When should your kid get a phone? What about dating? When should you butt out of their social life? If only there were rules.
Absent that, I asked Newton native Phyllis Fagell, whose new book, “Middle School Superpowers: Raising Resilient Tweens in Turbulent Times” addresses these rites of passage. Fagell is now a Washington, D.C.-area mental health therapist, certified school counselor, and writer. (Her very first piece was published in the Globe when she was a teenager herself!)
At what age should kids start using social media?
I’m going to give a really unsatisfying answer. It’s just not as straightforward as: “You should allow them to be on no more than two hours starting at age 13.”
First, know your child’s readiness, their maturity, the way that they’re interacting offline and online. I see a lot of kids — they tend to be boys more often than girls — who very much want to connect with peers. They’re desperate to feel like they’re in the mix, but they’re also very insecure about their social skills. They use social media, texting, and gaming as a crutch. It allows them to connect with friends and feel that they belong, which is so important, without the burden of being the host and having to make sure someone else has fun, and without the burden of bearing the responsibility for carrying their side of the conversation.
If you have a kid like that, you want to make sure that you’re not allowing them to only be online. You want them to be taking risks in manageable doses. Help your kid have some structured [social interaction] with lots of different people to practice social skills. That’s one instance where a parent might want to be more mindful about how much time a kid has spent online and why they’re using it.
You might have a second kid, a boy or girl, who’s really popular and kind of alpha in their own way, who’s initiating tons of interactions with friends both online or offline. But they tend to be impulsive. They tend to try a little too hard to impress others or to make people laugh. They might be the one who tries to be funny and says something mean, or who discloses too much about themselves. You want to be mindful of whether they’re using it in a way that’s serving them socially.
How do you do that?
Parents should be fully transparent with their kids that they’ll be spot-checking. The way I phrase it with kids is: “I’m not monitoring to catch you making a mistake or being bad. I’m monitoring for a few reasons. One, I want to know what information and images you’re exposed to so that I can help you process it because the world is overwhelming. The second reason is because every single kid is going to make mistakes and needs support to figure out how to use it in a way that serves them.”
With middle schoolers, you don’t want to lecture them. Have them look for a post or a text, whatever they happen to be using, that’s aberrant in some way. Maybe they got caught in a lie. Maybe they said something out of anger that they regret. You do the same. Once you each find that post or text, share it with one another, and talk about what the conditions were at the time that you posted or said it, because that’s how you’re going to set kids up for success. Odds are, they were using technology late at night in their bedroom. I firmly believe that no good comes from middle-schoolers having any sort of technology in the bedroom.
Also, sit down with your kid and generate a list of everything that goes into a balanced day. You might say things like walking the dog and emptying the dishwasher. They’re unlikely to add that to the list. But they might say things like doing homework, getting fresh air, or talking to friends. Suggest that they check everything off on that list before they get online.
One of the skills that’s really lacking is executive functioning. Picture a 5-year-old. When I walk into a kindergarten, I always laugh because, at the end of the day, we’ll see some who are putting on their backpack and then trying to put on their jacket. They get the sequencing wrong. Middle schoolers are exactly the same. It’s not about having an adversarial relationship with them. It is about strategies; helping them organize their day in a way that serves them.
When’s the right time to date?
The best thing we can do for kids is tell them that everybody moves at their own pace. We want to make sure that they’re respectful of peers who might be in a different place, that we’re not teasing them, that they’re not asking totally intrusive prying questions, which is a social skill that they don’t have — they all want to know what’s going on.
Much like social media, if they stick their toe in the water and it feels like it’s too much, it’s OK to turn the clock back and say, “You know what? I’m going to hit the pause button. This is not the right time.”
That’s what I see: They dip their toe in the water. More often than not, they’re like, “Well, that kind of sucks. I don’t really want to do that. I thought I did, but I’m not ready for it.”
Parents can validate that they may not realize until they’re in the thick of it how it makes them feel or what their level of readiness is.
What if you see your child acting too mature, especially with puberty happening earlier?
What we really want to be doing, especially as they’re navigating that transition through middle school and into high school, is teaching them how to make good decisions.
