BFFs Forever? Understanding Middle School Friendships

two girl friends fighting

The author of the new book The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed offers her take on tween friendships.

 By Jessica Lahey

Middle school is challenging for so many reasons—academics become more difficult, schedules fill up with activities, and, in what might be the most treacherous terrain for kids and parents alike, friendships change.

The peers your tween son or daughter cling to as they enter the middle school building for the first time may look a lot different from the ones they race out with on the other side, and that’s to be expected. Friendships change over time, not just because our children evolve, but because the very nature of friendship evolves with them.

All too often, the shifting sands of tween friendship result in broken hearts.

Early in childhood, our children’s friendships arise out of proximity and habit. We toss our kids into the sandbox with our friends’ kids, and this arrangement works for everyone. As kids get older, however, they begin to build emotional connections with friends based on compatibility. Their shared interests, dreams, and goals begin to edge out mere convenience. When they become tweens, friendships become much more complex, and for good reason. Tweens use friendships as a way to try on an identity. Old friends offer sameness and comfort, but the pull of novel ideas of other kids begins to lure them in new directions. Tweens begin to build friendships based on these new priorities. While some priorities, such as social status or fashion choices, may not make much sense to parents, they are just as important to our children’s growth as shared history or values.

All too often, the shifting sands of tween friendship result in broken hearts. Tweens feel dumped, shunned, abandoned, and betrayed as friends move back and forth between comfortable old relationships and exciting new alliances. As any parent knows, our own personal heartache hurts, but the secondhand heartbreak we experience through our children is much more painful, mainly because it’s out of our control. The urge to intervene, to save and heal, is powerful, and while meddling around in tween social machinations may make us feel better, we must stay out of it.

“The urge to intervene, to save and heal, is powerful, and while meddling around in tween social machinations may make us feel better, we must stay out of it.”

Our children’s middle school friendships are not about us any more than their choice of what to wear to the middle school dance is about us. The tween years are for trying on fifteen different outfits—the blue shirt with the tan pants, the red skirt with the white top—to see what works best for a changing body, mind, and spirit on a given day.

Tweens move from relationship to relationship, adopting this detail of a friend’s personality, discarding that characteristic of another, until they have collected the essential elements of their identity. Some relationships will survive this process, and some will not, but every one is an important phase of the journey. We may not love every outfit our tweens try on, but it’s our job to be there when they emerge from the dressing room, when they do a little twirl and wait for us to tell them how grown up they have become.

jess_laheyJessica Lahey is a frequent contributor to The New York Times and The Atlantic and author of The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed. Find out more at

3 Places Families Should Make Phone-Free

Take back family time and set an example for your kids by creating tech-free zones in the most important areas of your life. By Caroline Knorr
3 Places Families Should Make Phone-Free

You’re sitting down to dinner and — buzz, buzz! — your phone starts vibrating. You’re driving your kid to practice and — beep, beep! — a call comes in. You’re tucking your kid into bed and — squawk, squawk! — an app begs to be played. It never fails: Technology interrupts our most treasured family moments.

Sure, our devices keep us connected, informed, and engaged. But meals, bedtimes, and even time in the car are the three times when we need to just say no. Kids are beginning to complain about the amount of time parents spend on their phones. And if we don’t draw the line on our own phone use, who will? Creating no-phone zones is key to taking back important family time. It also sets an important example for our kids. Here’s how to carve out three important tech-free areas — and why.

The dinner table. Everything from better grades to a healthier lifestyle have been credited to eating together as a family. Phones at the table can block those benefits. Author Sherry Turkle says that even the presence of a phone on the table makes people feel less connected to each other. The solution? Have a Device Free Dinner. Once the food is ready, ask everyone to turn off their phones, silence them, or set them to “do not disturb.” And if you’re tired of getting no response when you ask how your kids’ day was, start talking about something funny you saw on your phone, and they’ll soon chime in with their own stories.

The bedroom. There’s scientific proof that the blue light emitted from cell phones disrupts sleep. Poor sleep can affect school performance, weight, and well-being. Also, if kids are texting with friends until the wee hours, they’re more likely to say or post something they’ll regret in the light of day. Set a specific time before bed for kids to hand over their phones, and charge them in your room overnight.

