landscape, what strikes you most as it relates to the tween age group?

So I think one of the misconceptions about this age group is that they are mean or that they’re drama seeking. And the irony is that if anything, they are impacted by all of the meanness and mean spiritedness that they’re subjected to in the world around them, the adult influences have been pretty negative. We’ve entered the United States, obviously. So we’ve had some pretty contentious electorate contentious elections in recent years. And the news is just an endless stream of doom scrolling for kids who are hyper connected, always online, they are so subjected to that 24/7 news cycle. So I think what we’re seeing is a bit more hyper vigilance, and maybe even a bit more meanness, certainly more social awkwardness, because they haven’t had as much practice interacting with one another. They don’t have the best role modeling and examples, the ones that we would like them to have, we have a lot of adults who are simply trying to keep their own oxygen mask on, which means that they may not have the emotional bandwidth to cope out loud and to be talking about the kinds of strategies they use, the kids really also need that kind of role modeling.

Absolutely. So if I’m a student, and I’m in this tween age group, and I’m listening to you, and I see the things that I’m, you know, impacted by in the world, like, what can you say to me, that would help me feel less daunted about all of the things that we’ve just outlined.

So we want middle schoolers in particular, who are so social justice oriented, and so interested in what’s happening in that broader society, it can almost fill them with an existential dread. And that’s even more typical among kids who are gifted. But what we want to be doing is having them zoom back in focusing on something going on that day, that moment in their own life to really be living in the present, and engaging with their peers and focusing on the things that they can control. So there’s that sweet spot between the things you can control and I’ll sometimes even draw a Venn diagram for kids, things you can control and things that matter. And you’re looking for that overlap because you want to conserve your energy. You don’t want to be picking every last fight sure you it is well within your control to tell someone that they’re looking at you funny and you want to know why they’re looking at you funny or you’re you want to take on that teacher who talked to a point that you thought you deserved on a quiz, but maybe play it all the way out and decide if it’s important enough to you to actually take that on as your battle or if you want to put your energies elsewhere.

You know, it’s interesting hearing you describe it that way certainly is also applicable to adults as well, right, like control what you can control and, and that’s all you can really do. On that note, when we’re talking about parents of tweens, what can you suggest to them to help them support their child navigate this volatile space that we’re all in right now.

A lot of parents contact me because I think their child is depressed or anxious, they think their child needs therapy. And not to say that everyone doesn’t benefit from therapy. But something that I think we’re missing in the weeds is that much of the anxiety and sadness and loneliness and awkwardness and disorganization, and hit to the executive functioning skills that is leading to kids being overwhelmed, is comes down to skill development. And so the more that we as parents and as adults can do, to actually operationalize how kids can connect with other people, to help them learn the skills that they require to ask a teacher for help, or to enter a conversation or to invite someone over to their house, or to sit down at a table where they don’t know anybody in a crowded lunchroom, the more we can do in that very concrete way to support our kids. That’s actually what they’re really looking for, even if they don’t all necessarily voice it that way. And that’s where we can really lend them our expertise, and share what was difficult for us and how we may have overcome it over time.

I’ll vote for parents who are, you know, helicopter parents, right, they can’t help themselves. They want to do everything for their child, they want their child to have the best. And we hear about these stories all the time, whether the child is young, or the child is a teenager, or the child is in college and university, what can you say to that parent about how to sort of dial that back and better support a tween.

So I understand that instinct and I have a lot of compassion for parents, I think all of us would like to wrap our kids and follow bubble wrap and make their worlds perfect. And the silver lining of the fact that their worlds are imperfect, and there is no avoiding the fact that they’re going to take some hits along the way is that that’s how they learn. And that’s how they learn how to make friend choices that are healthy for them. That’s how they learn to self advocate. That’s how they learn all of the skills that they need to function as adults in the world. So if we wrap them in bubble wrap, if we try to fight their battles for them, if we try to remove all of the obstacles, we might, in the short run, ease their way, but in the long run, we we only create more difficulties for them.
Now, Phyllis, you are deeply experienced with this age group on multiple levels. Can you tell us what intrigues you about middle middle schoolers?

You know, I was talking to someone earlier today who’s writing a book for this age group. And they asked me why I like middle schoolers so much, and I really do genuinely like them. For starters, they’re incredibly funny, they still have a lot of little kid in them. And whether it’s a physical pratfall humor, or a funny way of looking at something that adults don’t necessarily even see it that way anymore, they have a way of bringing the humor into any situation granted, they have to walk that line between funny and mean. And that can be a tough boundary for them to keep at times. That’s a skill they’re working on too. But they do have a really wonderful sense of fun, they have a wonderful sense of adventure, they are open to new experiences, they are still very malleable and impressionable and interested in coaching. And what we have to tell them, Yes, they’re pulling away, but they still very much care what we think about them as adults. So it’s this really perfect opportunity. I like calling Middle School, the last best chance for us to get in there and parent, because once they go on to high school, and I say this is the parent of three, and my last one is just finished his freshman year of high school. Well, but I keenly aware that middle school is kind of a magical time where they’re still very connected to you and hadn’t yet pulled away and you do have a lot of influence over their choices and the kind of person they become.

