Self-Esteem Can Take Hit in Cruel Middle School Years

Filed under: Books for Kids

Coaching kids through middle school helps with good behavior. Credit: Sourcebooks


Friendships can turn on a dime in middle school, as a girl named Jamie learned the hard way.

She was part of a group of friends until one of them casually suggested, "Let's hate Jamie." The next thing she knew, her former friends had created an "I Hate Jamie Club." Other than being a preteen, Jamie had done nothing to deserve such treatment. But it was a horrible feeling nonetheless.

Kids can be cruel, even to their friends. But parents need to know that all of these behaviors -- while often mean -- are part of the roller coaster development process of early adolescence, Carl Pickhardt, author of "Why Good Kids Act Cruel: The Hidden Truth About the Pre-Teen Years" tells ParentDish. In the book, he uses anecdotes, such as Jamie's story, as well as his experience as a long time counselor, to help parents coach their children -- whether they are handing out some of the cruelty or on the receiving end of it.
Children begin testing their limits somewhere between the ages of 9 and 13, which often leads to strains in the parent/child relationship, Pickhardt says. Your children suddenly realize they don't want to be treated as children anymore, and while parents may be giving them more independence, they aren't exactly sure where they fit in. Often, the child's self esteem takes a hit.

Among their peers, who are struggling to find their own place socially, things that were acceptable at a younger age can become sources for teasing. But when a child is teased, friends may pull away in an attempt to salvage their own social ranking, further unsettling a child's self esteem.

Parents are often oblivious that any of this happens because they don't see the other half of their child's life at school.

"(Kids) keep their parents out of it to get social independence," Pickhardt says.

Parents and schools have no idea how much energy children this age spend trying to get through the school day without standing out in a negative way, he says.

"Everyone is striving to get a social place," Pickhardt says. "Even if they aren't teased, they can see what is happening to other kids and know it could happen to them."

This affects their behavior and they may begin to pull away from a friend who doesn't have the social acceptance they want.

"They are worried about their own social survival," Pickhardt says.

Parents can help by coaching their child before inevitable mean behavior starts. First, parents should work to remain close to their children by talking with them and spending time together even if the child prefers friends more. Explain that middle school will bring all kinds of changes socially, as well as physically and emotionally, and that name calling or teasing happens.

Pickhardt's book offers a variety of strategies for dealing with teasing, exclusion from a group, bullying and rumors.

  • To combat teasing, a child can try comebacks: "You're right. I do dress strange sometimes." or "Can you tell me more?" And the classic "Whatever." Insults are about someone wanting to be mean, not something being wrong with the being teased child.
  • When children are excluded from a group, they need to be reminded there are others that will enjoy their company and not to reject themselves. It's important for parents to provide a variety of social outlets -- not just school -- at this age.
  • Being bullied can be scary, but children can plant their feet, square their shoulders and look the bully in the eye. Often, bullies are looking not for a fight, but just someone to dominate, so appearing strong can move the bully away.
  • There are lots of rumors flying in middle school, but teaching a child to not listen or pass them along and remain skeptical about rumors can go a long way to dulling them. Children can only control the truth about themselves, not what people say or think about them.
  • When being ganged up on, teach children to remember there are people, like parents, who love them and are on their side no matter what.
Despite the natural instinct to want to protect your child from the woes of middle school, parents should think hard before they move beyond coaching their child, Pickhardt advises. Confronting another parent or arriving at school to talk to teachers can further hurt a child socially.

The best way to approach a situation where parental involvement is necessary is to broach the school with concern about both the bully and the victim, Pickhardt says. Cruel behavior ultimately hurts both sides at this age, he says. The bully never learns to properly interact with peers and continues to throw his weight around without making real friends. The victims continue to close in on themselves, never learning to correctly address teasing, rumoring and ganging up.

The good news is kids feel much more settled socially by the teenage years, says Pickhardt, who also writes about adolescence for PsychologyToday.com.

Related: Strengthening Your School-Age Child's Self-Esteem

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Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.