The car. We’re not even talking about texting and driving, because you would never, ever do that, right? Right? Phones in the car also interfere with those conversations you tend to have with your kids when you’re driving them around. Maybe it’s because you’re not face to face, or maybe the open road makes kids open up. So store your phones in the glove compartment until your arrival. Sometimes the car is the place where the deep talks take place. And no one wants to interfere with that.

Raising Black Girls

Raising Black Girls is an honest dialogue about some of the tough realities and complex issues that Black children may experience and how their parents can guide, support and prepare them for a society that is far from color blind.

Join us for a moderated panel of African American women. Our panelists come from varied backgrounds. Some were transracially placed as young children. All are distinguished professionals in their respective fields.

They will reflect back to their childhood as well as their current role as mothers of Black girls. They will share openly and honestly about the types of discussions that are taking place in their own homes, as well as the everyday fears they have about their daughters’ safety and how they are raising them to become strong Black women.

We will pose to the panelists the concerns we have heard from adoptive families who are raising Black girls. Concerns such as:

1. Low self-esteem around hair and body images.

2. Addressing stereotypes of Black girls as disruptive, defiant and sassy.

3. How to raise strong, confident Black women.


Emotional Regulation for Kids With ADHD


Six brain-based strategies to help kids with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder build confidence, engagement, and focus.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately 11 percent of children—that’s 6.4 million kids—in the United States ages 4–17 were reported by parents to have a diagnosis of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder as of 2011. Dr. Russell Barkley, clinical professor of psychiatry at the Medical University of South Carolina and an expert on ADHD, says that this disorder is primarily about emotional regulation and self-control and is not just about inattention, impulsivity, and hyperactivity. Emotional regulation, which is foundational to social, emotional, and academic success, is underdeveloped in these young people. Barkley emphasizes that ADHD arises from neurogenetic roots and is not a knowledge or intelligence disorder.

This year, I am working with the Indianapolis Public Schools and co-teaching in a fifth- and sixth-grade classroom. In class, I have students who are significantly challenged in terms of paying attention, focusing, and regulating their emotions. Each day I see how they struggle emotionally, socially, and academically, and observe how they can begin to wither away in deep feelings of self-doubt and uncertainty if they don’t have a sense of purpose and connection. Below are a few brain-aligned strategies that we’re implementing in the district. I have found that these strategies, which focus on the strengths and interests of these struggling students, can have a profoundly positive impact.

1. Whole Class Discussions: It’s very unsettling when students see another student struggle and do not understand why that student is struggling. At the beginning of the year or grading period—or simply when behaviors and learning as a class go awry—we have the opportunity to address the challenges and strengths of various learning and emotional disorders with the entire class. Invisible disabilities are often met with fear and anger from other students because of the unknown or a simple misunderstanding of their classmates’ emotional, social, or academic challenges. Just as some of us need glasses to see clearly or take insulin to regulate blood glucose levels, others need an oxygenated supply of movement, brain intervals, or space and time to regulate after a 10- to 20-minute instructional lesson. Holding class discussions about the neurodiversity of human brains helps all students to understand each other.

2. It Takes a Village: Bringing in adult community members who have experienced ADHD, anxiety, or other attentional challenges is a wonderful way for students to feel connected and hopeful about their future and plans for success. When I invited young adults who have been challenged with these disorders into our classroom, they shared their personal and professional journeys, which deepened the sense of community, understanding, and acceptance of all learning styles and challenges. A motto that needs to be embraced is: “Everyone gets what they need.”

3. I Noticed: Homemade “I Noticed” sheets are great tools for reinforcing all that is going well moment by moment even when you’ve had moments of adversity. Students who struggle with attention and focus need this constant feedback throughout the day to help them track how they are learning and to know that the teacher is present and aware. All students love homemade sheets—they show that the teacher has taken time and effort to help them feel and be successful.

4. Brain Stories: Children and adolescents who struggle to pay attention sometimes don’t feel accepted or successful in school. Yet, beneath many of the challenges of neurodiversity are facets of your students that are not always shared during content instruction—personal stories that highlight these students’ strengths, gifts, and feelings.

Psychiatrist Dan Seigel says, “What is shareable is bearable, and what you can name, you can tame.” A great way to recognize these students is to have them share “brain stories”—personal experiences, strengths, interests, and feelings. You can further engage them by giving them a choice as to whether they want to create their stories in narrative or picture form. Younger students may begin to showcase their lives through pictures and artwork; older students may want to add sections, revise current categories, and change the format as they see their life journeys unfolding. Brain stories can be created throughout the semester or academic year and posted on a weekly or monthly timeline.

