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'Middle School Superpowers' book helps parents navigate the often-tough middle school years

The cover of "Middle School Superpowers" by Phyllis Fagell. (Courtesy of Hachette Book Group)
The cover of "Middle School Superpowers" by Phyllis Fagell. (Courtesy of Hachette Book Group)

Do you have a child in middle school? If so, you may have noticed that they’re going through a lot of changes. And some of those changes can cause confusion and even conflict for kids and their parents.

School counselor Phyllis Fagell is here to help. Fagell wrote the book “Middle School Matters” and just published “Middle School Superheroes: Raising Resilient Tweens in Turbulent Times.” The book has tips and strategies to aid parents and teachers in guiding kids through the often rough waters of middle school.

Phyllis Fagell is the author of “Middle School Superpowers.” (Courtesy of Phyllis Fagell)

5 questions with Phyllis Fagell

Where are middle schoolers at, in terms of brain development and puberty?

“It’s such an interesting age because they can have that little kid in them or they can be incredibly sophisticated within the same hour. And relating to them requires treating them as if they’re a little bit older and more sophisticated than they are because they so desperately want to be seen as capable and competent because they’re so insecure.

“I love this age. I think they’re the funniest humans on the planet, and they have such a desire to change the world for the better.”

At this age, kids start confronting more complex social relationships. What changes after elementary school?

“There are several things that change. One is just that brooding; They suddenly find themselves in a much more complex academic and social environment. They go from one homeroom teacher to maybe seven teachers. Maybe they are in a building where they don’t know anybody by name or they are not sure where they fit in.

“This is a time when they so desperately want to fit in, they are acutely aware of how well or how not well — depending on how they feel about themselves — they fit in with others.”

For parents with kids in this complex age group, you say it’s possible to build resilient kids. What attributes make up a resilient tween?

“[Tweens], by definition, [have] very little life experience or perspective, and they’re so exquisitely sensitive. So it’s very easy for them to experience one setback and think that it’s all doom and gloom… If one friend drops them, they’ll never have friends again. If they do poorly on one math quiz, they’ll never be good at math.

“Resilience in this age group is really about helping them continue to take risks at a time when they’re so vulnerable and insecure. Helping them recover from disappointment, helping them retain optimism, helping them see setbacks as temporary and situational instead of more permanent, instead of seeing them as obstacles that can defeat them.”

Tell us about ‘super security,’ a ‘superpower’ that tweens can have to build pride in their identity and empathy for others.

“Anything that makes you stand out in this age group is something that kids fear. It could be related to their sexuality or their gender identity. It could be that their parents are divorced. It could be that they are struggling economically, or their family is experiencing economic hardship. It really can show up in so many different ways.

“When I write about ‘super security,’ I’m putting everything under that umbrella of ‘identity’ because we want to make sure that kids are comfortable in who they are.

“We know that kids who not only are able to embrace differences in others, but also able to be self-aware and appreciate what makes them different, are not only kinder, but they’re also much less likely to tolerate abuse from anybody.”

What can parents do to build trust and respect with their tween?

“I love asking them for advice and also talking to them about things going on in the news, big events. Kids really do want to talk about that stuff. They’re taking everything in, but so often we assume that they’re not ready to have these more sophisticated conversations. This is an age when they really can start to think about things more critically, more expansively.

“Any time we give them a little emotional distance, when we’re talking about our own problems versus talking about theirs, they’re much more likely to feel comfortable connecting rather than shutting down because they’re so afraid that they’ll disappoint us or that we’ll judge them or they might feel criticized.”

Book excerpt: ‘Middle School Superpowers: Raising Resilient Tweens in Turbulent Times

By Phyllis Fagell

Much has changed since I wrote my first book, Middle School Matters. For the first six months after it was published, I traveled and presented around the globe to parents, educators, and children, talking about the ten key skills that young adolescents need to thrive in middle school and beyond. I covered topics such as shifting friendships, bullying, gossip, sexuality, romance, puberty, learning challenges, homework, and character development. I even included a chapter on psychological resilience! But only a few years later, middle schoolers are growing up in an exponentially more complicated world and need a whole new set of skills to preserve their well-being. I can pinpoint the shift, which occurred right after I visited a school in the United Kingdom in 2020. I remember thinking that middle schoolers are the same everywhere, whether they live in New York, Vancouver, Los Angeles, London, or Chicago. After that trip, however, the world shut down overnight. I vividly recall my then sixth grader, Alex, coming home from school one day and saying, “They sent me home with every book I’m going to need for the rest of the school year. I’m thinking that can’t be good.”

