The middle school experience is one of the most critical periods of psychological development. Adjustment difficulty in middle school is common and can have lasting impacts. In fact, the trauma of social rejection in middle school is one of the most common triggers of adjustment disorders and early-onset depressive/anxiety disorders. Still more, some of the most common symptoms of depression and anxiety are impaired attention and concentration, which can lead to an erroneous diagnosis of ADHD. While the use of psychostimulants such as Adderall and Ritalin can temporarily boost motivation, it can also result in exacerbation of anxiety or addiction and does not address the underlying problem. The conclusion is this: depression and anxiety during the middle school years is increasing, and these symptoms are sometimes erroneously diagnosed.
Middle school is the time that children hit puberty and move on from the protection of the social kindness forces of elementary school. In elementary school, policies dictate assigned seating, fairness, and copious amounts of supervision. These policies insist that students bring enough Valentine’s Day treats for all. While it is true that bullying and clan-like mentality occurs in elementary schools, it becomes much more apparent during the pre-teen years.
Middle school is a time of increasing autonomy and responsibility, and many middle schoolers have not yet attained the emotional regulation skills, self-esteem, self-control, and sense of identity to help the process move smoothly. Middle school is a time of selective Valentine’s Day gifts, students sitting where they want, and school dances. Rejection is overt and often public, whether in the cafeteria or on social media. It is during these years that the “us vs. them” phenomenon becomes painfully obvious to children.
The rejection, or “them” experience, in middle school is a social, emotional, and psychological debit. The most loving parents and secure home is rendered neutral against these strikes. These are particularly difficult times because the young brains of middle school students sometimes employ high aggression and tribal division in ways that can only be described as medieval. This means that the more sensitive kids, as well as kids who are perceived to be “different” in some way, are targeted at a higher rate. Unfortunately, middle school can be the time that children experience the painful reality of racism and other "isms."
A Primal Need for Belonging
Why is this rejection so critical? When we are accepted by others, we become members of “tribes.” As young children, if we were lucky, our nuclear families fulfilled our need for belonging. As children enter pre-adolescence, they begin the process of developing autonomy and independence, which entails decreasing emotional dependence on the nuclear family and increasing dependence on peers.
As a pre-teen develops his or her peer group, the important process of transitioning from childhood to autonomous adulthood has begun. As we hold hands, drape shoulders, and huddle with our fellow tribal brothers and sisters in OUR places, our feeling of belonging and a deeper understanding of our worth helps “us” feel valued like never before. Our “tribe” provides psychological validation and strength in numbers. A lone wolf becomes a forceful pack of wolves. The aforementioned transformation is best described as amazing experience for a middle school student. This validation and sense of belonging can be life altering.
On the other hand, those left out of or rejected from inclusion can suffer from despair, anger, and/or anxiety.
Helping Your Child Find Their Tribe
Parents always aspire to protect their children, but the truth is, middle school is middle school. Having noted that, encouraging your children to join clubs, sports teams, and other “us” pursuits is very helpful. Having your child engage in fellowship via church or related activities can also promote connectedness. There is evidence that humans have a primal need for “us” group inclusion but no evidence that the group must be large. Even one close friend can be enough. Of course, encourage your children to look for positive qualities in their friend candidates, and get to know your child’s friends and their families for yourself.
Middle school is a time of great change. This is the time for parents to begin allowing their child increasing levels of independence while keeping their eyes and ears open for signs of bullying and other negative peer influence. This is also the time to begin expecting increased responsibility in your child: setting his or her own alarm clock, learning to do laundry, and cooking basic foods like eggs, rice, and even boxed brownies.
If you find yourself concerned about negative changes in your child, please reach out to a child psychologist or child counselor. Your child need not be mentally ill to see a therapist. On the contrary, we see mentally healthy children and teens in our
practice all the time who just need a little help getting through one of the many adolescent challenges. Further, please try psychotherapy and psychoeducation before considering medication for your child’s struggles. Best wishes to all the middle schoolers out there struggling with their new challenges, as well as their worrying parents!