Much like an Individualized Education Program, the brain story will accompany each student throughout his or her school years, though you can invite students to modify, rework, and share their stories over time.

5. Homework for the Teacher: One of the best brain-aligned strategies I have implemented with all ages is doing homework for them on the weekend. Each Friday, I select a couple of students who are in need of affirmation and who have struggled to meet a few of their goals. I usually know their interests and likes, and so I ask, “I have some time this weekend and would love to learn for you! What would you like for me to research this weekend? What would you like to know more about? I will bring my work to you on Monday!” The excitement, the feelings of connection are palpable, and each time, I see more effort from these students than I did the weeks prior to this invitation.

6. Chunking: Chunking or condensing assignments and instructional time with frequent feedback is an excellent way to build on small successes. Students diagnosed with attention challenges may require a smaller list of tasks to complete within a structured, shorter period of time. As an example, I’m working with a second-grade student diagnosed with ADHD and anxiety who was literally throwing tantrums and disrupting the class several times a day when he began feeling frustrated, overwhelmed, and unsuccessful. We have now chunked his assignments and written those on colored sticky notes. When he arrives in the morning, he has two assignments to complete that are clear and easy to accomplish. When he completes those two assignments, he is given a brain break for a few minutes and then moves on to the next task. We have seen amazing improvement with his ability to pay attention and to remain focused and inspired with these shortened assignments and tasks. We will continue to  build and lengthen these assignments over a period of time with the renewal of time spent on something he loves and enjoys.

Brain Intervals

Brain intervals have two purposes. They provide novelty and and increase interest when implemented after a student has worked on an assignment for a period of time. A young person’s attention span is limited, and following a period of direct instruction and independent work, students with ADHD need to step away with a brain interval that is interesting and engaging. Here are some ideas to support brain intervals:

  • Reading a favorite book/comic
  • Drawing or designing art for the classroom or main office
  • Computer time and/or watching motivational videos
  • Playing a brain-aligned video program such as Brain Pop

My Daughter Is Not Transgender. She’s a Tomboy.


CreditRicardo Funari/Brazil Photos/LightRocket, via Getty Images

“I just wanted to check,” the teacher said. “Your child wants to be called a boy, right? Or is she a boy that wants to be called a girl? Which is it again?”

I cocked my head. I am used to correcting strangers, who mistake my 7-year-old daughter for a boy 100 percent of the time.

In fact, I love correcting them, making them reconsider their perceptions of what a girl looks like. But my daughter had been attending the after-school program where this woman taught for six months.

“She’s a girl,” I said. The woman looked unconvinced. “Really. She’s a girl, and you can refer to her as a girl.”

Later, when I relayed this conversation to my daughter, she said, “More girls should look like this so it’s more popular so grown-ups won’t be so confused.”

My daughter wears track pants and T-shirts. She has shaggy short hair (the look she requested from the hairdresser was “Luke Skywalker in Episode IV”). Most, but not all, of her friends are boys. She is sporty and strong, incredibly sweet, and a girl.

And yet she is asked by the pediatrician, by her teachers, by people who have known her for many years, if she feels like, or wants to be called, or wants to be, a boy.

In many ways, this is wonderful: It shows a much-needed sensitivity to gender nonconformity and transgender issues. It is considerate of adults to ask her — in the beginning.

But when they continue to question her gender identity — and are skeptical of her response — the message they send is that a girl cannot look and act like her and still be a girl.

She is not gender nonconforming. She is gender role nonconforming. She does not fit into the mold that we adults — who have increasingly eschewed millenniums-old gender roles ourselves, as women work outside the home and men participate in the domestic sphere — still impose upon our children.

Left alone, would boys really never wear pink? (That’s rhetorical — pink was for decades considered a masculine color.) Would girls naturally reject Matchbox cars? Of course not, but if they show preferences for these things, we label them. Somehow, as we have broadened our awareness of and support for gender nonconformity, we’ve narrowed what we think a boy or a girl can look like and do.

