Phyllis Fagell, parent, school counselor, private therapist, and author shares insights for parenting with Tweens (ages 10-14). She combines her personal experiences with research findings to support the engagement of tweens in conversation when at times they appear to be disinterested. Several “myths” are uncovered.
Follow Phyllis on Twitter: @Pfagell
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PODCAST TRANSCRIPTSteve [Intro]: 00:00 Hello, and welcome to the parents as learning coaches edition of the Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud podcast. Parents and caregivers play many different roles, at times, even somewhat conflicting roles as they support children’s development. The pandemic has shown a light on the importance of parents supporting learners. In this podcast, I’ll look to share my experiences as a teacher, educator, parent, grandparent, and continuous learner that can support your coaching efforts.
Steve: 00:33 Conversations and listening with tweens. Joining our podcast today is Phyllis Faygell, who is a school counselor and a therapist to children, teens, and adults in private practice. She’s the author of a book titled, “Middle School Matters,” and a frequent contributor to newspapers and magazines for educators and parents. I’m especially excited to have her join us here as I am now the grandparent of a middle-schooler so welcome, Phyllis.
Phyllis: 01:08 Thanks for having me.
Steve: 01:10 I’m wondering if you could start off by describing the term, “tweens” and some of the special characteristics of that age group.
Phyllis: 01:23 Yes. When I talk about tweens, I’m typically talking about 10 to 14-year-olds, although there are certainly nine-year-olds and 15-year-olds who social emotionally fall into that demographic as well. And in most schools, middle school is sixth through eighth grade. For my school, it’s fifth through eighth grade.
Steve: 01:43 And what are the characteristics that kind of separate the tweens from youngers and olders?
Phyllis: 01:55 Middle schoolers are a totally unique breed. They can be 13 going on three, or they can be 13 going on 30 in the same week, the same day, the same hour, but there are certain characteristics that define who they are at an age where they’re both impressionable, but also pretty intellectually sophisticated. So it’s a perfect time to really impart values, to let kids know what your expectations are, to share stories, to help them develop critical thinking skills. They’re capable of doing all of that. They’re also pulling away from parents and identifying more with peers. I think that’s part of what made the pandemic so hard for middle schoolers in particular because at that exact moment in their growing up when they are trying to pull away from their families, they’re literally spending 24/7 with their parents for months at a stretch. Middle schoolers also are contrary to popular belief, very empathetic, they have really big hearts when we think about them as being drama seeking.
Phyllis: 03:00 And it’s really not because of their character, it’s because they have the very little life experience or perspective. They’re trying on new behaviors. They’re trying to figure out where they fit in the social hierarchy and they’re making mistakes, well-meaning mistakes, but they are making mistakes. But they do have this incredible desire to be a good person. Disappointing a parent is something that upsets them pretty much more than anything else. They very much want to please the adults in their lives. They are social justice-oriented. They have a heightened sense of equity and fairness. They’re just natural activists. And that’s important because another characteristic of this phase is that they need to feel like they have agency, that they can make a difference in the world. And so as adults, we want to make sure that we’re giving them opportunities to do that.
Steve: 03:50 You triggered an old story for me, which – so when I tell you that I have a grandchild who’s a middle-schooler, I’m remembering back to her mother being a middle-schooler. And my favorite example was sitting at home, watching a TV and she snuggled up almost onto my lap as we were watching. And then we got in the car for me to take her to the mall, to meet some friends and she told me that I needed to drop her off at the other exit so that nobody would see me once she got out of the car. And I had to go through the shock of dealing with both of those things happening within about 20 minutes of each other.
Phyllis: 04:41 That’s funny. And actually, that’s another myth about middle schoolers that they’re embarrassed by their parents, and they’re actually not embarrassed by their parents. It has very little to do with parents. What they’re embarrassed about is seeming younger than they are. They want to really come off as being more sophisticated, more mature. And so being seen with parents is and infantilizing. So I actually once had a 16-year-old student tell me that she wishes she could go back to middle school and tell her father who she had made not go to a football game with her, or she hadn’t said hi to him at a football game – she wishes she could go back and say to him, it wasn’t personal. It really wasn’t personal. She just wanted to look older when she was with these eighth-graders who had invited her to this game.
