New Episode! Why Kids Won't Wear Coats with Sara Kostelnik
Jan. 24, 2023

Why Middle School Is So Tricky with Jessica Speer

This week we tackle the "tricky" Middle School Years. 

Join me and my wonderful guest, Jessica Speer, the award-winning author of “BFF or NRF "(Not Really Friends) and “A Girls Guide to Happy Friendships, and Middle School – Safety Goggles Advised.”

 Jessica’s interactive books for preteens and teens entertain readers while exploring social-emotional topics. Blending humor, a dash of science, stories, and insights, her writing unpacks the social stuff that surfaces during childhood and adolescence. 

Jessica and I discuss how children change physically, mentally, and emotionally during the formative middle school years and their tendency to fluctuate between friendships as their identities and interests continue to evolve. 


 Books (As an Amazon affiliate, at no extra cost to you, we will earn a small commission from qualifying purchases.) 

 BFF or NRF (Not Really Friends): A Girl's Guide to Happy Friendships by Jessica Speer  

Middle School―Safety Goggles Advised by Jessica Speer  

The Phone Book by Jessica Speer  

Guest Website:  




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Hi, and welcome to Real Life Momz; I'm your host, Lisa Foster, and Real Life Momz is a podcast that's all about connecting moms through real parenting conversations. I believe that moms have so much insight and knowledge, and together we are powerful. On this podcast, we give moms a voice to tell their stories, and share their expertise and resources through real conversations. And this week, we are joined by Jessica Spear. She is the award-winning author of BFF  or NRF, not Really Friends, A Girl's Guide to Happy Friendships, and Middle School Safety Goggles Advised her interactive books for pre-teens and teens entertain readers while exploring social and emotional topics. And today, we are discussing middle school and how to navigate these tricky years with our children. 

Hi Jessica. Welcome to Real Life Momz I am so excited that you're here today to discuss these actual awkward years, <laugh>, I find them awkward, uh, those middle school years, and how to best support our kids and help them navigate through this phase. So thank you so much for coming. 

Hey, thanks for having me, Lisa. I'm so excited to talk about this. Yeah, as you said, tricky, awkward time. 

Yes. I like the word tricky. That seems nicer than awkward. So let's use tricky. 

Let's do it. 

So can you tell us just a little bit about your background, yourself and I know you've written some amazing books on this topic, and kind of what sparked you to actually gear towards middle schoolers. 

Yeah. Um, great question. So, um, I have a background in social sciences, and I've always just been fascinated with human behavior. Um, and when my kids were in their pre-teen years, I noticed things, you know, started to get more interesting and complicated. And so that, you know, piqued my curiosity. So I really dove into the research of that. Like what is happening during this, you know, phase of development that makes things a little more complicated, especially when it comes to relationships. Um, that grew into a friendship program that I used to run in schools that grew into my first book. 

Um, and then, um, my kids hit middle school, and that got me even more curious. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. So I dove into research in those years and spent a lot of time in some seventh-grade classrooms and, that grew into a book, which is called Middle School Safety Goggles Advice. So, so really, um, just what inspires me is a, you know, writing for kids in a way that will guide them through some of the, you know, the ups and downs of these really exciting years. 

So your books are, I just wanna clarify, your books are for actual middle schoolers to read and helps them, or is it for parents to read? 

Both are middle-grade books, so, you know, geared towards upper elementary and middle school. So I like to talk directly to the kids. I find kids, they're just so smart, you know, and sometimes, you know, they just need, um, some tools in front of them to really navigate these things. So, so a lot of parents do read the books alongside their kids, um, because they offer a framework for families too. But, I specialize in writing directly to kids. 

Oh, that's awesome. I love that so much because there are so many books to help parents, but not a lot for kids to read. And I feel like it's so cool to almost have a self-help book on that level. So 

Amazing. Yeah. You know, and, and I, and I write like what I would've liked to read in those years. So all my books are really interactive. Like, I love quizzes, you know, which, what preteen and early teen doesn't love, you know, a little quiz. Um, you know, choose your own ending stories. I find those are a great way for kids to think about how I might respond in this tricky situation. You know, choose your own ending story where they get to think about how they might respond. Cuz some of the trickiness of these years is, they've never really experienced a lot of these social dynamics. 

This is the very first time they're navigating some of this stuff, whether it be gossip or drama, or crushes. You know, they don't have a lot of tools in their tool belt, so they're kind of learning on the fly. Um, so I like to write in ways that they can have a resource when they get in those situations, you know, which we all get into. 

So essentially, giving them some tools. So when you say write their own ending, it's almost like they're practicing what they would do in that situation. 

