Middle school is a unique yet awkward memory that most who have experienced wish they could forget. Middle school, often thought of as our dress rehearsal for life, is challenging and vital for so many reasons. During the middle school years, adolescents experience many changes academically, socially, emotionally, and behaviorally. Most of these changes happen quickly, leaving the tweens with many unanswered questions and realities they cannot explain. Through all this change, some prescribed by the adults involved and some natural, these “want to be adult children,” begin to beg for autonomy. They have a yearning to be independent and they are confident they have the skills to do it all on their own. This particularly applies when navigating the ever-changing dynamics of friendship.
As a toddler, friendships are influenced by their environment, which almost always involves the children of their parent’s friends. Parents meet to catch up on life in a kid-friendly environment. The parents place the toddlers in the play area together, and all is well. As children get older, friendships are built on convenience and interest. Children began to ask parents to schedule playdates with their classmates at school, kids at church, or their extracurricular teammates. Emotions also begin to play a role in these newly formed relationships. Kids start to determine with whom they do or do not want to interact based on shared interests. The relationships are generally pliable and change as the children move from one class to another or leave one activity to explore another.
The next phase of friendship happens during middle school or tween years. Adolescents, at this point, begin to choose friends based on their own set of criteria rather than on the environment or convenience. Some embrace these relationships based on similarities or their desire for fashion, interests, peer/social groups, and/or values. Tweens crave independence to navigate and accept new friends. Friendships are very fluid and emotional for the kids in this age group and for their families; however, they are essential for understanding relationships. While making new friends, tweens never really give up their friendships from previous years. These friendships are comfortable and pleasant. Having the stability and certainty of the “known” relationship allows them to navigate through the “unknown” more easily. “Make new friends, but keep the old. One is silver; the other is gold.” (Girl Scouts)
Jessica Lahey, the author of The Gift of Failure, explains that through this phase of friendship, middle schoolers experience the feeling of a broken heart. Most, for the first time, will feel the pain of betrayal and rejection by being “dropped” by one of their friend groups. In some instances, the comfy, old group does the dropping, while for others, this inflicted pain comes from the new friendship group.
The parents also feel the pain and heartache the tween is feeling. This pain fuels the parent’s impulse to step in and “fix” the friendship. However, stepping in robs the tweens of the ability to begin to understand how to handle and deal with pain, apologies (giving and receiving), and assertiveness. In The Gift of Failure, Lahey reminds us that these relationships are “not about us.” Though this concept is hard for many parents, it is important to understand. Through these trials and triumphs, tweens find their “people” and their identity, while also learning critical, lifelong lessons.
This dress rehearsal juncture of life allows tweens to make crazy, irrational, and poor decisions while having a large support team to pick them up and help them learn from their mistakes and failures. The autonomy to make and break their relationships, with no adult involvement, equips these tweens with the tools needed to continue to foster, develop, and initiate current and new friendships.
Chrystal Myers is Head of Middle School at Trinity School of Midland. She is most interested in the best practices for educating and understanding middle school students.