By Michelle Icard
Middle school is when kids begin to try on adult identities to figure out who they want to be. They start to realize that they don’t like certain things that their parents do or think. At that age, they also begin to consider their own power to make decisions. They want to pick out their own things and figure out their own likes and dislikes.
Middle-schoolers start to ask themselves, “Who am I?” Every teen is experiencing this existential crisis. The slow, steady realization that they are not, in fact, a parental “Mini-Me” creates both the opportunity and obligation to be something separate. This awakening can be exciting … and confusing.
Figuring out who you want to be means trying on different personas. Think of a shelf full of jeans in the department store. It’s impossible to know instantly which ones you’re going to like the best, so too is figuring out who you want to be. The journey requires some rocky years of trying on those new “jeans.”
As your tween tries to build a unique identity, you can start to notice the development of a whole new sense of self. Your child might play in the band, become a student representative, try out for a new sport or a part in the school play. Who knows, she could be great at performing, right? She has visions in her head of being the next Emma Stone in La La Land. But her new persona draws criticism. The message is—You’re not good at this. You’re not good at being you.
This is one of the main reasons why self-esteem is tender in middle school.
It’s hard to manage the whirlwind. Your son tries something new and fails. Your daughter tries something new and then gets bored and discards the new passion after three months. You’re adding up the tally of wasted expenses. The “must-have” clothes that are now in the corner of the closet. The lessons and instruments and sports equipment that are no longer being used.
Fight the inclination to see this experimentation as negative. Your tween needs to go through the trial-and-error phase of testing. In fact, kids who don’t try new things may end up feeling less confident as adults.
This stage is hard for both tweens and their parents. Our job as parents is to help our kids see the possibilities that await them on the other side. As adults, we’ve learned to cope with criticism and failure. When someone gives you the side-eye after you propose a new idea in a meeting, or no one compliments your new haircut, you may feel momentarily upset, but not defeated. As adults, we can separate who we are from other people’s perceptions. Much of that resilience is rooted in teenage experimentation.
How Parents Can Help Promote Self Esteem in Middle School
Besides trying to fund this whole experiment (which is a lot), you can do other things to promote self esteem in middle school. If you’ve ever watched the sitcom The Goldbergs, you’re familiar with uber-mom Beverly Goldberg. Beverly has “mom goggles,” through which she her kids as perfect. We all wear our mom goggles from time to time, and our kids know it. When we say, “You are the funniest, cutest, greatest kid I know!” we mean it. But it is meaningless to them because they expect you to say it.
Try this tweak: try it on someone else’s kid.
Twice in my adolescence, I remember an adult outside of my family telling me about myself. When I was 13, a grandmother (not mine) told me I was going to be pretty. Feeling like the constant misfit, I clung to her prophesy. I hoped that I wouldn’t always have the wrong haircut, big glasses, an awkward smile, and the wrong jeans. It buoyed me through times of isolation to think that someday I might fit in.
When I was 14, an English teacher scrawled at the top of a creative writing assignment, “You are a writer.” In my quest for figuring out my identity, I had always focused on what I wasn’t: I wasn’t pretty, I wasn’t popular, I wasn’t an athlete. But here, in print, was someone telling me what I was. I felt inspired and wanted to explore this new version of myself. I suddenly had possibilities. Perhaps you can have this impact on a tween you know.
When it comes to supporting your own kids, instead of repeating the same old compliments, look for the unexpected. If your child is the family comedian, telling her she’s so funny won’t have much impact. But noting how calmly she negotiated the neighbor kids’ dispute and telling her “you are a mediator” will be more memorable.
Michelle Icard is the author of Middle School Makeover: Improving the Way You and Your Child Experience the Middle School Years. Learn more about her work with middle schoolers and their parents at MichelleIcard.com.