On that note, is there something in particular that you think parents need to understand about this age group of kids that perhaps isn’t widely known that might help them better help their kids navigate this time?

Parents really need to understand that most kids are going to perceive judgment or criticism in the most neutral facial expressions, even pausing before you answer they’re going to read into it, and recognize that everything that they’re doing is being scrutinized. I like to joke that kids have a PhD in their parents, and because they still want your approval. And because you don’t want that conversation to shut down. You should be really careful to process anything that’s tough for you. Or maybe if your child didn’t do well on something and that is something that you’re struggling with. Make sure you process it with another adult and not with your child. So that when you go and talk to your child, you can listen. If there’s only one piece of advice I would say it’s listen a lot more than you talk Kids do not like to be lectured to in this age group. If you want to help them first ask permission, can I support you, when you’re listening to them, just make sure everything is in alignment, your facial expressions or body language. When you pause or don’t pause the words you choose, because they are looking for your approval, they are looking to you to see how they should see themselves. And success begets success. We want kids, we want to set them up for success. And we want them to see themselves as capable and competent.

Let’s talk more about your book, a middle school superpowers, take us through first of all some of the evidence based reached research that you looked into in the course of writing this book.

So over the course of the last couple of years, as we were going through the pandemic, and I was on screen all day with kids, I left my Zoom Room open. So I was either running a group, or I was doing teaching a class or I had dropped in hours. And so watching these kids through that whole experience, and then watching them come back and seeing them struggle, suddenly, I needed this whole new set of strategies. And these kids needed a whole new set of skills. And I started writing about it, you know, in the midst of all of this as it was unfolding and researching it because I felt like I was out of my depth, I felt the way I felt as a new middle school counselor that I needed to go find the information that would help me do my job. And it didn’t really exist. And so I identified these 12 skills that are perennial superpowers, but that are particularly useful for this age group, and particularly useful for this time in history. And they run the gamut from dealing with uncertainty to retaining positivity in the midst of a crisis or a setback. And really what it comes down to is how do you raise a Resilient Child. And resilience is very much misunderstood. Resilience doesn’t mean that you bounce back from everything. Resilience means that despite taking those hits, you keep putting one foot in front of the other. And it requires a set of skills and strengths. It’s not something you’re born with, like an ear for language or music. It’s something that can be taught. And so the research I did was in these 12 areas, which include optimism, risk taking, belonging, belonging might be the number one superpower, even though it’s the number, the second superpower in the book, and really going through the research on what we can do to help kids who are growing up saturated in social media in the midst of a mental health crisis with a war raging in Europe and school shootings left and right in the United States, and help them come out of that not only feeling, you know, okay, but maybe feeling stronger. And I think that’s possible.

Let’s go through the top three superpowers that you talk about among the 12. And I guess, you know, listening to you sort of describe them, like, why are they important? Why have they been identified as superpowers? And what is the impact of using them as such?

Sure. So I’ll start with uncertainty, which is a huge one for adults, too. I don’t know anybody who is like, you know, what, bring on the uncertainty, you know, make sure I don’t have any clue what’s going to happen. Next people are very uncomfortable. In fact, there’s research showing that people would rather know they’re going to get an electrical shock, then know, a painful electrical shock, and then be told there’s a 50% chance that they’re going to get one and job uncertainty, not knowing whether or not you’re going to get fired is actually more stressful and perceived as more stressful to people than getting fired. So we as humans do not like uncertainty. But for middle schoolers. In particular, they are changing more rapidly than they have at any time in their life other than birth to age two, internally, externally in every way. And the world around them suddenly shifted so much. So they felt particularly powerless. And they’re in this phase where they’re suddenly moving from elementary to middle school. So there is structural logistical changes in their life, they have to rejigger their entire social network at a time when they are acutely aware of how they stack up to others and where they fit in in that pack. So helping them manage that uncertainty when they’re marinating and uncertainty is a superpower. The second one I mentioned was super belonging. And that has, I think everybody knows and thinks about middle schoolers as being exquisitely sensitive to whether or not they’re popular. And there’s research showing that there’s a tremendous amount of agreement kids know who’s popular, and that is real social capital. And the kids are aware that that’s real social capital. And not everyone is going to be popular. Not everyone is going to be equally so socially skilled. And in middle school, when some kids weigh 75 pounds more than another because they’ve gone through puberty, and they’re going to undoubtedly be better at sports or whatever activity they might be doing that involves, you know, say strength. Kids in this age group. Don’t necessarily intuitively understand that it makes sense that they’re behind, they still feel like they should be keeping pace with those peers, even if they are, you know, 75 pounds bigger and six inches taller. So we want to make sure that they are finding their people that they are using these years to figure out what kinds of people make them happy, what kinds of activities make them happy. And I always share the research on social churn with kids, even though it’s sort of jarring data for parents, because it for them often confirms that worst stereotype about middle school as being a time when kids are surrounded by fairweather friends. But for kids knowing that only half of kids have their the person they name is their best friend in the back, that only 1% of friendships last from sixth grade, seventh grade to 12th grade, that 12% of sixth graders have no one named them as a friend at all, and that only a third of friendships last from the fall to spring of that first year of middle school. That’s incredibly reassuring data to kids, because it means that they’re not the only one getting dumped, it means that they’re not the only one dealing with these hits, that there’s nothing wrong with them. It’s just that this is when kids are figuring out how to be a friend, she’s a friend.

