A colleague was recently talking with me about her 12 year old daughter, a tween (between childhood and adolescence). She mentioned how mean the girls are in her middle school. Now her daughter is actually quite popular and has many friends, but there is a tween in her class who seems jealous and has made a conscious effort to disrupt her daughter’s social life. Her story of mean tweens reminds me of the movie “Mean Girls.”  Tweens are in early adolescence. Developmentally, they are not yet thinking of how their actions impact the people around them.

Many behaviors that occur among tweens are in an effort to gain peers. I can (vaguely) recall my days in middle school; it was all about impressing friends and fitting in with peers. Everyone tried to dress a certain way, listen to a certain type of music, and use certain slang. Those who did not fit in were often singled out.

Any time an individual is singled out and made to feel ashamed, they are being bullied. We’ve covered this idea before, but bullying often takes on different forms. The social isolation that my colleague’s daughter experienced, as well as the rumors, is all bullying.

Fortunately, she has parents who heard what was happening at school and continued to build her self-worth. My colleague encouraged her to build stronger friendships with those who had similar interests and those who spoke out against what was happening.

Your tween or teen may be the popular kid at school, or they may be the one who is being teased. So what can parents do?

  • Don’t ignore bullying or teasing. If your tween brings it up, it is important. Listen to their story and empathize with them. Don’t shrug it off or just tell them it’s normal and they’ll get over it.
  • Encourage your tween to build on friendships with peers who are positive and not engaging in teasing.
  • Avoid retaliation, but encourage your tween to tell the other kids to stop or ‘knock it off.’
  • Engage the school. If your tween is being teased or bullied at school, let them know. Many schools have policies on bullying, and schools are required by law to intervene if it is negatively affecting your kid.
  • If your tween is lucky enough to be the popular one, talk to them about kindness and respect for differences. If you catch them bullying or teasing someone, let them know in no uncertain terms why this is unacceptable, and help them brainstorm ideas to differently approach the person or situation.

Even teens who had a terrible time in junior high are usually able to find a peer group to identify with in high school. At this age, teens begin exploring their own identities and branching off into different groups that may not care so much about classic “popularity.” Remind your kid that no matter what their current experience, popularity (or the lack of it)  in middle school isn’t something that will always be important. They have some wonderful friendships and opportunities to explore their own individuality waiting for them down the road.