Yeah. Yes. So that's, and my second book, you know, it's middle school. Safety Goggles Advised, every chapter has a choose your own ending scenario. So, for example, you know, when um, I was researching this book and spent a lot of time in seventh-grade classrooms, I'd hear some stories over and over. And one thing that came up often was, you know, two friends have a crush on the same person. You know, so if we think about that, I'm like, that's complicated. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, what do we do now? You know, my, myself and best friend, we have a crush on the same person. How do we navigate that? So, so in the chapter on crushes is a story that that's the story, and it's a choose-your-own ending. 

So you can choose option A, you can choose option B, but I always leave an option where they can make up their own. Because what I found kind of testing this with readers is some kids like some endings, some kids like other endings, cuz of course everybody has different personalities and ways of, you know, solving challenges and some, and, and I couldn't name every possible solution. So I like to leave it open too, you know, so maybe they don't like any of the scenarios I put out there to end this story, and they can certainly add their 

Own. Ugh. I love that. I made that book. Can you write one for like middle age women <laugh>? 

Oh, that would, wouldn't that be so fun? I, yeah, I That would be so fun because yeah, these, some of these tricky scenarios, they, they don't end in middle school, we're just kind of beginning there. 

Yeah. But what a great tool for them to have to practice cuz these things do carry on into life scenarios. Right. And so now they have little a tool that they know how to use even as they get older. Not just, it doesn't stop in middle school like you said. 

Yep. Yep. Like, how do I wanna deal with gossip, you know? Yeah. And we know cuz we all come across gossip, so, so it's, it's not easy stuff, especially the very first time you're dealing with it. Mm-hmm. 

<affirmative>. Now you mentioned that you got into this cuz you were curious about what was happening, um, in these preteen years for your kids. So have you discovered what is happening that makes these years so tough? 

Oh, there's a lot. And I think this information helps parents, you know, take relax a little bit cuz there are reasons why things get a little more complicated when it comes to kids in their social world beginning about the middle of elementary school and then kind of carrying all the way through middle school. So what's happening is, you know, we're, they're in a developmental phase where, you know, relationships are not totally based on play. So we can remember, you know, our, the phase of our life and maybe our kids' lives where, you know, their connections with other people are very much based on play. 

Um, and then they, you know, at different stages for every kid, they start to actually look for some different things, especially when they might be starting to enter puberty. And that process of individuating a little bit from their families, they start to look for more in their friendships. 

So it's not only based on play; it's based on shared interests and levels of acceptance. And so that right there is gonna start to shake things up. Um, and what I find with kids is they're all hitting this at a different stage, you know, so one kid might still be very much in that place where they just wanna be this relationship to be based on a play where another kid is looking for something really different. You know, so, so sometimes, as parents, they can look at this like, Hey, what's happening? You've always been friends with Joey. Um, but it might be something really simple. 

It could be something like Joey is so into like crushes at this point and, you know, your child just isn't, you know, and there's, there's a big disconnect there. So, you know, one of the truths I share in my book I share nine friendship truths phases and change over time. 

And that could be such a simple, you know, thing for families to reflect on. Um, because, you know, sometimes if a relationship is in entering a new phase, we, we get a little nervous about that. We might try to hang on to that, but sometimes it's just a shift in that friendship, a change, um, that and, and letting kids know that that's okay. You know, when I would share that with a group of kids in my friendship program, I could feel this little sense of relief. Like, oh, whew, it's not just me, you know, this is just, this just happens over time. Our relationships and our friendships have seasons. 

Um, and we don't know the end of the story. Um, you know, but it might be in the midst of a change for all sorts of reasons. So trying not to read into that or feeling guilty or, um, you know, just, just letting those changes happen. 

This is like, I feel like a light bulb just popped on <laugh> in my head, um, because it's so true. This is such a change. They're developmentally changing so much, right? Physically their brain is developing, and you're right. They're, they're gonna have these different phases, and their friendships are gonna change. Doesn't mean they won't go back to each other. You know, they might like to grow apart and then come back. But I think as a parent, like as, and being a spectator of it for your teens, you almost feel bad like, oh my God, why are you not hanging out with that friend? 

You guys were best friends in elementary school, or you grew up with this friend, and you're not being, like, you almost feel bad. Like you're not being a good friend. You gotta include them. And they'll be like, no, I don't want to include them. Or they're not being included. You, you kind of get caught, but you forget that, that it is okay to be growing and changing, and that's exactly what you're doing, and that's okay. 

