Growing up these days is a whole lot more complicated than it was a generation ago. As a matter of fact, certain periods can be a living hell. And the deepest pit of the inferno of childhood is the crucible known as middle school. Although to a certain degree it has always been that way (generally speaking we’re talking about seventh grade for girls and eighth grade for boys), traversing this terrain nowadays is infinitely tougher. Perhaps this began to occur about the same time somebody decided for whatever reason to change its name from junior high. Who knows? But at any rate, each and every school day can be a stern challenge, both physically and emotionally.
Bullying is epidemic. The pecking order can change in a heartbeat. Your child may have a group of trusted friends one day and find him- or herself inexplicably ostracized the next. One moment your son might feel somewhat safe and secure, and the next he finds himself stuffed naked in a gym locker. Or your daughter may take her usual seat at lunch only to have her girlfriends standing up as a unit and moving to another table, and she won’t have a clue as to why.
Middle school is all about survival. It may seem that the only way to maintain one’s dignity is to locate someone somewhere who is even more troubled or different, and then to pick on him or her. And it becomes absolutely essential to find a clique to join, or else be picked off by the wolves. Sad but true, there is safety in numbers.
Basically, there are two sub-populations of status for middle schoolers, the haves and the have-nots. The former are the fortunate ones. They are the loud, physically mature, athletic, dominant boys who intimidate and abuse the lesser males, and already have had some initial dalliances with the prettiest, most desirable girls. On the other side of the aisle reside their acid-tongued, confident, attractive, trend-setting, and (relatively) acne-free female counterparts. These are The Happy Minority. However, even amongst those of the upper echelon—the chosen ones, if you will—life in middle school will have its tribulations. A constant re-shuffling of status is ongoing even at this exalted level, which can for them be every bit as painful.
The overwhelming majority of middle-schoolers are made up of The Others. They are the small, shy, awkward boys shuffling down hallways near the walls with heads down, avoiding eye contact at all costs, and their overweight or immature female counterparts with heavy braces, uncool clothes, skin problems, and weird glasses. These kids live in constant fear leading to physical symptoms such as stomach aches, palpitations, or sweaty palms. Embarrassment and rejection are everyday occurrences. Life can be pretty darned dismal, and sometimes they have to wonder if this is ever going to end.
However, all is not lost. The good news is that I have a theory about this age I have shared with hundreds (thousands?) of my patients over the past three decades who are suffering through the miseries of seventh grade. I call it:
THE PIVOT POINT
Herein lies the explanation. Seventh grade for the privileged few is a precious period in their lives, a magical time when they are endowed with a wondrous sense of superiority and entitlement. However, for most this turns out to be the absolute pinnacle of their existence. Simply put, life is never going to get any better. These are the days they will reflect back upon nostalgically as the era when they ruled the world, sort of like what happened with the dinosaurs.
But change is on the way. Other boys initially weaker and less physically mature are going to develop, and eventually the thirteen-year-old alpha male may find himself looking up instead of down. The star of the seventh grade football team might be measuring the same five foot ten upon graduation from high school, and the days when he was the running back no one could tackle lie in the distant past. A lot of those girls the popular ones had so much fun putting down in middle school were busy developing valuable artistic or academic abilities, or perhaps (gadzooks!) they may grow increasingly attractive with age and rival or surpass their rivals even in that regard. Sure, there will be a subset of the popular kids who adapt to the new rules of the game, but for many middle school will represent glory days which are destined never to return.
Some unexplainable and welcome transformation mysteriously occurs over the summer between eighth and ninth grade. With the beginning of high school all the previous priorities disappear and new ones emerge. Cliques dissolve, individual skills and talents become valued, and it becomes kind of cool to be different. The herd mentality essentially vanishes overnight.
Therefore, it may actually be in a child’s best interest for seventh grade to be the low point of their existence, because that means the rest of their life is going to go uphill from there. The suffering and humiliation being experienced will result in making them more compassionate and aware of the feelings of others. It is nearly impossible to imagine when one is going through it, but these hard times are building the noble traits of character, empathy, and understanding.
So downtrodden seventh grader, do not despair! The world is waiting, and better times lie ahead. When you are older, successful, and comfortable in your own skin, most likely you won’t even be able to remember much if any of the pain you are now suffering. Middle school, labor, and kidney stones are apparently similar in that regard. 🙂
And parents, be aware of what’s going on with your child. It’s a tough time for them, a whole lot harder than you could even imagine. That’s just how it is these days. So be understanding, and be patient. Develop a thick skin. Accept that there will be times when your son or daughter won’t want to be seen with you in public, and others where your unconditional love and support will be called upon simply to get them through another day. No matter what happens, make sure they always know you are proud of them. Don’t be blind to the daily stresses with which they are having to deal, but at the same time don’t over-react. Take the long view. It’s important for you, as much as for them, to realize that this stage, albeit brutal, is only temporary.
Believe in the Pivot Point. For those of you now suffering, take heart. It will get better. And the last laugh may very well be yours. Trust me, it is far preferable for this part of life to be the ebb rather than the peak.
Hang in there.
(And mothers and fathers of middle-schoolers, that advice applies to you, too!)