2 Middle School Brains Are Different – Middle School Makeover: Improving the Way You and Your Child Experience the Middle School Years

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Middle School Brains Are Different

Like many of you, my middle school–aged children have social media accounts. I know social media frightens some parents, but in general I support social media use among tweens and teens. I think it’s a great arena for creativity, community, and communication. But every yin must have its yang, and social media also offers opportunities for the tween brain to showcase its shortcomings.

Let’s dive right into the deep end, shall we?

Recently, I was scrolling through Instagram and I saw the most upsetting image I’ve seen in a long time. Picture this: two seventh-grade boys facing the camera and leaning up against a big rock outside school. Also facing the camera, but leaning up against the boys, were two seventh-grade girls. One of the girls was covering her face as though she were embarrassed. The other was looking down at the ground. Both boys were grinning ear to ear; both girls were not. The boys had their arms reaching around the girls from behind, and their hands cupping the girls’ breasts. The caption read, “Gettin’ sexual.” I did not know any of the kids in the picture, but I did know the boy who posted it, a mannerly—if girl-crazy—boy from our neighborhood pool.

The caption and the boys’ poses were both goofy and gross, but the upsetting part was the girls’ expressions. They seemed humiliated. In the same moment I wished that their parents both would and would not see the picture.

What is it that happens between the end of elementary school and the beginning of middle school that causes kids to suddenly behave with so little rational thought and so much … what’s the word I’m looking for? Oh yes, stupidity.

I don’t think the boys in that picture were being malicious. I think they had a flash of momentary idiocy that led to (1) mistreating those girls, (2) taking a picture of it, and (3) posting that picture to a public forum. Usually, kids don’t think these things through, and if they do, their response might by something like, “Big deal. Who’s gonna see it anyway?” So I offer this timely yet digressive reminder: I’m writing about my neighbor’s Instagram post in a book. You never know where your post will end up.

Remember the not-so-smart things you, or the kids you went to school with, did in middle school? I knew kids who “borrowed” their parents’ cars to go around the block, who spent more than “Seven Minutes” in a closet with someone they didn’t like, who cheated on tests, and who obsessively prank called innocent sleepers in the middle of the night. (Okay, that last one might have been me.) Naturally, parents want to blame someone or something when their kids go off the rails. We can’t, however, attribute what happens to kids in middle school solely to bad parenting, lack of after-school activities, too many after-school activities, bad genes, goofy peers, a media-obsessed culture, or the dark side of social media. Adolescent missteps, after all, transcend all social classes, family types, cultures, and other personal circumstances. They also transcend time. With each new generation, kids still take the same risks, proving again and again how biologically rooted this phenomenon is among tweens and teens.

As the novelist Douglas Coupland wrote, “Blame is just the lazy person’s way of making sense of chaos.” So rather than look for outside forces to blame for the crazy stuff kids start doing in middle school, we really just need to understand what’s happening inside their brains, the real driving force behind all their actions.

Do any of the following sound familiar?

Your kid:

  • Acts like a very bad lawyer, coming to a conclusion first, then trying to cram a bunch of absurd evidence together to support her theory
  • Begins to care a great deal what her peers are doing, wearing, saying, listening to, and watching
  • Decides that, across the board, you don’t know very much
  • Cries easily over small things
  • Accuses you of being mad, often
  • Does idiotic things when you know he knows better!
  • Withdraws from family time
  • Forgets things: homework, where he put his shoes, what you said, etc.

Congratulations. You’ve got a middle schooler. When compiled in list form, these behaviors sound hideous and would cause any parent to check his kid’s return policy. But when you understand what’s happening to the middle schooler’s brain, you can see the purpose behind the behaviors and perhaps even have some gratitude for this tricky time in your kid’s social development.

To begin, you’ll need a crash course in what’s happening inside your kid’s noggin.

Brain development is one of my favorite topics. The differences between adult and adolescent brains have been studied only since the early 1990s, so the research is still considered groundbreaking. It’s amazing what’s going on in the middle schooler’s mind.

YOUR MIDDLE SCHOOL–AGED TODDLER

Your kid’s brain is only about halfway developed during the middle school years. In fact, a girl’s brain reaches full biological maturity at age twenty-two, a boy’s brain at age twenty-eight. Do the math and you’ll see that girls reach their development half-life at age eleven and boys, not until age fourteen.1 At the start of middle school, major brain changes begin happening, and this can generate some wacky behavior in both genders. To ease the anxiety this can cause both parent and child, it helps if you can reframe the way you think about weird middle school behavior. When your kid started to toddle, it was scary at times, like when she would tumble onto concrete or bang her head on a corner, but … it was also exciting. You cheered her on through every tumble because that is how she learned to be bigger, stronger, and more self-reliant. You didn’t want to carry her on your hip forever.