Steve: 05:25 The other thing that struck me as I was listening to you, I spoke to a counselor who said after a couple of months into the quarantine that a student connected with her and said, I don’t understand, there are all these articles I’m finding online about how to deal with your kids being home and I can’t find anything on how to deal with your parents being home. [laughter]
Phyllis: 05:54 [laughter] I’ve heard that too. Although I will say this morning when the parents are dropping off their middle-schoolers for the first time for a full day of school, a few of them were doing a little jig dancing in their cars as they kicked them out the door.
Steve: 06:07 [laughter] Yeah, I’ll bet, I’ll bet. So you talked about the need for conversation and listening. Want to give us some illustration of the importance there?
Phyllis: 06:23 So one of the other myths, I feel like we’re going through all the myths about middle schoolers, but one of the other myths is that they don’t want to talk. And it’s really not that they don’t want to talk, it’s that you have to talk to a middle schooler differently than you would talk to a younger student. So if your child is middle school age, even the most seemingly innocuous comment can feel too intrusive, too personal. And so you’re going to get farther if you ask them what their friends are doing, or if you talk about an article in the newspaper or a lyric in a song or a scene in a movie you just watched, then if you ask them a direct question about themselves. The other anecdote I’ll share is the parent who called me and was really upset at her son who had constantly chatted with her, you know, almost ad nauseum to the point that you would say, please stop talking, I need to pay bills. I need to do other things, suddenly kind of went mute in middle school.
Phyllis: 07:13 And she was a social worker. She knew how to interact with students, with kids and she thought that she had it all down and she was just so hurt that her child stopped talking to her. And she had asked him what she thought was a really innocent question. It was, “what did you learn in school today?” And got nowhere. He really shut down. And so she started experimenting with language a little bit, and she found that if she tweaked it just a little bit and said, “what did your teacher teach you,” that gave a little bit more emotional distane and she got more information. And the other thing she found and she’s not the only one to discover this is that not having eye contact can help. So if you’re shooting hoops, if you’re taking a walk, sometimes they’ll say more if you’re in the car and eye contact is optional. Or if you’re just patient, sometimes being willing to sit in silence, as opposed to filling that silence by having a barrage of questions, which can make them shut down, the nuggets will come in time. It could be really – just wait for them to do it on their terms.
Steve: 08:23 I’m kind of hearing lowering the pressure.
Phyllis: 08:26 Yeah.
Steve: 08:27 I’m likely to get more response then.
Phyllis: 08:30 Yes. If you think about the phase, if you think about the middle school phase, kids are so mercilessly self-critical. They’re so self-conscious, they have this endless dialogue going on in their own head that is anxiety-producing about many of the things that seem like innocent questions. They could be worrying about a friendship issue, they could be worrying about an academic issue, and a parent can innocently poke the bear by bringing up something that is a source of real stress, but that they’re not really talking about in an open way. And so allowing them to do it on their terms is a way to let them feel more in control of the conversation and feel more in control of their emotions.
Steve: 09:14 What would you describe as the messages we want tweens to be receiving from us as parents and what are the suggestions of getting those messages to them?
Phyllis: 09:31 I mean, the good news is that the research shows that you’re 99% of the way there if you’re just a consistent and loving presence. If you are that caring adult if you honor your child for who they are and not who you need them to be. I think parents really need to pause before they criticize their child or urge them to do something and say, whose anxiety is this? Is this my problem? Or is this the real problem? There is a developmental pediatrician named Ken Ginsburg snd I love his quote. He says, “the wider the gap between who a child is and who they think their parents need them to be, the more they’ll suffer.” And I think that’s really true. This is an age where, because kids are developing their identity, their sense of self, and we want them to develop a positive identity, we want to be highlighted for them, what we see as their strengths.