Yeah. And, you know, that just takes so much pressure off, especially if we as parents cannot put a label on that mm-hmm. <affirmative> or, you know, try to name something there, you know, cause kids might not even be able to exactly. Put their finger on what's not going. Right. It might be something that, like, you know, they, they just don't feel like a real accepted part of this group, you know, but they might not even have the words to explain that mm-hmm. <affirmative>. So they might start to look for something else. So, you know, I think we, you know, we as adults have this knee-jerk reaction where we, you know, we feel like that's not good if this relationship isn't changing, but if we can just stay open to those changes, you know, we never know the ending to this. 

So, so now I've got two, two kids in high school, and it's really cool to see how things do change, you know? Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, all these kids are so different now. I've known, you know, many of them since they were in elementary school; they're so different. And, you know, they've come in and out of a relationship with each other, and it's pretty cool, you know, so I'm, I'm, I'm really glad that I didn't intervene there because Right. You know, these natural flows of relationships as these kids grow and change and explore their identity and, you know, figure out how to be a good friend. 

Um, there's so much cool stuff going on there. 

And I think that word not intervene is an important highlight because I think as a parent, um, I've been there, you know, sometimes you jump into the relationship a little bit. Like if something's not going right, you're like, all of a sudden, you jump in and react. But it's so true because, you know, one day they can be frenemies, and the next day they can be besties, and it is this natural flow, and we don't know what the ending is. So I think it is nice to not jump in. 

Yes, yes. And, you know, there's always more to the story, you know, so mm-hmm. <affirmative> when our kids come home, and they're sharing, you know, some frustrations and things like that, you know, just remembering internally that we're only hearing one side of this, you know, and there's another side that is probably very different from the one we're hearing mm-hmm. <affirmative>. So, you know, I, I always try just to, as much as I can, just listen and, you know, help them feel heard, they're starting to figure it out, you know, so, so, you know, it takes that, it takes that moment of pausing and processing and feeling heard to even figure out, you know, what they're thinking about this situation. 

So, um, you know, as, as kids turn to those preteen and teen years, that's one of the best things we can do is just be that, that sa that grounded sounding board, you know, not reacting, not going off on our own emotional rollercoaster, not offering advice mm-hmm. <affirmative>, but just really being that safe space for them to come. Um, and, and share. And, you know, it takes a lot of Self Control, and I sometimes I still just jump in with some advice, but I realize whenever I do that, it kind of shuts down the conversation. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. So I try really hard just to not do that, just to, just to ground myself and hear them out, um, you know, and, and, and help them feel seen and heard in that moment. 


Not easy, not easy to do. 

No, no, not 

At all. Right. Anytime I offer advice, it's funny because it's the, it's not the wrong advice, but it's not the updated advice. Right. Like, cuz I'm reflecting back to my middle school years, which are nothing like their middle school years. So Yeah. It doesn't even work. Anyway, so, yeah. So grounding is a great idea. Listening is even better 

<laugh>. Yeah. Yeah. Because I think as, as parents it's, you know, sometimes our solutions are so simple, and we forget how complicated, you know, the social dynamics of kids are, you know, so, so we as adults have the luxury of, if we need to make space with somebody, you know, it's pretty easy for us to do that mm-hmm. <affirmative>. But with kids, they might be sitting next to this person every day, or they might be in the same friend group, or, you know, they might see each other at their team sport every week. So, so it's, it's not as easy as we think sometimes if, if kids need to make space or need to, you know, uh, make some changes, that's a pretty complicated thing. 

Yeah. They actually have to face it head-on more than probably we 

Do. Yes, absolutely. And, gracefully cuz they're gonna be with this person possibly, you know, for the next five to eight years, 

Years, you know, something, 

You know, so I could see what, you know, and so sometimes parents are wondering, why are you still friends with this person? Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. And sometimes it's that, sometimes it's like, well, because I'm with them every day, you know? Um, and you know, another reason is, you know, for kids, it can feel so vulnerable if they move outta a friendship situation. Um, what's, what's next? You know, who is their, who is their friend? Who is their group? So for many kids, that transition might take a really long time because for kids who are individuating, um, moving away from their families a little bit, you know, starting to figure out their own independence to feel like they don't have that, a close friend or group that can feel so scary and vulnerable. 

Um, so, you know, they're gonna, they're gonna think through these changes, um, you know, carefully, because that feels pretty scary. 

It's interesting. I did ask, so I have a middle schooler, and my son's still in middle school. My daughter's in high school. I asked him, and I said, you know, I'm gonna talk about middle school, so what is it that you think we should talk about? Like, what is it that we should know? And it was interesting cuz I've never actually asked him Right? Like, I should, but I, I didn't. And he said, he's like, well, you go from, he called kiddish. It's like, you're in elementary school; we're still kind of a kid. You're being taken care of, and you don't have all these other influences. And then you go into what he called a hard switch, you know, middle school. 