With brain development, the tumbles aren’t as easy to spot, or as adorable. But, if you can adopt the same attitude toward learning to use an adult brain that you did toward learning to walk, it’s easier to have empathy and be supportive through this unsteady time. When your kid stumbles, as he inevitably must in order to learn to use his developing brain properly, it’s fine to correct him. Just try to also maintain sympathy for how weak his decision making, impulse control, and critical thinking skills are at this stage. Regardless of how smart, thoughtful, and respectful your child may be … the part of the brain responsible for these skills just isn’t fully developed yet. You wouldn’t yell at a toddler for having weak leg muscles and falling down. But you might restrict his access to dangerous steps. Wouldn’t it be nice if you could “tween-proof” your home with bumper pads on every sharp corner? But the kinds of tumbles your tween will take are more likely to bruise an ego (his or yours) than a leg.

Parenting through the middle school years is fraught with dichotomies, including this: you want your kid to learn from you and benefit from your hard-earned wisdom, while at the same time you want your child to become an independent and critical thinker. The key to balancing these desires is to become a good “assistant manager.”

BECOMING A GOOD ASSISTANT MANAGER

The front of the brain is called the prefrontal cortex and it’s the area of the brain responsible for such complex jobs as critical thinking, impulse control, and moderating social behavior. Pause for a moment and ask yourself, “Do I know anyone who isn’t particularly good at critical thinking, impulse control, and moderating social behavior?” Chances are, someone between the ages of ten and eighteen popped into your head. There are many adults, of course, who lack these skills. Those I know suffered from some developmental trauma that stunted their brain development during adolescence, and this part of their brain seems to have never fully developed.

The prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain that is responsible for high-level judgment and analysis. You might call the prefrontal cortex the manager of your brain. I have some potentially upsetting information to report. For the next seven to ten years, your kid’s manager is going on a big, fat lunch break. That part of her brain is under construction and will not be functioning at full capacity until her early twenties.

There’s good reason for that manager to be taking such a long break. I’ll cover why this happens in the next chapter, but for now, it’s important that you and your middle schooler both understand that the part of the brain used to make careful, thoughtful, and informed decisions isn’t working at its best right now. Explain to your child that the manager of her brain is on break and that she’s going to need an assistant manager to sub in for a while. Who’s that? I’ll give you a hint. That person is currently reading this book.

Because impulse control is not yet hardwired into your child’s changing brain, you must sometimes step in to slow down his thinking process. The secret to doing this is much like the secret to being a good leader in other aspects of your life. Take a moment and ask yourself, “Who are the best bosses I’ve worked for or seen in action?”

Did they:

  • Give you consistent feedback?
  • Set clear expectations?
  • Communicate clearly when you did something well?
  • Give you constructive criticism without becoming emotional?
  • Respect your personal life?
  • Encourage you to take risks to grow?
  • Provide you with opportunities to try new things?
  • Show a willingness to learn from you?
  • Have fun at work and enjoy their role?

As you begin to notice and reflect on the qualities of a good boss, begin applying those principles to your relationship with your middle schooler. In the same way, you can begin to identify the qualities of a bad boss and begin striking those from your parenting style. My personal bad boss pet peeve is being micromanaged.

DON’T BE A MICROMANAGER

Being micromanaged does not feel good. To be an effective assistant manager to your kid through adolescence, you need to teach him to think critically, not do it for him.

The prefrontal cortex may not be fully developed and your child’s brain manager may be on lunch break, but that doesn’t mean you need to step in with 100 percent of the decision making for your tween. It’s important that your child practice critical thinking and decision making a lot during the middle school years. If not, his developing brain will think these aren’t important skills and they won’t be hardwired into his brain. That’s a scary thought. By letting your child practice these skills, you actually help set them into your kid’s forming brain like handprints in concrete, so that they become hardened into place later in life. Miss this opportunity to put these skills into practice, and your child’s brain will have developed to maturity in his twenties without them.

