Do you remember 8th grade? When I reflect on my 8th grade experience I can recount a few notable moments:
- The 9/11 terrorist attacks happened that year. We were in Mr. Bratcher’s band class when we found out and immediately turned on the TVs to watch the events unfold.
- I had my first and only foray into theater by portraying Peter, Anne Frank’s flirtatious love interest, in The Diary of Anne Frank.
- I got braces.
- I met someone who I thought would be my best friend. It turns out the friendship crashed and burned less than two years later.
- I told a girl that I thought she had big thighs.
Something else happened in 8th grade that marked a shift in my social life. Things started to get waaay more complicated with my friends. This transition happens at different times for different kids but it seems to be most prevalent with 8th graders.
I get the privilege of regularly having deep conversations with middle school students. Each conversation is a small snapshot into the life of a young teenager. I’ve recently had a string of multiple conversations with students who are trying to understand the growing complexity of their social lives. It’s fascinating to watch students grapple with this new reality. It’s like watching their world expand right before your eyes.
As students share about their complicated situations I try to not say too much and instead focus on listening well. When they’re done talking I usually say something like, “Getting older is complicated, isn’t it?”
Here are three examples of what I’m talking about (names have been changed):
Example 1: Kyle is friends with Caleb. Kyle loves hanging out with Caleb, but when they get in a group Kyle feels like Caleb ignores him. This makes Kyle feel insecure. He considers telling Caleb that he doesn’t like feeling ignored in group settings but he’s afraid he’ll come off as needy and possessive, which would just push Caleb away.
Example 2: Kenzie has a guy friend, Adam, who she thinks has a crush on her. She’s not completely sure if Adam has a crush on her because Kenzie’s friend Rachel was the one who told Kenzie that Adam has a crush on her. Kenzie just wants to be friends with Adam so she wants to know how to be nice to him without leading him on.
Example 3: Mark has a group of guy friends at school. Another guy in the group, Nick, is annoying and so the group doesn’t like Nick. Mark wants to be Nick’s friend but the group tends to marginalize Mark when Nick gets annoying since they’re associated with each other. Should Mark ditch Nick altogether to stay “in” with the group or continue to try to be Nick’s friend and risk getting ostracized from the group?
I remember feeling simultaneously excited and bewildered when I began facing complicated social situations like this in 8th grade. It felt like I had been color blind and suddenly I could see the world in color for the first time. Or like I had just made it to the top of a beautiful scenic overlook and see a landscape I had never known existed before.
Do you remember what that was like for you? No matter how long ago you were in middle school it’s easy for us to forget how confusing this process can be for kids. You’ve been navigating the world of complex adult relationships for 10, 20, or 30 years or more—and I’m sure you still don’t feel like you’ve got it figured out!
Now put yourselves in the shoes of a 13- or 14 year-old. Hormones are raging through your body. Everyone and everything around you is changing in lots of different ways. You’re trying to figure out who you are.
Acclimating to this new relational reality is not easy.
One time I was talking with a student about this confusing process. After telling me about a difficult friend situation, the boy memorably summarized his story by saying, “Life is like a girl right now.” Figuring out his life was as complicated as figuring out girls which, as any guy who was once a 14-year-old boy knows, is an impossible task.
That’s why middle schoolers need to be surrounded by caring adults. Not so we can fix their problems and tell them what to do, but to listen, to show them we care, and to give guidance when they seek it from us. It’s a fascinating privilege to guide disoriented middle schoolers through the beginning stages of adult relationships.