One of the things I talk to kids about all the time is misconceptions about peer pressure. When I was growing up, it was all about the “Just Say No” campaign. It failed miserably, because it was premised on this idea that peer pressure is coercive; that someone’s going to tell you, “I won’t be your friend unless you vape in the bathroom with me.” That’s not how peer pressure works.
Peer pressure works through behavior contagion. You literally are who you’re with. Choose your top 10 values; the way you want to show up in the world and the way you want others to see you. Have your kid do the same. Talk to them about their values. There’s no right or wrong, although this is a great way for them to hear what’s important to you, too, without lecturing them.
Then explain a couple things: Number one, their brain isn’t fully developed, and they need more time to make good decisions, because they’re experiencing emotions on a scale of one to 10 as a 10 almost all the time. You might want to impress a friend, make someone laugh, fit in. They need a more stable decision-making framework.
Your values are more stable than your emotions. When I do that activity with kids, and I give them social scenarios, more often than not, they change what they would do. They tell me they’d be happier in the long run with the values-driven decision. It strips away all the interference. Surround yourself with people who share your values.
At what age do you let your kids fight their own battles at school?
I’m going to delineate between meanness, bullying, and emotional discomfort, because that makes a difference. Meanness is two people on equal footing: socially, they’re the same, or they’re the same size. There’s not a power imbalance. I’m not saying it’s kind, but it’s not a pattern.
Bullying is the opposite: There’s a power imbalance, there’s an intent to wound, and it’s a pattern of behavior. If it’s true bullying, they need some adult support. You can work with them to figure out how they want you to help them. You don’t want them to feel powerless.
Emotional discomfort is 90 percent of everything your middle-schooler is going to experience: Someone didn’t invite you to their birthday party, and you wanted to be invited.
There’s really no time in life other than middle school when friendships change more radically, dramatically, and frequently. Research shows that, if you follow kids from the fall to the spring of sixth grade, a third of friendships are stable. If you ask kids to name their best friend, only half of the people they name actually name them back. They’re very fragile friendships; they’re not reciprocal.
If you follow kids from seventh grade to 12th grade, only 1 percent of those friendships are still intact. And 12 percent of sixth graders have nobody name them as a friend at all. I horrify parents when they hear those statistics, and you can hear kids sigh with relief when I share it. What it tells them is that every single one of them is going to get dumped by a friend, and it’s not because there’s something wrong with them. Getting dumped by a friend is a huge milestone — or getting excommunicated from a social group.
I think we all remember that feeling and how much it hurts. How do we help?
You help kids deal with the social churn. Kids often think someone’s a friend, and they’re really a school friend, not a friend-friend. The way I reframe it for kids is: “This is really good information. What this tells me is that this is someone you want to get to know better. So let’s talk about what we could do to help you.” Even understanding that there’s a difference between acquaintance and friend is a really hard concept for a lot of kids to wrap their heads around.
Then you can talk to them about comfortable risk-taking. You can start with questions: “What’s worked with other friends to get to know them a little bit better? What have you seen other kids doing that’s worked for them?” Try to identify a really safe starter risk for them to make inroads.
The other common thing is when a kid comes home offended that someone didn’t invite them [somewhere]. I think it’s important for parents to understand just how dark kids go, and how negative that self-talk is.
Ask them to come up with at least one alternative possibility that’s less awful. What we’re trying to teach is cognitive flexibility. We’re teaching them to challenge negativity, which is helpful in so many different contexts. Maybe they’re all on the same sports team. Maybe they organically decided to hang out because they were already together. It’s really helping them reframe some of these situations.
Any advice for parents struggling between being involved and letting go?
I consider middle school the last best chance. Kids really care about what their parents and other adults in their life think. They’re malleable and impressionable. They’re pulling away from you, but they haven’t yet completely separated and identified more with their peer group. You can have a huge influence and impact on how they conduct themselves, and how they navigate all of the challenges they’re going to face.
It may feel like the stakes are high, but the stakes are low. The stakes are only high in middle school if you don’t allow them the room to experiment, fail, and recover. If something falls into the category of school, extracurriculars, or friendships? Coach them, but don’t solve problems for them. The greatest gift that parents can give their kids is to teach them how to approach those setbacks in healthy ways.
Interview was edited and condensed.