It's a hard switch where you now have to figure out kind of who you are and where you belong. Because unlike middle, unlike elementary school, there are all these groups, you know, like in elementary school, there weren't as many groups. And now, you have to try to fit yourself into one of these groups, but you don't even know who you are. 

Yes. Oh, love I love how you described that because that's, 

I know, right? 

That is so perfect. And, you know, one statistic that, um, I think is so useful for parents to know that it was a study done a while back at UCLA. They followed 6,000 middle schoolers through, you know, the first year of their middle school, and two-thirds of them ended up changing their friendships. Hmm. So, so change is the norm, and they're doing exactly what your son described. They're trying to figure out who I am and where I fit. And who are my friends? 

And so it's, it's a big shakeup. So I could see why, you know, these middle school years can feel, um, you know, un unsettling both for kids and parents, but some super cool stuff is happening there. You know, during some of this discomfort, you know, uncomfortable times, they really are figuring out who they are and who their friends are. And there are a lot of changes there and what kind of friend they wanna be. So there's a lot of cool stuff going on there and a lot of growth and a lot of learning 

And and it's tough. I mean, I feel like I'm still figuring out who I am, you know, <laugh>. Yes. 


I can only imagine him sitting there trying to figure out what group he belongs to him. I don't even know what group I belong to, 

Hopefully. Exactly. 

Hopefully, he's more successful, right? 

Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. Well, you know, it, it, you're right. It's, it's kind of the beginning of this lifelong journey of, you know, figuring out who we are. Yeah. 

And then I, and then he also mentioned this is also where that whole popularity, for him, at least, he noticed started like, there are the popular kids and, and just how to navigate around that, whether you fit into it or not. 

Oh, I'm so glad you mentioned that because I have a whole chapter on that one because, 

Oh, yes, I was talking, 

Well, I was talking to students, and that was a big thing, too, like the whole popularity thing. That's actually the name of the chapter. And so, so when I was talking to students, what was really confusing to them is, you know, there is the, there's this popular group, and the weird thing is many of them are not widely liked. So, that is confusing, but it's super, you know, appealing to be in this group. So I dove into the research on that, and once I've read what is happening under the surface, it made a lot more sense. 

So in the middle school years, um, kind of this need for, um, being seen and known starts to peak. Um, and so that's why this popularity thing becomes much more important. But here's, here's the interesting thing. There are two types of popularity. Um, and Dr. Mitch Princeton wrote this book actually called Popular. 

He studied this. So, one kind of popularity is the kids that are a little more aggressive, they hold a lot of power, and other kids tend to be more afraid of them. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, um, you know, there's more fear than admiration. Then there's another kind of popular, which he calls, in quotes, likable kids. These are the kids that cooperate, and people actually like to be around them, and they're good leaders. So when talking to kids of popularity, because everything gets lumped into this one term popular mm-hmm. 

<affirmative>. But, you know, when I talk to kids about this, I like to break that into, you know, these different kinds of popularity, you know, is, you know, the, is this the status popularity, the ones that are more about like power, maybe little aggression, or is this more of the, you know, the likable popularity, the kids that you know, are genuinely liked. 

So just bringing it down that way helps middle schoolers see, oh, okay, I could see this. Now there are different types of popularity, um, and for parents, we might remember all of this becomes a lot less important as kids get through high school. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, you know, kinda, it starts to increase, you know, in middle school peaks maybe freshman year, and then it starts to dissipate and, you know. Yeah. And so there, there's something beyond this. So, um, you know, that's how I like to tackle popularity when I, you know, talk to kids about it. 

Really looking at, you know, if you know, what are you most interested in for you, what qualities do you wanna cultivate in yourself? 

Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. Yeah, that's a good point. So like, kind of actually almost saying like, when you're looking at the popular kids, which one are you looking at? Are you looking at this kid that's kind of not so liked and kind of mean? Are you looking at the kid that is actually really a nice kid? And are those the things that you also wanna be? Is that what you're saying? 

Exactly. Yeah. Yeah. You know? Yeah. So, you know, just, just breaking that down, breaking down the definition of popularity, so we're not lumping everything together, and we're really noticing the behavior and what behavior we might wanna, you know, cultivate in ourselves. 

Yeah, I love that because, you know, I've had this conversation with my kids before, and I, you know, even my daughter will be like, oh yeah, she's super popular, but she's not really that liked, you know, <laugh> like in the same sentence. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. And I never thought about saying like, oh, well, there are different types of popular, you know, that I think that would've been really helpful. Um, but I do also agree that you know, exactly, it kind of peaks in that freshman high school year, maybe sophomore, but it definitely decreases like, it, they start to have a wider view, I think, of the world. 