So as you’re looking at the research, and as you’re witnessing various things in your various roles, you know, is there anything that in particular, you are struck by as you went along this journey of writing this book?

You know, one of the things that really struck me is that so much of the emphasis has been on mental health as opposed to skill development. And I say this as a therapist, but the thing that’s been most useful to my students and to my clients is to have a plan of action, to not feel like they are at the mercy of their emotions, or powerless at the hands of world events are even events in their own community. So if they’re hyper vigilant and afraid of fire drills, then we can work with them to figure out what they need to feel more secure in the event of a fire drill. If they are anxious about entering a lunchroom, then we can work on strategies, we can walk them through what it might feel like to walk in, we can have them maybe come up with a way to mitigate some of the risks that they feel when they walk into that room. But the more we can do to help kids actually feel that sense of agency and control over all of these things at a time that feels very much out of their control, the better off they’ll be emotionally as well.

Absolutely. Phyllis, in terms of parents in this age group, let’s say you know, you’ve been overbearing and over protective and all these things and someone’s listening to you thinking boy, I’ve just really been way off base here in terms of my approach. As these tweens enter their formative years, and as you mentioned, you know, adolescence, there’s a lot going on physiologically, etcetera, etcetera. How can one right the ship in terms of providing proper support as a parent to these children.

So you can always change course. And I am a big believer in being authentic. And there’s a lot of power and saying to your child, you know what I realized I have been overstepping, which probably was frustrating to you, not that helpful to you. And I’m realizing it was only creating conflict between us and probably robbing you of the opportunity to learn from some of these experiences. So I’m going to take a step back. On the flip side, if you are having if you’re raising a kid who suddenly really struggling to make good decisions, and they’re making those poor decisions online or on social media, you can change the rules there too. If they’re not ready for the free freedom that they’re given, then you want to be pulling. But in a caring, loving way, you know, we need to work on some of these skills so that you don’t blow up your life or you don’t love your social life. And this, you may not like it, but it comes from a place of love. So you can go one way or the other, you can either get in there more and be more involved, as needed. Or you might need to take a step back. And I think having that self awareness and having that kind of honest conversation with your kids is really effective.

What does this look like in your own home? Phyllis, we talked about the fact that you have three kids of your own 21,19 and 15. So you’ve had twins and currently have one leaving that age group? What does it look like in your home in terms of how you support them?

I try very hard to take my own advice. Obviously, we’re not always going to be perfect but I try to use in personal stories, maybe examples from my work or things that I’ve read, or things that I’m seeing in the news or on TV to have these conversations in a way that doesn’t feel threatening with them. And all kids are different I can really be I can really joke around with my oldest who has a pretty thick skin and always has been able to make it a little bit more personal without pulling back. So for him, I would joke with him when he was going back, what do you know about your brain and you go, it’s broken, or it’s not fully developed. And it was a little joke between us. But it was my reminder here to him, like don’t do stupid things. And he was okay with that another kid might find that offensive or critical and not be able to roll with that kind of joking. So you want to know your own kid. One of the other things that I do, and this was a piece of advice I got from a school principal, who had heard it from someone else, but it is really effective, rather than peppering your kid with nonstop questions and really invading their space, just like making cookies or something. And it’s like the pied piper, they come down and they sit at the table, and they wanted to talk, making this when you make an inviting environment, where it’s not somebody just lobbing nonstop questions at you, or making you feel judged or criticized, but genuinely showing curiosity and interest and pride in what they’re doing and taking pleasure in the stories that they share, then you’re setting up the scene to have those positive interactions. It’s certainly nobody raises three kids without, without the moments that are go a little off the rails to so

without question, in terms of one of the superpowers that you mentioned earlier, I guess it’s very easy, whether you’re an adult or a child these days to get down with everything that is going on. But what would you say gives you hope, and what makes you optimistic about this age group, and sort of how they can be supported moving forward in the world we live in today.