Let’s be clear: If my daughter does begin to feel that the gender in her mind and the sex of her body don’t match, I will be supportive. I will research puberty blockers and hormones (more than I already have). I will listen to her and make decisions accordingly, just as I did when she turned 3 and asked for a tie and a button-down shirt. Then she saw her father wear a blazer (for once). Her eyes rounded and she said, “What is that?” as if she were seeing a double rainbow spread across the sky.

She was in love with a look. That look evolved — sadly she moved from Patti Smith’s tie and blazer to the Dude’s stained T-shirt and sweatpants. But it has always just been a look, even if it came with a rejection of princesses (which also delighted me) and a willingness to play family with both boys and girls as long as she could be the dog or the police officer.

I want trans kids to feel free and safe enough to be who they are. I also want adults to have a fluid enough idea of gender roles that a 7-year-old girl can dress like “a boy” and not be asked — by people who know her, not strangers — whether she is one.

The message I want to send my daughter is this: You are an awesome girl for not giving in to pressure to be and look a certain way. I want her to be proud to be a girl.

And she is starting to be. She is already vigilant about women’s rights. She does not understand why there are separate men’s and women’s sports teams, why women earn less and why they don’t run our country. She identifies as a tomboy, because that’s what some kids at school told her she was, though she has also said, “Why is it a tomboy?” When kids say she’s in the wrong bathroom, she tells them, “I’m a girl,” and invariably they say, “Oh, O.K.”

The kids get it. But the grown-ups do not. While celebrating the diversity of sexual and gender identities, we also need to celebrate tomboys and other girls who fall outside the narrow confines of gender roles. Don’t tell them that they’re not girls.

My daughter is happy with her body and comfortable with the way she looks, thousands of times happier and more comfortable than I am or ever have been. She is my hero. Or rather, my heroine.

Will Technology Make My Kid Fat, Dumb, and Mean?

Debunking the most common media myths and truths with real research and practical advice. By Sierra Filucci
Will Technology Make My Kid Fat, Dumb, and Mean?

Parents have a lot of responsibility. Mainly, keep the kid alive. Next, try to raise a decent human being. And the messages about media and tech start almost from the moment they’re born: TV will rot your kid’s brain! Video games are evil! Kids don’t know how to have conversations anymore! It all boils down to the idea that too much media and tech will ruin your kid — or make them fat, dumb, and mean. But obviously that’s an oversimplification. The truth is more complicated — and a lot less scary.

Here we break down the scariest media and tech rumors and give you some solid research and simple, no-stress advice.

Rumor: TV rots kids’ brains.
Research says
: No credible research exists that says screens cause any sort of damage to the brain. It’s pretty clear, though, that having a TV on in the background isn’t good for little kids. It’s been shown to reduce the amount of time kids play and the quality of that play. It also seems to be related to less parent-child talk and interaction, which can have a negative impact on kids’ language development. Television in the bedroom is also a no-no; research shows it affects the quality and amount of sleep kids get, which can affect learning, among other things.

Advice: Turn off the TV unless you’re actively watching it. And keep it out of sleeping areas. Play music — perhaps wordless — if you want some background noise. And set aside time each day, if possible, to actively play with little kids.

Rumor: Watching TV or playing video games makes kids fat.
Research says
: Some research suggests a connection between watching TV and an increased body mass index. But the numbers seem to point to this being a result of kids being exposed to food advertising, not necessarily being couch potatoes.

Advice: Avoid commercials by using a DVR or choosing videos without ads. Also, teach kids to recognize advertisers’ tricks and marketing techniques, so when they see ads, they can evaluate them critically. Make sure kids get exercise every day, either at school or home. If kids can’t spend time outdoors, find ways to be physically active indoors (create obstacle courses; do kid “boot camps”) and choose active video games or find fun exercise apps or TV shows to enjoy together or for kids to enjoy on their own.

Rumor: Cell phone radiation causes cancer.
Research says
: Lots of studies have been done, and the results are inconclusive. The research community is still investigating, but there is still no indication that cell phones cause cancer in humans.

Advice: Kids don’t talk on their phones very much — they’re more likely to text or use apps — so even if there were a credible connection between the radio waves emitted from phones and damage to the brain, most kids would be at little risk. If you want to be extra cautious, make sure they aren’t sleeping with their phones under their pillows (not a good idea anyway!).