And one thing that I talk to my kids about a lot, well, at least my daughter, cuz she's in high school, um, I, I say like, you know, I go to work, and I don't know who was popular and who wasn't. Everybody in the office is pretty equal. Like, it doesn't matter what group they hung out with in high school. You know you don't notice that as much as an adult. 

Yes, yes. And, you know, and what the research shows is those kids that, you know, had the, in quotes, again, the likable sort of, you know, qualities, they, those qualities actually carry through a lot of their success in life, their success in relationships, their success in jobs. So, you know, that's really important for us to know as parents too, that, that, you know, if our kids can cultivate some of those qualities, it has a really positive impact on their lives. So I like to draw them out, you know, through questions like, you know, what kids you notice are the ones that that kids really like to go to because they feel seen with these kids or they feel appreciated or, you know, these, these kids make other kids feel good about themselves. 

So just pulling out those qualities, um, cuz it could get easily lost in this nebulous term popularity. 

And then what do you say to maybe kids that are like having self-esteem issues? So like, they're almost like fearful of the popular group. You know, there are, it's almost like, oh, those are the popular kids, so I'm gonna go to, I'm, I'm gonna go hang out over here. You know, like Yeah, 

Yeah. You know, I think that is totally okay. You know, so I, it's super common for kids in this age range to have, you know, a little bit of lack of confidence. I mean, that kind of goes a long hand in hand with like, puberty is, you know, confidence dips, especially for girls. There's been studies that have shown that. So, you know if, if that is not their thing, that is totally fine. I think what's what I like to talk to kids about is finding friends that feel really accepting of you mm-hmm. 

<affirmative>, um, you know, and, and, and not putting a priority on that whole popularity thing. So, that's another one of my friendship truths is, you know, noticing the friendships that you feel really accepted in. And those are pretty special. Um, and, and they're a lot harder to find, especially in middle school. But noticing which of those friendships do you feel like you can be yourself mm-hmm. <affirmative>. Um, cause that's, that's a great thing to cultivate in those relationships. 

Yeah. And also I feel like numbers, the amount of friends, right? Like having kids know that it, they don't have to have like 20 friends, right? They can have one really, really good friend that you can be yourself around. And that's still acceptable. 

Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. Oh, for sure. And you know, it's fun to see just the different ways that kids navigate through middle school. So some kids just, like you said, might sail through with the same one or two friends, you know, just that's, that's perfect for them. There are other kids that might seek out all these different groups and these different friendships. So, so it really depends on the kid and their personality and what they're looking for. Um, cuz we're also different in that area. Some of us are more introverted, and some of us are more extroverted. 

Um, you know, one of the tools I share, and I'll explain it to you is, is I call it the friendship pyramid. Cuz what is helpful for kids is to kind of just know the lay of the land. Um, so at the very tippy top of the friendship pyramid are what I call our closer friends. 

And these are the friends that are harder to find. These are the friends we do feel really acc accepted for, you know, as we are. Um, we might share deeper thoughts and emotions with these friends. Um, and they're, they're pretty hard to find. And in middle school, there might be some gaps where we we're not sure who our close friends are. So that can feel pretty uncomfortable. Um, under that is, you know, a big swath of the pyramid are just friends. And I'm really loose with that term because I feel like during these years, kids are trying to figure out, you know, these friendship skills. 

And so these friendships might be teammates, they might be neighbors, they might be classmates. You might not have that level of comfort. We're actually sharing a lot of yourself, you know, but, it's important to have, have some friends in the friend's bucket, you know, this is where we have some other places. 

We might sit at lunch if we need to mm-hmm. <affirmative>. Um, and, and some room to grow these friendships. You know, they, some of these friends, might grow into closer friends at some point. And then the bottom of the pyramid is acquaintances. And so, keeping our eye out for all these other people we don't actually know that might grow into friends or close friends at some point. But, um, what's useful for kids to know is, is an arrow that says change. So what's really common is maybe a close friend, there's a shift, and it actually goes back to an acquaintance, you know, which feels weird, but not, not uncommon. 

Or there's an acquaintance that, you know, all of a sudden becomes a close friend. So just kind of laying out there that, you know, this is always in transitions, and there's different types of friends and levels of friendship and different qualities of each. 

Oh yeah. I love that. I love that. That's the fluidity of the pyramid, right? That they can transition. I love that. Now, I know you've actually pulled middle schoolers, right? So Yep. What did they share that they feel is the hardest or trickiest thing for them in middle school? 