If you have ever been micromanaged by a boss, partner, parent, or even a friend, I’ll bet it didn’t inspire you to perform your best or feel very proud of your accomplishments in that situation. Multiply that feeling exponentially to imagine how crushing micromanagement can feel in the brain of a tween trying to assert some much-needed independence in the world. Although your child needs you to help manage her decision making during the tween and teen years, like any good boss, you will get better results if you guide rather than control your child’s choices.

I was raised by a stepfather who applied orderly, logical systems to every aspect of his life. From methodically loading the dishwasher one way (and one way only) to organizing the kitchen junk drawer to perfection, he made sure his environment was consistent and controlled. He and my mom married when I was eight years old. The absolute predictability of his systems were a comfort initially as I rebounded from the chaos of my parents’ divorce, but once I hit middle school, I rebelled against rigidity. Being micromanaged while loading a dishwasher is no fun for anyone, but to me it felt like the cruel stifling of my individuality. Sure, that sounds a bit dramatic, but I was a thirteen-year-old girl, so, you know, par for the course.

This is what an after-meal scene might have looked like at our house:

ME: Puts plate in the dishwasher. Puts fork and knife in silverware basket. (A teenager doing chores? How could this not be great!)

HIM: Standing by the washer and watching me load my items. That’s not how it goes.

ME: What?

HIM: That’s not how it goes.

ME: In my head, “Who made you the boss of how it goes? Why does it have to be your way? Maybe there’s a better way.” And outside of my head, “What?”

HIM: Frustrated, “You have to scrape the plate and it goes in the front facing forward.”

ME: In my head, “Then face it forward. Why should I have to do it? You have hands.” And outside of my head, “Fine.”

For each additional dinner item, piece of silverware, cup, etc., he would stand there, hands on hips, watching me correct my mistakes until it was done correctly. The scene would end ten minutes later with me going to my room and shutting the door for the rest of the night.

The upside here, and it’s no small one, is that under my stepfather’s watchful and insistent eye, I became a very hard worker. I don’t give up when things get hard. I am persistent. I can work with people who require high standards of production. And if loading a dishwasher ever becomes an Olympic sport, I am sure to win a gold medal. All of these things I can attribute to my stepfather’s influence and, truly, for these things I am grateful.

You know there’s a “but” coming, right? But, despite some of the excellent outcomes of being micromanaged, it had its many drawbacks. I didn’t like inviting friends to my house for fear they would be micromanaged (mortifying). I took more risks as a teen outside of the house because I couldn’t take them at home. I lacked confidence.

It’s hard to weigh the positive outcomes of the lessons I learned on dishwasher duty against the negatives. As an adult, I know that they aren’t mutually exclusive. There are ways to teach necessary life skills and to set high standards while still encouraging creativity and individuality. Ask me today and I’ll tell you unequivocally that the forks go in the dishwasher basket with the tines facing up. (Heck, don’t ask me and I may tell you anyway. Sorry about that.) But if my kids load the dishwasher, run it, and then unload it when it’s done, and I’m not standing over them micromanaging, I never have to know which way the tines faced. They get both the valuable life lessons that come from being self-sufficient and the satisfaction of having independently contributed to the family, and I get to watch Project Runway in the other room.

Anticipating the counterpoint that loading a dishwasher is one thing, but being strict about things like curfew, social media use, and homework are entirely another, I offer this: you should absolutely set limits on middle schoolers. Make them go to bed at a reasonable hour, make them do chores, and make them spend time with your family. Set your hard limits but pick your battles wisely. Like a good boss would, set clear expectations on defining success for your most important items, and for the rest, take a deep breath and look the other way.

Since you’re now in the business of being an assistant manager rather than a micromanager, one of your key job functions is to help your child slow down her thinking process. This helps your child develop critical thinking and impulse control. A great way to slow down thinking is to help your child explore her options by asking nonjudgmental questions. I know that might sound like a soft approach, but it has terrific emotional and developmental advantages.

Imagine a scenario in which your son declares that he is quitting the basketball team because the coach is a total jerk. You know your son is overreacting because his “manager” is off duty and therefore his critical thinking, impulse control, and social behavior are not working properly. These are the very reasons you can’t convince him to think about this situation differently. What you can do is ask him the kinds of questions that lead him to his own, better solution. For example:

  • Is there anything about being on the team you would miss?
  • How do the other kids react when the coach is being a jerk?
  • What would you do differently if you were the coach?
  • How do you think your teammates will react if you quit?

These questions stop the anger roll and get your son thinking about the situation, instead of reacting impulsively.