Phyllis: 10:13 We want to be focusing on their strengths, at least 80% of the time. In fact, their strengths are going to compensate for their weaknesses more than if we target their weaknesses directly. And they’re so insecure, they really need to know that they’re okay just as they are. Given the amount of change, they’re going through as well. They’re changing faster than they have at any time in their life, other than birth to age two. And they’re not comfortable in their own skin. And I think if, as parents, we approach kids from a place of empathy. And if we are sharing our own oscillating journeys, you know, the hero’s journey, our own bumps in the road, otherwise to kids, it looks like our lives were a straight line from seventh grade to success. And if we don’t actually point out where we stumbled, if we don’t admit our vulnerabilities, our insecurities, our mistakes, then kids don’t feel as safe admitting them themselves.
Phyllis: 11:12 Now because they are learning from us because we’re role models, and I say this as the parent of a seventh-grader myself, we do want to talk about how we regrouped, how we recovered from those setbacks. If we were super anxious, maybe we paused and called a friend, or maybe we went for a run or we just stopped working and said, this is what I can do for today. Or if we made a mistake at work, maybe we can say, rather than saying, “oh my gosh, I’m going to get fired, my life is ruined.” We can say, “Wow, that was embarrassing. That was hard. That was something that caused me a lot of stress. So here’s what I’m going to do tomorrow. I’m going to call my boss and I’m going to find out if I can send that fax in a different way or at a different time tomorrow and try to make this right.” So we want them to see us making mistakes and to see us getting back up on our feet.
Steve: 11:58 So modeling, I guess what I’m hearing, huh? I’m wondering if there’s a last encouragement or important message you’d want to leave with parents especially for these unknown parts of the time we’re in right now.
Phyllis: 12:21 So there is research showing that young adults who are forced to endure a period of uncertainty like graduating during a recession, actually have more gratitude, joy, and satisfaction in life. And I do think that the seeds are being planted for kids today to have tremendous resiliency, to have the ability to truly appreciate the relationships in their lives, the relationships with grandparents that might’ve been compromised during the pandemic with their friends. I have some students who tell me that all they’re going to do when this is over, is run around hugging everybody. Just that simple act of physical touch. I think kids are just going to appreciate all of those very basic things. Ken Ginsburg, the same developmental pediatrician who made the comment about honoring kids for who they are, talks about how the greatest generation, where the senior citizens who grew up in and navigated the great depression and became very thrifty, were good at saving things and had all of these unique strengths because of it.
Phyllis: 13:29 And he thinks that’s what’s going to happen with this generation of kids only in the realm of relationships. And I think that’s true too. I think a lot of the superficial things that kids wrestled with prior to this, I’m hoping they can look at differently. I’ve had older middle schoolers tell me that this was the first time they understood that relaxing isn’t simply being less busy. I’ve had other students tell me that they realize they’ve been spending their entire lives building a resume and to what end? They’re burnt out. They’ve used this time to reset, and I hope we don’t lose those lessons when things return to some semblance of normalcy.
Steve: 14:09 Thank you. That’s very promising as a thought for us parents to have to remember while we’re thinking about what kids may have lost. There are possibilities for many things they could have gained from having had these experiences.
Phyllis: 14:30 Yes. And I really encourage parents not to use phrases like “lost year” or a “learning gap,” things like that in relation to what they didn’t learn this year, because there are so many skills and skills they’ve learned, values they’ve acquired, self-awareness, they’ve developed. And when we call it lost year, we lose sight of all of those positives that I was just referring to.
Steve: 14:57 Thank you. Phyllis, could you tell folks the best way for them to follow up with you if they’ve got questions or thoughts that you’d like to explore further?
Phyllis: 15:09 Sure. So I am very active on Twitter. My handle is @Pfagell. I share a lot of resources about parenting and education there. And my email address is on my website, which is phyllisfagell.com.
Steve: 15:23 And we will be sure to post that on the lead-in to this podcast. Thanks so much for joining us Phyllis, really appreciate it.
Phyllis: 15:31 Thanks for having me.
Steve [Outro]: 15:33 Thank you for listening. You can subscribe to Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud on iTunes and Podbean. And please remember to rate and review us on iTunes. I also want to hear what you’re pondering. You can find me on Twitter @stevebarkley, or send me your questions and find my videos and blogs at barkleypd.com.