Rumor: Kids use the internet/their phones too much — they’re addicted!
Research says
: While plenty of research has been done to try to figure this out, the results are still pretty inconclusive, especially for kids. Certainly, studies show that kids feel addicted, but whether many are experiencing the symptoms of true addiction — interference with daily life, needing more to achieve the same feeling — is still up for debate. Also, no one has defined what “too much” time is.

Advice: Build as much balance into kids’ days and weeks as possible. That means aiming for a mix of screen and non-screen time that includes time with family and friends, reading, exercising, chores, outdoor play, and creative time. If kids seem to be suffering in some area — at school, with friends, with behavior at home — take a look at her daily and weekly activities and adjust accordingly.

Rumor: Violent video games make kids violent.
Research says
: Heavy exposure to violent media can be a risk factor for violent behavior, according to some — but not all — studies. Children who are exposed to multiple risk factors — including substance abuse, aggression, and conflict at home — and who consume violent media are more likely to behave aggressively.

Advice: Avoid games that are age-inappropriate, especially ones that combine violence with sex. Make media choices that reflect your family’s values; that can mean choosing nonviolent games, limiting the amount of time kids can play certain games, or playing along with kids to help guide them through iffy stuff. Also, as much as possible, limit other risk factors of aggression in kids’ lives.

Rumor: Kids don’t know how to have face-to-face conversations anymore.
Research says
: Studies on this topic haven’t focused on kids yet, but that data is surely on the horizon. What we know says that many older adults think devices harm conversations, but younger adults aren’t as bothered. A couple studies have also found that the absence of devices (at summer camps or during one-on-one conversations) can inspire emotional awareness. What that means about the ability to have a conversation is unclear.

Advice: Make sure kids get experience having face-to-face conversations with family members, friends, and others, such as teachers, coaches, or clergy. Teach kids proper etiquette, including not staring at a phone while someone else is talking. Model the behavior you want to see. But also accept that digital communication is here to stay. Embrace it and use it with your kid. And don’t criticize kids for using it appropriately, even if it’s not your preferred method of communication.

About Sierra Filucci

Sierra has been writing and editing professionally for more than a decade, with a special interest in women’s and family subjects. She has a master’s degree in journalism from the University of California at Berkeley…. Read mor

Check This Box if You’re a Good Person


CreditJenice Kim/Rhode Island School of Design

HANOVER, N.H. — When I give college information sessions at high schools, I’m used to being swarmed by students. Usually, as soon as my lecture ends, they run up to hand me their résumés, fighting for my attention so that they can tell me about their internships or summer science programs.

But last spring, after I spoke at a New Jersey public school, I ran into an entirely different kind of student.

When the bell rang, I stuffed my leftover pamphlets into a bag and began to navigate the human tsunami that is a high school hallway at lunchtime.

Just before I reached the parking lot, someone tapped me on the shoulder.

“Excuse me, ma’am,” a student said, smiling through a set of braces. “You dropped a granola bar on the floor in the cafeteria. I chased you down since I thought you’d want your snack.” Before I could even thank him, he handed me the bar and dissolved into the sea of teenagers.

Working in undergraduate admissions at Dartmouth College has introduced me to many talented young people. I used to be the director of international admissions and am now working part time after having a baby. Every year I’d read over 2,000 college applications from students all over the world. The applicants are always intellectually curious and talented. They climb mountains, head extracurricular clubs and develop new technologies. They’re the next generation’s leaders. Their accomplishments stack up quickly.

The problem is that in a deluge of promising candidates, many remarkable students become indistinguishable from one another, at least on paper. It is incredibly difficult to choose whom to admit. Yet in the chaos of SAT scores, extracurriculars and recommendations, one quality is always irresistible in a candidate: kindness. It’s a trait that would be hard to pinpoint on applications even if colleges asked the right questions. Every so often, though, it can’t help shining through.

The most surprising indication of kindness I’ve ever come across in my admissions career came from a student who went to a large public school in New England. He was clearly bright, as evidenced by his class rank and teachers’ praise. He had a supportive recommendation from his college counselor and an impressive list of extracurriculars. Even with these qualifications, he might not have stood out. But one letter of recommendation caught my eye. It was from a school custodian.

Letters of recommendation are typically superfluous, written by people who the applicant thinks will impress a school. We regularly receive letters from former presidents, celebrities, trustee relatives and Olympic athletes. But they generally fail to provide us with another angle on who the student is, or could be as a member of our community.