Parents: Keep a neutral facial expression (no scrunched foreheads) when listening or talking to your middle schooler. This is important because your kid won’t talk if he feels he’s being judged. I call this having “Botox Brow,” and it works wonders in keeping lines of communication open.

If you respond in any of the following ways, however, your son will likely shut down communication and stop talking:

  • Quit?! Your teammates need you. You can’t let them down!
  • Oh, but you’re a great basketball player! Don’t quit. I love watching you play.
  • He may not be the best, but he’s your coach. In the real world, we all have to deal with irritating personalities.
  • You’re overreacting. Last week you had a great game. Just give it time and you’ll get over it.

These responses don’t help with your goal to slow down your son’s thinking process or cause him to think more critically about the situation. They just complicate his world by adding in new elements (letting teammates down, letting you down, implying this affects his future, dismissing his feelings). He’s likely to feel burdened and go “radio silent” rather than opening up and thinking through the problem more rationally.

Surprisingly, my stepfather was also a master at this type of questioning. I remember when my two best friends from middle school kicked me out of our social circle. I was devastated and he found me crying one day in our basement rec room. With his usual Spock-like logic, he began asking questions about my situation with no judgment or emotion detectable.

  • Are you crying because you really want to be friends with them or are you sad that this happened?
  • Do you respect them? If yes, take their criticism as helpful. If not, forget what they say.
  • If you saw someone else in your situation, what would you say to her?

He didn’t tell me they were terrible people. Had he, I would have defended them! He didn’t tell me I should get over it because they aren’t worth it. Had he, I would have cried harder because I didn’t know how to get over them. What worked was that he slowed me down enough to begin thinking critically about the situation instead of emotionally, without pushing his opinions on me.

PRACTICE MAKES PERFECT

It’s a cliché that when someone says something awful to you, two days later you’ll come up with the perfect response. It’s hard for most of us to immediately think of the right response to a strange social situation, but it’s even harder for middle schoolers. When a friend criticizes them, or a popular girl asks to copy their homework, or a cute boy makes fun of their outfit, usually what comes next is a highly emotional response. Some kids cry easily, others comply quickly, others come out swinging, and others shut down completely. The best way to help your kid with these kinds of situations is to practice how to respond ahead of time.

Practicing responses to tough situations looks a little like role playing, but I’m reluctant to call it that because I don’t imagine most kids being willing to act out awkward hallway moments with their parents. Think of it more as starting with those open-ended questions highlighted in the previous section and, as your child opens up, asking him to say out loud what his response would be.

There’s more than one benefit to practicing these situations with your kids. For starters, it’s the only way they won’t be caught totally off guard while their “manager” is on break. For another, it’s the best way to build critical thinking and problem-solving skills into their long-term brain function. At about the time your child goes to middle school, his temporal lobe, which is like a filing cabinet holding all the important learning he has accumulated through the years, begins to make room for all the new things he’ll learn next.

Twice in our lives, the temporal lobe purges information it deems unnecessary so it can make room for new information, roughly at ages two and eleven.

How does the brain decide what information it will clean out to make room for new knowledge? Quite simply. What is used the least, must go first. If your child stops practicing a certain skill, her brain will decide that skill can be flushed out to make room for something else.

This is significant to your parenting for two reasons:

  1. If it is important to you or your kid to carry a skill into adulthood, don’t let her quit before age eleven. I’m not saying don’t quit anything. Just evaluate what is most important (maybe playing an instrument or speaking a second language) and stick with it until age thirteen. From there, you can stop for a while and come back to it later without that knowledge being purged.
  2. New skills being learned in adolescence will only be safely stored in your child’s brain with heavy repetition and practice. This becomes very important to helping your child solve social problems. It’s not enough to say, “Tomorrow, try standing up for yourself if you’re teased on the bus.” You need to practice with your child what to say, how to stand, and where to look, so your child will be able to do it on the spot. The more you practice, the more proficient your child will become.

HOW TO PRACTICE WITH YOUR KID

I run a summer camp for middle school girls called Athena’s Path and one for boys called Hero’s Pursuit. It’s a weeklong program filled with games, activities, and lessons that help kids survive and thrive in the middle school social landscape. Thousands of kids go through the program, and the lesson that always hits home hardest is “Responding to Criticism,” in which campers brainstorm positive ways to respond to destructive criticism. First, each camper writes the worst thing someone could say to or about her on an index card. Then, she develops her own positive response and practices the response in front of the group.

