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 jessicalahey.com.

When Another Child Wants to Be Friends and Yours Does Not

The New York Times

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CreditiStock

Sometimes every parent needs advice. For our occasional advice column, we post readers’ questions that we know (or at least suspect) plague more than one parent. You — the readers — provide the advice: How have you made this work better in your family? I invite an expert to add to the discussion.

This quandary came via email, and concerns middle schoolers interacting with their peers — a trouble spot for many. Here’s the question:

My middle school child has been dealing with another child at school who is pursuing him — sometimes just hanging out near him, sometimes actively trying to get his attention by doing things like spraying water from the fountain at him in the hallways. My son doesn’t want to be friends, and he’s been getting in trouble for responding to the other boy in kind.

How do you help your middle schooler handle kids who are bothersome, frustrating, annoying or just not someone they want to be friends with? Sometimes, especially if that child has demonstrated some level of social awkwardness, it can feel like polite adult tactics won’t work. My son has talked to his teachers and even the vice principal and thinks the school understands that this other child is a challenge, but the situation hasn’t changed. How should I help my son respond better? Should I approach the school? I don’t want to intervene, but I’m wondering if I should.

“There are so many dynamics going on here, ” said Andrea Nair, a psychotherapist, parenting educator and the author of “Taming Tantrums.” “There’s a real disparity in maturity level at that age. ” In middle school, a child with a good amount of empathy who can understand other people, read their body language and consider what they’re thinking may be seated next to a child who is still entirely self-focused. That is part of what makes middle school interactions so tricky, she says.

As adults, we’ve had a lot of experience dealing with other people. Our children have not, and it’s tempting to want to jump in and solve the problem. Ms. Nair suggests considering what your child needs to learn to handle a situation on his own rather than just focusing on the immediate problem. Before she gets involved, “I always ask myself, am I going to help or hinder?”

With a middle schooler, she advises parents to make sure the child has tried everything before intervening. In this case, the son has approached adults at the school and now needs to have a strategy for handling the other student himself.

“Say, ‘I know this is tricky,’” she said. Let him know that everyone has trouble figuring out what to do in similar situations, and ask him to help think of ways to respond rather than to react. “A reaction is knee-jerk,” she says, and often something we regret. A response is something we have considered, that says the things we want to say.

Parents should let the child take the lead in coming up with responses, but can and should help. Most children will want to start with a nonverbal approach, because directly telling someone that you don’t want their company is hard. Children can lower their eye contact, turn their backs or look in the other direction when the other child is approaching, Ms. Nair says. If the other student begins a conversation your child doesn’t want to participate in but can’t easily physically leave (at a lunchroom table, for example), your child could respond with “mmm-hmmm” or take out a book.

If a more direct response is needed (as it may be here), help your child plan words that are appropriate to the situation. Remind him, too, says Ms. Nair, that things might get worse before they get better. “They’re likely to keep pushing and getting in your face because they’ve had a response before,” she says. “They’re expecting some kind of engagement.”

Finally, she suggests talking together about why this child might be doing these things. “There’s a difference between understanding and empathizing, and being O.K. with it,” she says. You can help your child learn that we can appreciate why someone might do something without having to like the person or the action.

How have you helped your child handle challenging middle-school social situations? Have you had to intervene with a school or even another family, and did it help?