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Self Esteem in Middle School: Developing Teen Identity

Middle school is the time when kids begin to try on adult identities to figure out who they want to be. They come to realize that they don’t like certain things that their parents do or think and want to make their own decisions, pick out their own things, and figure out their own likes and dislikes.

“Who Am I?”

If there’s one question a middle-schooler asks himself more than any other, it’s “Who am I?” This is the existential crisis of every tween.

The slow, steady realization that they are not, in fact, a parental “Mini-Me,” and that they have both the opportunity and obligation to be something separate. This can be exciting … and confusing.

But just as it’s impossible to look at a shelf full of jeans in the department store and instantly know which ones you’re going to like the best, so too is figuring out who you want to be.

Trying On Identities

Building a unique identity requires some rocky years of trying on those new clothes, new behaviors, new friends, and often a completely new sense of self. Your child might play in the band, become a student representative, try out for a new sport, or audition for the school play. Who knows, they could be great at performing, right? Your daughter might have visions of being the next Emma Stone in La La Land, so when her new persona draws criticism, it sends a definite message: 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 “essential” clothes that are now in the corner of the closet as well as lessons and instruments and sports equipment that are no longer being used.

Hold yourself back from thinking this way. Kids need to experiment during this trial-and-error phase.

It’s a hard stage to live through as tweens, and it’s hard to watch as parents, but the more we can help our kids see the possibilities that await them on the other side, the easier it will be.

The Root of Resilience

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, and criticism doesn’t bury itself so deeply in our core.

Much of that resilience is rooted in teenage experimentation.

Besides trying to fund this whole experiment (which is a lot), there is something you can do to promote healthy self-esteem in tweens. If you’ve ever watched the sitcom The Goldbergs, you’re familiar with uber-mom Beverly Goldberg and her “mom goggles,” through which she sees everything her kids do 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.

Look for the Unexpected

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.

With any luck, extraordinary patience and creative compliments will help you and your tween survive this unique developmental stage.

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

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