Ten years ago, in the first ever Athena’s Path camp, a sweet girl named Laura* who was heading into sixth grade wrote on her card, “You’re weird and no one likes you.” She bravely chose to use humor as her response should her hypothetical situation ever come true, and she practiced with the other campers. The first time she practiced, someone read Laura what she had written on her card and she didn’t respond well. Her instinct was to insult the other person, so her reply came out something like, “Well, at least I have a life, unlike you.” But her camp leader got her to try again, and again, until her response showed confidence without being so edgy that it would engage the other person in a fight. Laura landed on a humorous, “That’s okay. Weird is working for me. Plus, it’s all I have right now!”

According to her mom, neither Laura nor her mom really believed this exercise would be useful. Laura was a happy girl, a year-round athlete with a fun and supportive family, and she had plenty of success in elementary school. Once sixth grade began she was eager to start riding the bus to school. About a week into the school year, an eighth-grade girl stopped by her seat on her way to the back of the bus. Looking straight at Laura but talking loudly for the benefit of the whole bus, she asked, “What’s the matter with your hair?”

Laura remembered practicing for this at camp. She smiled back and said, “I don’t know but it’s all I’ve got!” She passed the test, and the eighth grader kept moving to her seat without further incident. That afternoon, when Laura got off the bus, she saw her mom and burst into tears. According to her mom, Laura was stressed out for a few minutes, but pretty quickly calmed down and told her that she handled the problem herself with what she learned at camp. In this way, three great things came from Laura’s experience.

  1. She avoided an impulsive, emotional response that would have escalated the conflict.
  2. By practicing her critical thinking and problem-solving skills, she helped cement them into her temporal lobe.
  3. She increased her confidence in handling problems on her own and didn’t become a victim.

Some parents confuse a planned, calm response with rolling over. They think a kid needs a tough attitude or a fighting comeback to win in these scenarios. In fact, this is far from the truth. Matching the attitude of the instigator only escalates conflict. What works is exuding confidence while appearing calm and unphased by the comments. After all, this is a true display of strength.

The obvious hang-up is that no middle schooler is naturally calm and unphased when being teased. This is why practice is essential. Explain all of this to your child. Ask her to come up with five different things she could say to a mean comment without escalating the situation toward a fight. Then, tell her to practice. Say, “Pretend I’m a kid on the bus and I say, ‘Shut up. You’re a loser.’ What do you say back to me?” Don’t pretend to be a middle schooler, overact, or make a big deal of it. If you stay emotionally neutral, she’ll have more respect for the exercise because it won’t feel “dorky.”

The final key to teaching this to your child is not just covering what to say to an insult, but how to end a confrontation. Suggest closing statements like, “That’s all” or “We have different opinions on this” (said casually, and even with a smile), and tell her to turn away or start walking. If she keeps standing there, the other person will continue to escalate the conflict.

EMPATHY: YOUR MIDDLE SCHOOLER’S SUPERPOWER

While it may be hard to see the positive side of living with someone whose managerial brain function is off duty, if you squint and look really hard you may be able to make out a rewarding upside after all.

During the tween and teen years, other parts of the brain have to step up and take a lead role while the prefrontal cortex is doing its job of getting stronger. Thus, the central part of the brain, the amygdala, takes the lead for our teens. It may come as no surprise that the amygdala is the emotional center of the brain.

On the downside, middle schoolers react with disproportionate emotion to seemingly small situations. On the upside, middle schoolers react with disproportionate emotion to social injustice. Have you ever met anyone more righteous or determined than a seventh grader who senses something is unfair?

One of the nicest things about the amygdala is that it houses empathy. Did you read a book in or around seventh grade that made you cry uncontrollably? For me, it was The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. And The Outsiders. And about twenty others. There is something magical about the middle school years, when you believe wholeheartedly in the power of change and your ability to make a difference in the world. It’s easy and understandable to be annoyed by the deluge of emotions in middle school. Let’s also celebrate that this flood brings forth waves of empathy, which set your kid up to be a more compassionate and helpful member of society.

Your middle schooler’s lack of judgment, and impulse control, and critical thinking, along with an overflow of emotions, will make for a bumpy ride sometimes. Try to enjoy the adventure and spontaneity of it all. I promise it doesn’t last long.

Now that you have a basic understanding of how brain functions work and don’t work during the middle school years, let’s take a look at why that manager has to go on break anyway, and why for so long.