I’m a middle school counselor. I love the awkwardness of kids at this age as they learn to navigate puberty and the academic and social demands of middle school. Give me the teen having the absolute hardest time with social conflict in my school and I will give them the tools to help them cope and one day thrive. I will take calls from parents about their kids, listen to their concerns, and remind them it will soon be okay.
And yet, despite my professional experience, I hated middle school in my own house.
My daughter did not smile in middle school.
One day, after a long call with her principal, I searched her phone to see if I could find out why. What I found was alarming.
There were photos of her crying in her room alone. Screenshots of nasty encounters between girls. Private stories. Secret accounts. My daughter was not always innocent.
Did my daughter tell a lie? Yes. Did she mishandle conflict and say unkind things? Yes.
Did other girls tell their own lies? Yes. Did they tell my daughter she was ugly and looked like a fish? Yes. Invent reasons not to hang out with her? Yes. Stop including her? Yes, yes, yes. Yes, to all of it. And that’s not all. On more than one occasion, because of this ongoing conflict/drama, she called me from a stall in her middle school bathroom, crying.
The unrelenting teen drama and social conflict got so bad that it spilled over and affected parent friendships. I found it difficult to remain “mom friends” with people who talked trash about my child. And so, when my daughter lost friends, I did too, and it wasn’t long before we found ourselves in what turned out to be the most socially isolating time period of our lives.
Surviving Middle School
When she was in eighth grade, my daughter had double foot surgery. She spent the next three weeks at home recovering while virtually attending school. During that time, no teachers emailed to express concern or wish her a speedy recovery. The track and basketball coaches didn’t call to check on her. Her teammates didn’t visit. Only one friend stopped by. My daughter felt empty and alone. We needed to make a change.
Nothing mattered to me more than my daughter becoming mentally healthy and repairing her broken self-esteem and confidence. So, we had hard conversations at home, scheduled weekly sessions with a therapist, and solidified plans to move my daughter to a different high school in the fall. And then I prepared myself to spend the next year anxiously waiting for that text or call expressing panic, distress, heartbreak.
But the distress signals never came.
In this new environment, away from all the drama of the past years, my daughter made new friends.
My daughter smiled in high school.
Away from her old friends and all that middle school drama, we could finally relax.
The therapist told me, unequivocally, that all these horrible middle school experiences had traumatized my daughter. That made sense to me. After all, I could barely talk about what happened without breaking down, and I was only living it second-hand. Just imagine how much my daughter was struggling when she faced the drama on her own.
What I don’t understand is why there were so few people willing to step in to help us, or at least check on us, while we were having a really hard time. And I can’t help thinking that this has happened to other families in crisis situations with their teens, too.
If our infant or toddler isn’t sleeping through the night and I’m exhausted, a huge village of moms shows up to support us — all we need to do is write one quick post about it on social media. But if our teens struggle with social conflict, depression, eating disorders, or drug or alcohol abuse, for example, where are all the helpers hiding?
Don’t people know that it’s harder to ask for help when our teens are in crisis? Talking publicly about their struggles fills us with shame, guilt, and failure. Maybe our silence allows people to take for granted that we parents and our teens are doing fine. I think it’s a mistake to assume wellness.
Speaker and educational consultant Timothy Kight says to ask ourselves: What do I not see that I need to see? We can ask this question in a variety of situations — political arguments, work conflicts, or even just daily life — and then remember the following about the teens in our lives:
Every teen deserves compassion and understanding, even when they have royally messed up.
All kids make mistakes. Thank you to the Internet for this wisdom a friend shared not long ago: “Soon as you say ‘my child would never’ … here they come nevering like they never nevered before.” Right?! Let’s check in and support each other so we have more strength to help our teens during challenging times.
Offer yourself a bit of grace. I’m an educated school counselor who helped many others with these very same types of situations, and yet I still messed up. I missed warning signs I should have noticed sooner. If you mess up with your own kid, and you probably will if you’re a parent, know that you’re not the first parent to make a mistake.
And maybe most importantly, just like we check our kids’ phones for important information, we need to check on people, too.