This post: Here’s Why Middle School is So Hard for Most Kids
Written By: Jessica Speer
“What are some of the trickiest things about middle school?” I asked 7th-grade students while researching my book. Some scribbled their thoughts on slips of paper, while others gathered in small groups to talk about their feelings and come up with a response. All seemed eager to share their insight and stories.
After talking with countless pre-teens and teens about their personal experiences in middle school, I narrowed down four factors that play a key role in ramping up the complexity of the middle school social scene. Sadly, it turns out that the stereotypes portrayed in books and movies about middle school really aren’t that far off.
Here’s Why Middle School is So Hard for Most Kids
#1 Friendship Changes
When it comes to middle school friendships, instability is the norm. In one study, Dr. Janna Jovonen, a UCLA psychologist, followed 6,000 students from 26 schools and found that most friendships shift during middle school. In fact, more than two-thirds of friendships shift during the first year of middle school.
This shift occurs as middle school kids begin to explore their identity and seek out new friends who they feel reflect their changing sense of self and values. During that time, it’s not uncommon for long-time elementary school friendships to fade off as kids find new circles of friends to connect and hang with.
Phyllis Fagell, a school counselor and author of “Middle School Matters,” tells her students:
“Every single one of you is going to get rejected at some point, and it’s not because there’s something wrong with you. This is just a time when kids are figuring out how to choose—and be—a good friend.”
And that’s true for all genders – researchers have found little gender difference in friendship stability.
#2 The Popularity Scene
In elementary school, most kids aren’t overly focused on being “popular.” One study found that less than 10% of kids in 1st through 4th grade consider popularity more important than friendship. However, the percentage of kids with a goal to climb the popularity ladder more than doubles in middle school.
More than 25% of 5th through 8th graders consider popularity more important than friendships.
Of course, not all kids aim to be popular – some are perfectly content finding one or two ‘besties” they can hang out with. Still, all middle schoolers are learning the new social ropes, figuring out how to navigate more complex relationships, and trying to determine who they are outside their family. Regardless of where they fall in the hierarchy of popularity, peer status matters.
What complicates popularity in middle school even more is that there isn’t one type of “popularity.” In his book, Popular – The Power of Likability in a Status Obsessed World, Dr. Mitch Prinstein, defines the two types of popularity: “likability” and “status.”
“Likable” students tend to cooperate, share, ask questions, and listen well. They are the friendly, inclusive kids that others genuinely like to be around and associate with. Kids with “status” popularity, on the other hand, tend to be more socially or physically dominant and have more influence on the group. These students are admired but may also be feared.
“Status” popularity ramps up in middle school and peaks in early high school but slowly drops off as teens lose interest in peers with these tendencies.
#3 Dip in Confidence
It’s a documented fact that teens’ confidence takes a serious hit during puberty. While the dip in confidence affects both girls and boys, girls tend to experience a more significant drop in self-esteem than boys.
Claire Shipman, Katty Kay, and JillEllyn Riley, authors of The Confidence Code for Girls, found that girls’ confidence levels drop by as much as 30% between the ages of 8 and 14. The authors contribute much of this drop to newly formed habits such as overthinking, people-pleasing, and perfectionism.
Another contributing factor that impacts confidence in teens is social media and the comparison trap. Instagram, specifically, has been proven to be a silent self-esteem breaker, especially for young girls, along with Snapchat and TikTok.
Confidence plays a powerful role in teens’ lives. As a whole, kids who feel good about themselves have the confidence to try new things, accept their failures and cope with mistakes. A lack of confidence not only increases the likelihood of self-doubt, anxiety and the avoidance of risk, it also has a way of rippling through tender middle school relationships.
#4 Hormones = Big Emotions
The preteen and teen years are a turbulent time for hormones and emotions, too. In fact, right around the time our kids enter middle school, the massive changes happening within their brains and bodies amplify the intensity of their emotions.
According to psychologist Laurence Steinberg in Age of Opportunity, “The hormones released in puberty affect teens’ sensitivity thresholds – how reactive they are to things that happen to them and what they feel.” So, it all makes sense when a middle schooler is left off the invite list for a big party Friday night or they get into a small spat with a friend, to them, it can feel like the end of the world.
What You Can Do To Support Your Kid Through Middle School
According to one study, kids with parents who were supportive and communicative about navigating middle school, including helping their kids fine-tune their social skills, teaching them about what to look for in a friend, how to be a good friend, and how to interact positively with others, developed stronger peer relationships.
When parents validate their kids’ emotions, it can help them process hurt feelings and teach them healthy ways to cope with uncomfortable emotions and situations.
Parents can also share some of the trials and tribulations of their middle school years. Normalizing things like friendship changes, the desire to fit in and everyday struggles can assure kids that they’re not alone.
Lastly, parents can empower their kids to stand up for themselves against verbally aggressive kids (since meanness and bullying quite often spike in middle school as well) and teach them that it’s okay to walk away from unhealthy or toxic friendships and seek out friends who are more like-minded.
Summary – The Middle School Years are Just Plain Hard
There are several reasons why middle school is so hard for most kids… concerns about friendships and the desire to fit in and be popular are heightened during middle school – all of which take place when social instability is at an all-time high. But these years are also filled with important social and emotional learning and growth as kids begin to explore their identities, learn about friendship and how to navigate more complex social dynamics.
This made me wonder what 8th-grade students wished they’d known when they started middle school. I revisited classrooms to ask them. Here’s a snapshot of what they had to say:
- “I wish I’d been more open-minded, like being more open to new people, new activities, and all the other changes that come with a new school.”
- It’s okay for friendships to change. It’s okay to like somebody, and it’s okay to be yourself.”
- “When I started middle school, I was always nervous and worried. Now, when I look back, there was no reason to stress because everything worked out.”
As my book about middle schoolers is about to hit bookshelves, the biggest takeaway from my research is this:
Whatever happens in middle school does not define you or anyone else. We are all works-in-progress and learning as we go.
About Jessica Speer:
Jessica Speer is the award-winning author of BFF or NRF (Not Really Friends)? A Girls Guide to Happy Friendships and Middle School – Safety Goggles Advised (Releasing August 2022). Blending humor, a dash of science, and practical insights, her writing unpacks the tricky stuff that peaks during adolescence. She has a master’s degree in social sciences and explores social-emotional topics in ways that connect with kids. For more information, visit www.JessicaSpeer.com or follow on Instagram or Twitter.
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