This letter was different.

The custodian wrote that he was compelled to support this student’s candidacy because of his thoughtfulness. This young man was the only person in the school who knew the names of every member of the janitorial staff. He turned off lights in empty rooms, consistently thanked the hallway monitor each morning and tidied up after his peers even if nobody was watching. This student, the custodian wrote, had a refreshing respect for every person at the school, regardless of position, popularity or clout.

Over 15 years and 30,000 applications in my admissions career, I had never seen a recommendation from a school custodian. It gave us a window onto a student’s life in the moments when nothing “counted.” That student was admitted by unanimous vote of the admissions committee.

There are so many talented applicants and precious few spots. We know how painful this must be for students. As someone who was rejected by the school where I ended up as a director of admissions, I know firsthand how devastating the words “we regret to inform you” can be.

Until admissions committees figure out a way to effectively recognize the genuine but intangible personal qualities of applicants, we must rely on little things to make the difference. Sometimes an inappropriate email address is more telling than a personal essay. The way a student acts toward his parents on a campus tour can mean as much as a standardized test score. And, as I learned from that custodian, a sincere character evaluation from someone unexpected will mean more to us than any boilerplate recommendation from a former president or famous golfer.

Next year there might be a flood of custodian recommendations thanks to this essay. But if it means students will start paying as much attention to the people who clean their classrooms as they do to their principals and teachers, I’m happy to help start that trend.

Colleges should foster the growth of individuals who show promise not just in leadership and academics, but also in generosity of spirit. Since becoming a mom, I’ve also been looking at applications differently. I can’t help anticipating my son’s own dive into the college admissions frenzy 17 years from now.

Whether or not he even decides to go to college when the time is right, I want him to resemble a person thoughtful enough to return a granola bar, and gracious enough to respect every person in his community.

Be Nice — You Won’t Finish Last


CreditRon Barrett

During the rosy years of elementary school, my inclination to share my dolls and my knack with knock-knock jokes (“Who’s there?” “Tank.” “Tank who?” “You’re welcome!”) were enough to elevate my social status. I was the belle of the playground. Then came my tweens and teens, and mean girls and cool kids. They rose in the ranks not by being amiable but by puffing cigarettes, breaking curfew and pulling pranks on unsuspecting nerds, among whom I soon found myself.

Popularity is a well-explored subject in social psychology. The latest thinking is parsed by Mitch Prinstein, a professor and director of clinical psychology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, in his forthcoming book, “Popular: The Power of Likability in a Status-Obsessed World,” and in his currently running MOOC. (Some 58,000 have taken the online course, via Coursera.)

Dr. Prinstein sorts the popular into two categories: the likable and the status seekers. The likables’ plays-well-with-others qualities cement schoolyard friendships, jump-start interpersonal skills and, when cultivated early, are employed ever after in business and even romance. Then there’s the kind of popularity that emerges in adolescence: status born of power and even notorious behavior.

Enviable as the cool kids may have seemed, Dr. Prinstein’s studies show negative consequences. Those who were highest in status in high school, as well as those least liked in elementary school, are “most likely to engage in dangerous and risky behavior,” like smoking cigarettes and using drugs.

In one study, Dr. Prinstein examined the two types of popularity in 235 adolescents, scoring the least liked, the most liked and the highest in status based on student surveys. “We found that the least well-liked teens had become more aggressive over time toward their classmates. But so had those who were high in status. It was a nice demonstration that while likability can lead to healthy adjustment, high status has just the opposite effect on us.”

Dr. Prinstein has also found that the qualities that made the neighbors want you on a play date — sharing, kindness, openness — carry over to later years and make you better able to relate and connect with others.

In analyzing his and other research, Dr. Prinstein came to another conclusion: Not only does likability correlate to positive life outcomes, but it is also responsible, he said, for those outcomes, too. “Being liked creates opportunities for learning and for new kinds of life experiences that help somebody gain an advantage,” he told me.

The findings were music to my nerdy ears: Those halcyon early days of popularity really did matter.

The meek — or rather, the genuinely nice — shall inherit the earth after all.

Advice on Helping Teen Girls Thrive

The Wall Street Journal

Stumped by a teenager’s mood swings? Read the latest research on helping girls between 10 and 15 years old flourish

New research offers insight into helping teenage girls thrive. 

