Mental health tools that can help middle schoolers get a better perspective

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.

Challenge distorted thinking

Tweens think they wouldn’t lie to themselves, but they do. They can catastrophize, think in all-or-nothing terms, jump to conclusions, overgeneralize, discount the positive, or blame themselves or others when something goes wrong, to name a few common thinking errors. For instance, if ten people tell a kid that they love their haircut, but one person says, “I see you got a haircut,” they might spend the rest of the day trying to decipher the one ambiguous comment. If a teacher changes a kid’s seat because they’re disruptive, the kid might conclude that the relationship is irreparably damaged. Or if they bomb a history test, they might think, “I suck at history and the teacher clearly hates me, so what’s the point?” That kind of defeatist, unproductive thinking serves only to worsen their suffering.

At the core of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is the idea that how you think impacts how you feel and act. In other words, your thoughts determine your feelings and behavior. That’s why it’s so important to help your middle schooler learn to recognize when their thoughts are out of whack. If that kid who failed the history test adopted a more realistic stance, for instance, he might realize, “It’s not going to be fun to tell my parents that I failed, and I’m embarrassed and upset, but it’s literally a history test now. Next time, maybe I could ask the teacher for help or join a study group.”

As I tell kids, being ruthlessly self-critical is like bullying yourself. When I facilitate Worrybusters groups at school, I might ask students, “If I could listen in on what you tell yourself when you’re really beating yourself up, what would I hear?” After students share their self-critical thoughts with peers, they’re often surprised but relieved that others are equally hard on themselves. They also realize they’d never talk to a friend the way they talk to themselves, and they develop more self-compassion. (As another side benefit, the kids typically bend over backward to compliment one another.)

Once you bring your child’s thoughts to the surface, teach them how to talk back to their inner critic. If they’re telling themselves, “I’m not smart enough to be in the advanced math class” or “I want to go to the party, but I’ll be too awkward to talk to anyone,” ask them questions such as “How useful is it to get caught up thinking that way? What’s the best-case scenario? What’s the evidence that the worst will happen? What’s the evidence it won’t happen? What resources or help would you need to cope with the worst-case scenario? Have you ever been in a similar situation? How did you handle it? Have you seen anyone else experience something similar and come out OK? How did they deal with it?” You also can ask them how they’d reassure a friend who felt the same way.

The goal is to help them recognize when they’re thinking in extremes and then challenge the thought. If they say they’re “a total failure,” for instance, point out that “I’m a failure” and “I’m a success” are not the only two options. Someone can “succeed” in one area and “fail” at something else. Or as I told a sixth-grade girl who was disgusted with herself for being a “crybaby,” there is an upside to every perceived weakness. For one, crying is an effective way to signal that you need support. It also might embolden others to admit they need help. To reinforce the idea that merely thinking something doesn’t make it true, have them preface a self-critical comment with sentence starters such as “I’m having the thought that” or “I’m noticing I’m having the thought that.” They also can try repeating the comment until it sounds like gobbledygook and loses all meaning. After all, they’re the one ascribing meaning to the words in the first place.

I worked with a fifth-grade boy, Marcus, who was irritated because his classmate, Owen, was constantly poking him in the belly button and making comments about annoying things, like how he kicked a soccer ball or how high he raised his hand in class. Owen was instigating fights with most of the students in the grade, but Marcus felt personally targeted. To loosen his thinking, I asked him to come up with a few possible reasons that Owen might be acting like a jerk that had nothing to do with him. Marcus sat at the table in my office for a few minutes before jotting down the following: “1. Maybe I just don’t see Owen doing this stuff to other people. 2. Maybe he doesn’t realize it bothers me. 3. Maybe something else happened in his life that turned him into a butthead jerk.”

After I read Marcus’s list out loud, he said, “You know, I actually feel kind of bad for Owen. He’s annoying to everyone, and he could end up losing all his friends.” The exercise had elicited Marcus’s compassion, which in turn helped him react with more equanimity when Owen provoked him. And much to Marcus’s surprise, that made him a less appealing target.

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Phyllis Fagell

Phyllis L. Fagell is a licensed clinical professional counselor, a certified professional school counselor, and author of Middle School Matters and Middle School Superpowers. She is a school counselor at Landon School in Washington, D.C. and provides therapy to children, teens, and families at The Chrysalis Group Inc. in Bethesda, Maryland. Phyllis also speaks and consults on issues relating to parenting, counseling, and education.

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