From my first Zoom meeting to the rocky return to in-person school, I was aware that some kids fared better than others. To be clear, every middle schooler needs help managing disappointment and feeling a sense of belonging, but the pandemic amplified everything that makes a middle schooler a middle schooler. It wasn’t just their sensitivity; it was sensitivity on steroids. It wasn’t simply a lack of focus; it was a complete inability to stay grounded in their own bodies.

I soon realized I was dealing with a new kind of “extreme middle schooler,” which brought to mind the concept of universal design. Universal design is a framework that calls for the creation of products that benefit the widest possible range of people in the widest range of situations. For example, Sam Farber invented the OXO Good Grips vegetable peeler because his wife, Betsey, had arthritis and couldn’t hold a peeler. Farber’s design was not only more user-friendly for individuals with arthritis but also easier for everyone else to use.

And that awareness made me wonder: Could I apply the same concept to my work with kids? There’s already a universal design for learning framework that relates to designing inclusive approaches that recognize individual differences and remove barriers to learning. Could I come up with a universal design for “soft skills” such as dealing with disappointment and managing stress, identifying strategies that would not only help my “tweens” but also boost the confidence and resilience of all middle schoolers, regardless of their skills or backstories?

That’s where Middle School Superpowers comes in. Given the rapid changes in recent years, psychological resiliency now warrants a whole book. Each chapter draws from recent research, stories, and my professional experience to demonstrate how to develop one of twelve superpowers—or specific strengths that will equip kids to bounce back during the tricky middle school years (and later in life, too). At the top of each chapter, I list sample scenarios in which that skill would be particularly useful. Note, however, that many of the tips can be applied to a broad range of challenges, so experiment with your child. Each chapter also includes ideas for educators, top tips for parents, and various ways to get the

conversation started with the middle schooler in your life. And throughout the book, there are dozens of practical, evidence-based ways to help your child develop the following twelve middle school superpowers.

The Twelve Superpowers

1. Super Flexibility, the power to manage change and uncertainty

2. Super Belonging, the power to find your place and make strong connections

3. Super Sight, the power to anticipate problems and make a plan

4. Super Vulnerability, the power to know when and how to ask for help

5. Super Bounce, the power to learn and recover from missteps

6. Super Agency, the power to find your purpose and take initiative

7. Super Force Field, the power to set healthy boundaries

8. Super Security, the power to take pride in your identity and step into someone else’s shoes

9. Super Healing, the power to cope and self-regulate emotions

10. Super Balance, the power to set a reasonable pace and realistic goals

11. Super Daring, the power to go out on a limb and take smart risks

12. Super Optimism, the power to find hope and humor in the hard stuff

In addition to covering these twelve superpowers, I include a few recurring features throughout the book, including Ideas for Educators, Top Tips for Parents, and How to Tackle the Topic with Your Middle Schooler. The Ideas for Educators are practical, actionable, and field-tested. Top Tips for Parents rounds up and summarizes the strategies outlined in each chapter. The How to Tackle the Topic with Your Middle Schooler sections include conversation starters and other concrete ways to initiate dialogue with your child. And in case you’re interested in discussing these issues with other adults, too, I’ve included parent and educator book club discussion guides in the Resources section.

Combine the turbulence of middle school with the turbulence in the outside world, and it’s no wonder that many caregivers are anxious and perhaps parenting more protectively. It might be counterintuitive, but tweens need more freedom to make mistakes, learn, and recover. If we don’t grant them that leeway, they won’t feel a sense of control over their own fate, and they’ll be more vulnerable to mental health issues. By the time you finish Middle School Superpowers, you will have an arsenal of strategies to help your child bounce back from anything—whether they lose an election; struggle with depression; get dumped by a friend, cut from a team, rejected by a crush, teased about their appearance, or shamed for making a mistake on social media; or feel weighed down by societal problems. (Maybe you’ll even pick up a tip or two for yourself!)

Every middle schooler is going to experience their fair share of indignities, but that’s what makes these years such a fertile time to teach kids the skills they need to wade through adversity—to experience their own origin stories, with all their ups and downs. That is true regardless of what’s happening in the world. Tweens need to know that bad things sometimes happen, but they’re not alone, and they can and will get through it. Our job is to help them embrace imperfection—and see themselves as the hero of their own story.

Excerpted from “Middle School Superpowers: Raising Resilient Tweens in Turbulent Times” by Phyllis L. Fagell. Copyright © 2023. Available from Hachette Go, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc.

Emiko Tamagawa produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Todd Mundt. Catherine Welch adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.