Screaming, slamming doors and careening from one emotional outburst to the next—all can be part of life with a teenage girl.

Although girls approaching their teens are often years ahead of boys in gaining height, language and social skills, those strengths mask some important vulnerabilities.

Questions about helping teen girls thrive are a source of interest for psychologists and neuroscientists, sparking more than three dozen studies in the past year. Here’s a guide to the findings:

Ages 10 to 11: Early signs of puberty set in sooner than many parents expect. Girls begin staying up later and having their first crushes. Many are beset by strong, volatile emotions, ending a period of relative calm from ages 6 to 11, says Lisa Damour, a psychologist and director of the Laurel School’s Center for Research on Girls in Shaker Heights, Ohio.


Some girls mature faster and begin menstruating at age 10 or 11, compared with an average of 12 to 13. Early-maturing girls are at higher risk of behavior problems and depression. Girls who look older than their years often attract older peers who may lead them into risky behaviors.

Early-maturing girls who hang out with school friends the same age, rather than older friends from outside school, fare better. Also, those who say they’re close to parents and can talk with them about many things have a better chance of thriving, research shows.

Ages 12 to 13: Girls typically are more skilled than boys at expressing their emotions and interpreting others’ moods at this stage. They’re quicker to grasp nuances of humor.

Girls are also more vulnerable to stress than boys.


A stress hormone that has a calming effect on teen males and adults may make teen girls more anxious, based on research on female rats. And teen girls are more sensitive to rejection, showing a sharper rise in stress hormones when trained peers in laboratory simulations exclude them from conversations, according to a 2017 study of 59 children and teens led by Laura R. Stroud, a senior research scientist at Brown University’s Warren Alpert Medical School.

Girls whose parents give them strategies for solving social problems—by suggesting they join a school club to meet peers with similar interests, for example—have stronger friendships, according to a 2017 study which surveyed 123 middle-schoolers and their parents and teachers twice over 10 months.

Girls also need help managing strong emotions, Dr. Damour says. One eighth-grade girl screamed in distress after finding out about a bad grade online, as if “she walked into a mass-murder scene,” the girl’s father told researchers in a 2016 study.

Teenage girls are hardwired for drama, according to Family therapist Colleen O’Grady, author of “Dial Down the Drama.” But there are key ways daughters and mothers can find common ground. She offers tips for keeping the peace on Lunch Break with Tanya Rivero. Photo: iStock

Parents should avoid overreacting. “The No. 1 mistake parents make when their kid is in distress is to jump in to solve the problem,” says Michael Y. Simon, an author and school counselor in New Orleans.

Simply helping a girl name what she’s feeling and talk about it can have an almost magical calming effect, Dr. Damour says. Teens who are able to ask for and receive support and problem-solving help from their mothers at age 13 tend to be more independent and better educated at 25, according to a 12-year study of 184 subjects.

Some girls try to cope by sharing too much or attacking others on social media, which tends to amplify bad feelings. Dr. Damour advises curbing social-media use and guiding girls toward face-to-face activities instead.

Ages 14 to 15: Girls’ interactions with parents can take a negative turn, and some become pessimistic in the face of challenges. Boys offered a chance to win rewards in a Wheel of Fortune-like game became excited and motivated, while girls said the challenge made them anxious, says a 2017 study of 167 teens with an average age of 14.


Girls tend to have more negative conflicts with parents than boys. A certain amount of arguing helps teens learn to control themselves and negotiate differences, Mr. Simon says. Parents who can listen with respect and disagree calmly make teens feel as if their opinions matter, helping build a sense of identity.

Some teens, however, unconsciously dump negative feelings on a parent so Mom or Dad will feel bad in their stead, says Dr. Damour, author of “Untangled,” a best-selling book on raising adolescent girls. They also tend to make bad feelings worse by ruminating or brooding over them. Rumination is linked to depression in teen girls, who suffer the malady at nearly twice the rate of boys.

If a girl is ruminating on a problem she can do something about, help her get started on working toward a solution, Dr. Damour says. If it’s something she can’t change, help her find a happy distraction. Preteen and teenage girls posted lasting improvements in feelings of mastery and closeness with others after taking part in a one-week mountain-biking program where they were also coached on goal-setting, self-expression and team-building, according to a 2016 study of 87 girls.