You know, when I was asking students this the, the number one thing I heard was judgment. Oh. They felt very judged by their peers. So actually that's, that's chapter one of, Middle School Safety Goggle's Advice is judgment. And so of course, there is actual judgment happening, but then there's also because kids are in kind of this, this transitional phase of life, feeling like they're judged, and maybe they're not being judged, you know, but they're worried, they're worried about being judged. But whether it's real judgment or, you know, the possibility of being judged, all that is, is feeling very real to mm-hmm. 

<affirmative>, um, middle schoolers I found, and, you know, the last thing they wanted to do was kind of stand out and be judged. So, um, that was a big one. So, um, what I, I talk about in this chapter is, first of all, why, why do we judge? 

Why why are we judging others? And, when I was talking to middle schoolers, what was so cool is they kind of get, they understood the underlying reasons. You know, we're judging people maybe cuz we're fearful or because they're different, you know, so, so they get, you know, the underlying reasons behind that. But it's still there, you know, so, um, just recognizing that this is a phase of life where kids are feeling judged, and they are getting judged too. Like, I don't wanna pretend that's not happening. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, that's definitely happening. Um, um, and so that was, that was definitely front and center on their minds. 

I mean, judging is a huge thing anyway, um, in life. <laugh>. Yes. I think a lot of people are judging. Right. And then I guess my question to that is, I feel like judgment comes a lot from just insecurity, you know? Mm-hmm. <affirmative> a person's insecurity of, you know, something, then they'll judge somebody else. It almost makes them feel better or whatever it is. And I wonder if that's something we can tackle as a parent to kind of armor kids so that they feel less insecure, that they wouldn't feel like they would have to judge someone else. 

Does that make sense? 

Yes. Oh, yes. And you, you kind of hit it on the head. A lot of it might be, you know, they might be jumping on some of these conversations just as a chance to fit in mm-hmm. <affirmative>, you know, so for instance, like the choose your own ending story for this chapter is about, you know, you walk in, you sit down at the the lunchroom and your group is really kind of bagging on another group of kids. You know, what do you do? You know, the, you know, the choices are, you jump right in, you know, and add your 2 cents, or you change a subject or you stand up for those kids. You know, those are three, three very different ways to deal with that situation. 

Um, but if it's the very first time that you're dealing with this or, or you really wanna fit in with this group, you could see how this would be very hard, you know, for, for a seventh grader to, in that moment think of the right thing to say. Yeah. So that's where it gets into practice and thinking about it and maybe having a plan in place and, you know, growth over time. 

Right. And it's also really hard to stand up to whatever group you're in if you wanna be accepted to stand up and say, no, that, that shirt, I like that shirt on that kid, you know, if they're making fun of, or talking about or judging something. Right. It's hard actually to stand up for that person. Yeah. 

It, yeah. It takes a lot of confidence at a period of life when kids are maybe at their lowest confidence levels. 

Yeah, it is. It's, yeah. It's so hard. So hard. So that kind of, kind of brings me a little bit into, like, what do you feel about, like, bullying? I know you talk about bullying versus conflict, um, but what do you feel about that in middle school? 

You know that bullying does peak in middle school? Yeah. So I definitely don't wanna ignore that bullying peaks in middle school mm-hmm. <affirmative> alongside a lot of conflict and misunderstandings. So what's tricky is a lot of, a lot of times, things that might just be maybe some mean behavior or some conflict getting labeled as bullying, and then we're not able to actually address the bullying when it really happens mm-hmm. <affirmative>. Um, so when it comes to kids, I try to make that really clear. So, so mean behavior, it unfortunately happens. 

It's, it happens, you know, everywhere throughout life. Um, and it tends to be, you know, one time or not intentional, um, um, and but bullying where, where that shifts is bullying is, is intentional and it's repeated, and it's really targeted at a person. Um, so just noticing that difference because I think we, we need to really if it is a bullying situation, we need to get on that and, and, and make that stop. 

And it's, it's tricky cuz now kids are online, and that can happen so quickly online mm-hmm. <affirmative>, um, what I see happening online often is maybe somebody does something, um, they say or do something that they shouldn't have. So they themselves say something really mean online, and then there's this instantaneous response from kids in response to that whatever was said. Um, but sometimes that response can keep going and going and get very intentional. And so something that started as a mistake and a really mean comment, the response to that can grow into, you know, bullying the kid mm-hmm. 

<affirmative> who made the initial mean comment or mistake? So, so this is, there's a real fine line here, and it's tough, really tough for kids to navigate, but, um, I think it's really important for schools to talk about this a lot, to have some safe to tell resources for kids because this is the age group too, where they, they might be nervous about even reporting this. Yeah. Um, because of the backlash of that, and will it be handled well mm-hmm. <affirmative>, you know, by the adults. So this is, this is a really tricky time, um, for kids. 

