In my last blog, Middle School Rebellion Gets a Bad Rap, I talked about a middle schooler’s developing sense of identity. Each stage of life comes with an accompanying struggle, according to Erik Erikson’s almost universally accepted Stages of Psychosocial Development, and middle schoolers find themselves in struggles against more than growing pains, acne, braces, crushes, and bad hair days. At the root of all those annoyances is a much larger struggle between developing a unique identity and figuring out how to fit in.
Middle schoolers wonder almost constantly, “Who am I?” and “Where do I fit in?” Erikson coined the phrase identity crisis, and central to a middler schooler’s crisis is the difficulty of straddling childhood and adulthood. Does your daughter want to wear make up one day and brush her doll’s hair the next? Or does your son want to cuddle you on the couch one minute but then snap when you ask who he’s texting? It’s hard to figure out how to cross the bridge from childhood to adulthood. When your peers begin evaluating how well you’re making that transition, it is even harder.
Around you, it’s cool for your daughter to play with her dolls. Around her friends, it’s embarrassing. Around her frenemies, it’s social suicide. Your daughter now has to figure out who she is depending on every possible social context she may encounter. She has to develop a lot of theories about herself in the world and make a lot of assumptions to test those theories. “Who am I?” is an enormously difficult question in middle school because there are so many possible answers.
If your child confides in you about a social dilemma and you reply “just be yourself” your child might well wonder, “which me should I be?”
Should I be the me I am: at breakfast with you, on the bus with the intimidating kids, suffering in math, scoring on the soccer field, watching someone being bullied, sharing secrets with my best friend after school, cuddling with you?”
Each social context asks for a different response from your child. Sometimes the big kid shows up, sometimes the young adult. Until they figure out their true identity, and no one does that in middle school, there will be many missteps and mistakes along the way. It’s supposed to be that way. Without the struggle, your child can’t figure out who he or she is and will become.
“Just be yourself” is an incomplete response to your child’s social dilemma. Begin by empathizing, as in “that must have been hard or disappointing or embarrassing.” Continue by explaining that you understand the pressure on your child to figure out how to act or feel in so many types of situations. That would be hard on anyone. Round it out by reassuring them that figuring their social scene out will sometimes be challenging and sometimes exciting and that no matter what happens, you will be there for them without judgment.