So I think the flip side of this, so much of this being skills based is that with exposure and with experience, they are able to acquire all the skills they need to navigate this changing world in this stressful world. I think if anything, kids are bouncing back faster than parents, and other adults. So that’s the silver lining. The other silver lining is this is an age group that has a lot more gratitude, maybe than prior generations, they really appreciate those small moments, the milestone events, not to be too cheesy, but they really are just filled with gratitude, even for little things like a school dance, or being able to have a fundraiser, or being able to talk in person, these things matter to them. And they really care about them. And they care about the world they live in. And I do think that these are the kids who will grow up and change a lot of the things that are problematic as adults.

You talked about what you saw over the pandemic period, you know, in your various roles, etc. And I wonder what was the turning point or the point where you said, You know what, I really need to do something about this, and it’s going to be writing a book.

So, as I mentioned, I was writing almost throughout the pandemic, and writing is how I process and writing is how I share what I’m learning along the way. And it gives me a sense of agency, it makes me feel less disempowered, and it makes me feel more connected to that broader community. So I think that was my own coping mechanism. But on the other side, when we came back, and I had kids who would lie across their chairs, like Superman, you know, with their arms in front of them and their legs behind them. And it wasn’t that they were trying to be silly. They were literally trying to stay in their chair, to stay grounded in their bodies. And I was experimenting, and I was trying to figure out what I could do to help them stay in that chair to help them feel good about being back at school to help the kids who wouldn’t come back because they were insecure about their weight or insecure about their friendships, how do we get them back in the building? How do we get that kid who won’t go to Spanish? Because they missed a lot of Spanish because of something going on in their family into that Spanish class and willing to risk embarrassment if they don’t know the answer, because they’re behind and experimenting and trying all of these different things with kids? And how do we help them make good choices and anticipate how their actions will impact others when they were so consumed with their own issues? It was harder for them when they came back to think about other people’s opinions or perspectives or to think beyond themselves. And so the book is really a way to take all of what I learned from those experiences, and capture it so that other people can benefit from it as well.

What would you say Phyllis that you’d like readers of middle school superpowers to take away from it?

So for starters, I’m assuming that for the most part that people reading, it will either be educators who work with middle schoolers or people who are raising middle schoolers. And so my biggest takeaway that I would like them to have is that this is such a golden opportunity. And it is such a fun age group, despite the fact that it’s particularly challenging right now or that there are so many external things, making it even harder than it normally is. To raise these kids or educate these kids. It’s incredibly rare. rewarding and we can help them come out on the other side, even more resilient and stronger than when they started. And you’d have tremendous power to do that by working with them in very concrete ways to build their skills and build their confidence. And so, stick with it. Don’t get too frustrated, try to stay calm, really love and enjoy your child. I’m actually sad that all my kids have made it through middle school. It’s a phase that I really enjoyed.
That’s wonderful. Phyllis Fagell counselor, therapist, author of middle school superpowers, we so appreciate your time and your insight today.

Thank you for having me.

Fagell believes this cohort of kids is frequently overlooked and misunderstood. “One of the misconceptions about this age group is that they are mean or drama-seeking. And the irony is that, if anything, they [have been] impacted by all of the meanness and mean-spiritedness … in the world around them. The adult influences have been pretty negative.”

When tweens feel overwhelmed or discouraged, Fagell encourages them to focus on the present. “There’s that sweet spot between the things you can control … and the things that matter,” she says. “You’re looking for that overlap because you want to conserve your energy.”

She believes many mental health issues could be resolved with better skill development—giving kids practical tools to handle the world.
“The more we can do to help kids actually feel that sense of agency and control over all of these things at a time that feels very much out of their control, the better off they’ll be emotionally.”

In the podcast and video interview, Fagell urges parents to keep lines of communication open with tweens and not to be afraid to revisit rules as needed. Whether you need to step back and give your kid more autonomy, or intervene and implement tighter boundaries, it’s acceptable (and important) to do so:

Book cover.Middle Schoolers.Fagell, Phyllis“[Your kid] may not like it, but it comes from a place of love… You can either get in there more and be more involved, or you might need to take a step back. And I think having that self-awareness and having that kind of honest conversation with your kids is really effective.”

In her conversation with Where Parents Talk, Fagell also discusses:

  • Which “superpowers” most benefit tweens
  • How helicopter parents can give their kids more autonomy
  • What gives her hope about this particular age group
  • How this research has affected her own parenting style

Related links:


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Tips and Strategies to Cultivate, Nurture and Sustain Resilience in Children

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