I, I mean, I have a question. It it's, how is it handled well because, like the, from, from a parent perspective, right? Like if some, if one of my kids came to me and said someone said something or posted something, and you know, people got on board with that, but if they were to say something, they do feel, I can tell they do feel like it's a, it's a backlash, and you know, now kids know and now there's a whole thing, and you know, what is the right reaction and what are the right things to really stop this bullying from having. 

Yeah. And it's, you know, it depends, of course, it's, it would be unique for every situation, you know, depending on, of course, yeah. On what happened. Um, but if it is getting into that, it's, it's intentional, it's repeated, it's pretty aggressive. Um, it's very one-directional at this point. Um, schools are required to, to respond to that situation and, hopefully they've got some, some policies and plans in place and some staff that can handle that well. But it is, it is really hard, um, to, to handle that well. 

Um, some schools have some restorative justice programs that you've maybe heard about to try to smooth things out, all sorts of approaches. And it really depends on the kids and the families and the school involved. But it is, it's not easy. You know, I, I wish I, there was one simple way to say, this is how you handle it. 

Well, it really depends on the situation. Um, and, and it needs to be handled carefully, you know, with the person who was the target of that involved, you know, so they feel like they're okay with how this is being handled too. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, um, you know, sometimes that gets missed. Is that it, they, that you, the response is not what the person who was the target would have wanted to happen, you know? Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. So, so giving them some authority on what they would like to see, you know, maybe the the happen to, to resolve this. But it's not easy. 

It's, it is really complicated. And since a lot of this is happening sometimes online too, it's, it's almost outta the purview of the school, you know? So it's hard to know, you know, at what point they step in. Um, so it, it is, it's really tricky. 

Yeah. Yeah. And I, I know you've mentioned online a few times, and I know you have a book coming out, uh, called the phone book, and I think it kind of actually hits some of these online issues. Do you wanna say anything about that that we should know as parents and middle schoolers? 

Yeah. You know, so this is, you know, often the time that kids are, you know, getting online and a lot of middle schoolers are on social media and, you know, a lot of, not too, you know, so it kind of depends on the, the school and the families. Um, but that, you know, so middle, uh, social media is designed for 13 and up, but you know, we've even seen that those technologies aren't really even designed for the 13-year-old brain, you know? Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, they're, the reason they've come up with that age 13 is more a compliance with some old laws on the books as far as, um, internet privacy goes. 

So that's why it's 13. However, so many kids are actually, you know, on social media younger than that, so mm-hmm. <affirmative>. So, you know, we all are aware of the recent, you know, Instagram, you know, Facebook files that came out, some of those internal reports, how some social media, um, applications are just, you know, kids' brains are not quite ready for them. 

So, um, however, they're on them already. So kids are starting to, to be on these platforms already. And, there are some really positives. So I don't wanna say this is all bad, but I think, you know, since families are facing this right now, they're facing, you know, how do I navigate this, this my, my, my, my daughter or son really wants to be online. I'm not sure they're ready. You know, there are so many discussions that have to go into that and conversations that need to be ongoing, you know, as far as like privacy and being a good digital citizen and mm-hmm. 

<affirmative>, you know, uh, knowing the difference between like digital drama and cyberbullying. And so, that's what kind of inspired my third book, which comes out this summer. It's called The Phone Book. Um, because I feel like there are so many conversations that parents really need to have, um, starting as soon as your kids are getting some digital devices, you know, it's, and then growing into social media when they are mature enough to get on social media. 

Um, that's kinda what inspired that book cuz there's so much as, you know, as a parent, there's, there's a lot to talk about there as to, you know, helping kids navigate their online world. You know, this is the first generation of kids that's really grown up, you know, with these devices in their hands. So, so we're learning as we go, you know, mm-hmm. <affirmative> and, and, and we're just learning kind of the impact, um, of all these devices at such an early age and, and some of the results are still mixed. You know, there are definitely some huge positives out there, but there are also some negatives. 

So being aware of all that and having those important conversations with our kids so that they could start to, you know, navigate and create some healthy digital habits. 

Yeah. And once again, I think every kid is so different. There are some kids that, you know, you give 'em a phone, and there is no way they're gonna detach themselves from it, and they can get in all sorts of troubles. There are other kids that are like, okay, I can come down for dinner, I'll put my phone down, and we're on, you know, I'm here. Yeah. So it's, I think when I went to, oh gosh, I think it was my daughter when she was going to middle school, I went to the, you know, the parents' night, and they did talk about, uh, you know, devices. And it was interesting because I had, I was one of those parents that got my daughter a phone early. 

