"Middle school is a training ground for building resiliency for later years. Teasing and bullying do happen and we can't entirely prevent this. Parents can help their girls by talking on a regular basis, allowing time for sorting out problems but most importantly allowing feelings to be heard. This can take time and patience on a parent's part. Having a strong family support system, one where all feelings are valid and listened to can make a world of difference in helping girls 'hold it together' during the day at school."
Meg White, M.A.
For many girls, middle school becomes a pressure cooker filled with power struggles, conflicting impulses, physical growth and strong emotions. At the same time, middle-school girls develop deep and close friendships, separating from their families and forming their own rewarding social universes.
"One of the best things you can do for your daughter is not to assume she or other girls are, by nature, over-dramatic, mean, or gossipy," says Lyn Mikel Brown. "Expectations matter -- ask any good educator. Avoid 'girls will be girls' or 'girls are so mean to each other' messages. Appreciate and support your daughter's best impulses, praise her when she takes risks, especially if they involve going against the social tide, support her individuality, and downplay concerns about what other people think. Encourage her to be friends with a wide spectrum of people (without forcing the issue), and always, always assume the best -- so will she."
Here's how one 15-year-old remembers middle school:
"In sixth grade I went to a new school. I was really eager to make new friends but keep my old ones. But in a matter of weeks, my former best friend was spreading rumors about me, having her friends pass me notes saying she hated me -- someone even wrote something mean in my locker. I didn't tell the teachers and I begged my parents not to say anything. Finally, after a few months we talked about it and figured it out. But it was pretty weird for a long time."
Middle school is challenging. Here are some ideas about middle-school ups and downs and what parents can do -- and not do -- to help.
There's a lot that's cool about middle school.
While much is written about mean girls, it's important for parents to realize how much fun this time can be socially for their daughters. "In sixth and seventh grades, girls get excited about becoming preteens and having their own world," says Catherine Steiner-Adair. "It's a time when they develop their own set of interests and begin to think about the world around them."
The nature of friendship changes in middle school.
At this stage, when girls get together what they mostly do is talk. They talk in person about music and clothes and boys -- and then they talk online. "Parents get frustrated because they don't get to hear their daughters talk the way they did when they were in elementary school," notes Michael Thompson. "But we need to find ways to connect with our children other than being part of their social lives."
The media set the tone for middle school.
Girls this age are thrilled that they are about to become teenagers. "There is a whole cultural pulse that taps into what they are thinking and feeling, and (like it or not) it's really irresistible," notes Steiner-Adair. Girls live their lives online, doing homework, watching TV, and talking to friends simultaneously. While they can use the Internet in wonderful ways, they can sometimes use it to flame and shame each other, spread vicious rumors, and post malicious information behind girls' backs. (To learn more about how girls' social lives, shopping habits, viewing habits, and online lives intertwine, read The Girl Net).
Hormones can affect behavior in middle school.
It's hard to be a girl at this age and stage. "Hormones make many girls feel edgy, crabby, cranky, and teary," notes Steiner-Adair. "Everyone's bodies are developing and changing at different rates and this often makes girls feel uncomfortable with their own." Raging hormones and interest in boys can also disrupt the existing social order. "When boys hit the scene it can be tough to sort out just how to interact in the same old way with girlfriends," adds Meg White. "By the time your daughter is 10 or 11, it's time to open a conversation about sex and boys, but I recommend parents back off from too much boy talk. When your daughter mentions a boy, don't immediately jump to the possible attraction between them. It might or might not be there."
The social hierarchy intensifies in middle school.
Cliques get clique-ier, the need to be in power intensifies, and girls can get meaner -- and much of this behavior stems from the intense desire to belong, the need to feel powerful, and the conditioning that many girls have to not express their feelings directly. Some girls function as leaders, others as followers, and the rest live outside the groups. Some of these girls don't care, while others desperately want to belong. But there is hope: "By eighth grade, in a certain sense, girls are done being mean to each other. They now are collectively ready to focus their attention towards sex -- even if they're not ready to fully act upon it," says Thompson.