How to raise superpowered tweens in turbulent times

By Phyllis Fagell

In the movie “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse,” Miles Morales is 13 when he gets bitten by a radioactive spider. Overnight, his pants are too short, he sweats profusely when he talks to a girl at school, and he’s acutely aware that people are whispering about him in the hallway. As he tries to make sense of his disconcerting new reality, he concludes that “it must be puberty.”

Who could blame the kid for mistaking supernatural superpowers for puberty? In fact, superheroes and tweens have a lot in common. Both begin their journeys feeling like strangers to themselves, and both must learn – through trial and error – how to activate their superpowers.

Combine the turbulence of middle school with the turbulence in the outside world, and it’s no wonder that tweens need superhuman strength to navigate the tougher moments. Here are ways caregivers can help their kids acquire four superpowers that they need to embrace their transformation and recover from any setback.

Super Belonging: The power to find your place and make strong connections

When a well-liked seventh-grade girl told me that she felt too awkward to talk to anyone during recess, I wasn’t surprised. While it may be counterintuitive to kids, even the most popular middle-schooler experiences insecurity. To the girl’s relief, an extroverted classmate offered to act as her “wing girl” and find ways to pull her into conversations.

Research shows that friendships play a powerful role in decreasing middle-schoolers’ stress and improving their health, but connecting with peers is easier for some than for others. To help all kids feel more comfortable in social situations, arm them with concrete strategies.

“Some kids think joining a conversation is just being present, standing next to someone, rather than actually contributing to the conversation, even if it’s only three words,” said psychologist Mary Alvord, author of “The Action Mindset Workbook for Teens.” “Or they may not know what to say.”

Explain that if a peer is talking about sports, for instance, they can ask them about their favorite sport. Alvord teaches kids the “one-minute rule” to help them understand pacing. “You watch and listen to what someone is saying for a minute, then interject with a comment on the same topic,” she explained. Boost their sense of belonging by sharing other practical tips, too, such as making eye contact and listening without interrupting.

If your child tells you they’re lonely, try to determine the root cause. Do they have friends but feel like they’re on the edge of a group — the proverbial third wheel? Are they only lonely at travel baseball practices because they have little in common with teammates who attend a different school? Do they have no one to eat with at lunch? Once you pinpoint the problem, you can help them come up with potential solutions.

Super Security: The power to take pride in your identity

Developmentally, middle-schoolers are tasked with figuring out who they are and whether they’re good enough. That’s exponentially more difficult for today’s tweens, who not only are getting pummeled with unrealistic images and messages, but also growing up in a time of deep division when differences can be dangerous.

To increase the odds that your child will talk to you about their fears and insecurities, be clear that you don’t expect perfection and convey your openness to discussing sensitive topics. “If they don’t want to disappoint you, or they sense that you’re not comfortable having the conversation, they won’t bring it up and may make assumptions about your expectations,” said Erlanger Turner, associate professor of psychology at Pepperdine University in Los Angeles.

You might ask, “What are these expectations you have of yourself, or expectations others have that shape the way you feel about yourself?” Turner said, adding that he sometimes has kids write down the negative thoughts they’re having about themselves. “Then we can challenge them and ask questions like, ‘Has this happened before? What evidence supports these views you have of yourself?’”

Some middle-schoolers are more vulnerable than others, including those who are part of a marginalized group. Research shows that LGBTQ+ teens, for instance, are more than four times as likely as their peers to attempt suicide — not because of their sexual orientation or gender identity but because of how they’re treated and stigmatized in society.

Parents can be a protective buffer. According to the Trevor Project, kids who had “high social support” from their families reported attempting suicide at less than half the rate of those who felt low or moderate social support.

As Turner pointed out, “respecting the individuality of your child is always important for the development of their self-esteem, and acceptance is especially important for [LGBTQ+] teens because they may not be getting that from other places.”Share this articleShare

Super Bounce: The power to learn and recover from missteps

A small setback can stop even the most confident tween in their tracks. To help them work through self-doubt and persist toward a personal goal, teach them to speak to themselves in the second- or third-person, said Jason Moser, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Michigan State University who studies how distance self-talk facilitates emotion regulation.

You also can help them gain psychological distance by seeking inspiration from a personal hero. Say, “Can you turn to another individual you look up to who acts in a way that’s brave and could make you feel like you can do something?” Moser said.

For instance, a child might ask themselves, “What would LeBron James do if he failed once and had a terrible game and was worried what other people think of him?” Moser said, adding that parents can show kids video clips of athletes talking about what they do when they get stuck in negativity. As he noted, “the athletes talk about banking the past; about putting that thing behind them and focusing on preparing for the next thing.”

Super Balance: The power to set a reasonable pace

In middle school, the pressure ratchets up. Some kids react by being hard on themselves and exhibiting perfectionist tendencies, while others feel weighed down by external expectations.

“Parents, teachers and schools can put pressure on kids to be as perfect as possible academically and athletically, and maybe act in ways that are counter to who they are,” said Robyn Silverman, a child and teen development specialist and author of “How to Talk to Kids About Anything.”

As a result, a middle-schooler might devote so much time to schoolwork and extracurricular activities that they sacrifice sleep. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children ages 6 to 12 should sleep 9 to 12 hours a night, and children ages 13 to 18 should sleep 8 to 10 hours a night. Yet, in middle schools in every state, the majority of students reported getting less than the recommended amount of sleep.

Why teens need more sleep and how we can help them get it

Despite the fact that friendship is everything to kids in this age group, they also might sacrifice spending time with peers. In a 2018 Pew Research Center Survey of 13- to 17-year-olds, roughly 40 percent of teens cited “too many obligations” as a reason that they don’t spend time with friends.

Parents can help create healthy boundaries, said Jennifer Breheny Wallace, author of the book “Never Enough: When Achievement Culture Becomes Toxic — and What We Can Do About It.” In her home, the internet goes off at 11 p.m. “If my kids are not done with the assignment, they know it goes back on at 6:30 a.m.,” she said, adding that she wants her kids to understand that “they’re human, they have limits, and they’re worthy of protection and rest.”

“We sometimes think our job as a parent is to support our kids’ ambition, to be there and drive them to all the places,” Wallace added, “but in a hypercompetitive culture sometimes our kids need the opposite — for us to limit them, even hold them back, to prevent them burning out.”

Every middle-schooler is going to struggle at times to find their place, cope with insecurity, bounce back from disappointment and maintain balance, but that’s what makes it the perfect time to help them hone their superpowers and learn to leverage any setback — from the personal to the global — into resilience.

Phyllis L. Fagell is a school counselor, a clinical professional counselor at the Chrysalis Group, and the author of “Middle School Superpowers: Raising Resilient Tweens in Turbulent Times” and “Middle School Matters.”