Teen girls who embrace goals that involve helping others also have a higher likelihood of thriving. Such teens tend to have parents who trust them and listen when they talk about problems, says a coming study of 207 girls led by Belle Liang, a professor of counseling and psychology at Boston College.

Write to Sue Shellenbarger at

Appeared in the Apr. 12, 2017, print edition as ‘Teenage Girls: An Expert Guide.’

I’m Not Texting. I’m Taking Notes.


CreditVidhya Nagarajan

Suit coat and button-down shirt — check.

Agenda — check.

Extra business cards — check.

Fully charged phone — check.

I was ready for my first advisory board meeting at Blackboard, an educational software company in Washington, D.C. Most 17-year-olds don’t go to eight-hour board meetings, but Blackboard had invited me to participate as a member of the generation that the company serves. The board members thought I could give them some ideas about what makes us different from the people who came before us.

I was honored but mainly petrified, afraid I would disappoint them. I knew that many boards lack a younger voice and wanted to set an example so that they would know that we are worth bringing to the table.

When I entered the big conference room, a vice president named Craig Chanoff asked me to sit next to him. Whew. I felt as if I were being invited to the right table in the cafeteria on the first day of high school. And there was another good thing: I was comfortable with Blackboard’s business.

The company has an app that helps high school students identify our interests and narrow down our college choices. Something I find very cool about this app is that it is very visual and easy to navigate.

So when an executive began talking to the board about marketing strategies for Blackboard’s new services, I felt I knew what he was talking about.

But when he started to get into specifics, I noticed that other people were pulling out their laptops and notepads. I knew I had better take notes, so I reached for my phone. That’s what I like to use. The next presentation was even more intense and detailed, and I typed out as much as I could and thought I was keeping up pretty well.

Before I knew it, it was time for a break. Two hours had gone by, and I realized that I could get through eight hours of this. My thumbs would be sore from all the note taking, but I didn’t think I had looked like an idiot, which was my main concern.

If I could figure out a way to pipe up with some opinions in the afternoon sessions, I might just feel good about my first meeting. As I headed to the bathroom feeling on top of my advisory board game, Craig pulled me aside and said, “Listen, you’re doing great, but I want you to be super-successful here.”


“Many board members noticed that you were on your phone a lot,” he said. “If you can hold out on texting friends or checking your Twitter feed until the breaks, that would be great.”

Mission failed. Now I did feel like an idiot.

But I was also quite angry. The thing is, I hadn’t checked my Twitter feed for over two hours. I’d been taking notes.

I walked down the hall and began to think. I realized that my friends and I are glued to our phones all day long. That’s just the way we are. Phones are crucial to our identities and lifestyle. Telling people in my generation to put our phones away is not a solution. Just ask our teachers how that has worked for them.

Even so, the workplace is not ready for how often we are going to pull out our phones. Rather than fight it, I think the other generations are going to have to learn to let go and adapt to us. The reality is that social media breaks take less than 15 seconds and can be re-energizing. That’s less time than the widely accepted practice of taking breaks for coffee or snacks.

That said, there is no denying that we will need to be mentored so we know when even a 15-second break is unacceptable. The good news is that teachers have been trying to coach us about this for years. We can learn and we can adapt, if the other generations adapt, too.

What really upset me at the meeting was the assumption that by pulling out my phone, I wasn’t paying attention. I’m a digital native. My friends and I have only known a world where phones are smart. My iPhone is a computer, and it’s natural to take notes on it.

I thought I was being diligent, yet they thought I was being rude. I even thought I was being efficient by quickly looking up something online and not missing a beat, and they thought I was playing video games. Clearly, my generation cannot assume the older generations know how we use technology.

Rather than allow others to see our phones as a distraction, we have work to do to prove that our phones are vital tools that we need to get the job done.

Just as I was feeling better about what had happened, my phone buzzed. It was a text from Craig that said: “Hurry up. We are starting again soon.” And so I walked back to the conference room.

As much as I hated the feeling of being reprimanded, I was glad that Craig had pulled me aside and had given me a heads-up. So before we resumed the meeting, I told him that I had been taking notes on my phone, and not using it to text or check Twitter or any other social media.

Craig seemed to appreciate that. And he was nice enough to announce after the break that if anyone needed notes from the earlier presentations, I could text them from my phone. I knew what he was doing and why. My generation will need mentors like Craig who will listen to us and look out for us.