She had done a lot of dancing where she wasn't around that I could, you know, I had to get in touch with her, and she was young, and she wasn't with me. 

And so I really wanted that connection. Um, so she did, she had one early, but I remember feeling like, oh my God, I'm a terrible parent. My kids, like in fifth grade with a phone. Right? And when we went to that sixth grade and parent night, this teacher said, well, you have to know your kid. You know, it really depends on your kid. And I was so thankful for them to say that because the reason I had given to it to her in the beginning anyway was so that we can be safe, be in touch. 

Um, when she was still at her dance classes until later at night and I knew when to pick her up. Um, and that's why we had it, but she could put it down. Like it wasn't like I had to tear it out from under her. She was able to put it down, you know, so I knew my kids, so it wasn't the same kid that maybe the same age my son is. My son maybe had a harder time getting the, getting that out of his hands. So it's really very specific, I think, to your kid and knowing your kid and what they can and cannot handle. 

Yeah. And it's, you know, it's a very personal family decision. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, you know, like your family, like what are the circumstances of your family? And so, you know, and I, you know, and these technologies are not going away. I think, you know, what I feel like is we, we are just learning how to put, you know, the seatbelts on, you know, cuz we kind of just, we just blew out of the gate, you know, full speed. And now we're kind of learning, you know, what are the, what are the things we need to put in place? And a lot of that actually I feel like lies in Congress. You know, there's a lot of bills out there to start to really protect kids privacy and, you know, help protect them from, you know, accessing porn really early on. 

There's, there's so much going on that is out of our hands, you know, that, that I'm hoping that will be picked up in Congress. Um, it hasn't yet made it through, but I know there's a lot of legislators really working on this. And I, I'm hopeful that in the future we will have more regulations and guidelines in place that will protect kids. We're not there yet. Um, so, you know, it leaves it up to the families to really start to have those conversations, you know, to make sure that they, their kids are safe online. 

Well, I didn't know that it was going all the way to Congress, so that's pretty, 

Oh yeah, there's, there's a lot of bills in place and, and a lot of things that, you know, some senators are trying to, to push through. Um, you know, because e even now, you know, tech companies are often allowed to, you know, collect some data on, on kids and, you know, some of these anonymous apps that are, you know, not safe places for kids. So, so there's a lot going on behind the scenes and it's really hard for parents to keep up, you know, <laugh>, it's, it's, it's so, it, it's really hard for us to keep up. Um, so we just do our best to keep, keep the conversation going, you know, keep learning ourselves, help our kids, you know, navigate as best as they can. 

And, you know, you know, when I'm talking with my kids, I, I make sure, you know, we talk about how different apps make them feel, you know, so helping kids notice, you know, when they spend time on a certain app they notice after they feel like bad about themselves, you know, versus another, you know, app that doesn't have that effect. So having them be more conscious consumers of technology to, so 

What would you say the top things that parents can do to support their child during this middle school phase? Are 

Who, you know, one would be, um, to be really grounded ourselves as parents, you know, cause we might remember some tough years ourselves in middle school. So I think it's Brene Brown that sometimes, cause that calls it secondary trauma, you know, when our, our kids come home and it causes, you know, an emotional reaction in us. So, so as best as we can, you know, stay really grounded cuz our, that's gonna ripple back to our kids if they know that home is a pretty grounded, safe space for them. So, so staying grounded ourselves, um, working on that skill that we talked about earlier of really listening, um, and seeing if we can maintain that connection. 

So maybe they keep sharing with us, you know, if, if we are grounded and we're really listening and, you know, trying to control giving too much advice, um, you know, we're gonna have a better chance that they keep sharing with us. And, you know, just keep that conversation going with them. That, you know, all these changes are totally normal. You know, the friendship changes, the body changes, you know, all those dynamics. It's middle school's a huge time of change, and that's uncomfortable, but it's okay. 

Yeah, I love that. Reminding them that what they are going through is totally normal. Mm-hmm. <affirmative> because I don't think they see it that way. 

<laugh>. Yep. Yep. 

Yeah. That's great. So where can listeners find you and your books? 

Um, the books are available anywhere. Books are sold. And the easiest place to find and connect with me is on my website, which is And on my website, there are links off to my socials, and there are links to, um, my books and some resources I have available for my books. And I also do, um, a monthly e-newsletter that talks about all this stuff. You know, I just love to explore, you know, the social emotional lives of families and kids. So, um, I have a blog that I share on my website too. 

So if our listeners can take away one really important message, what would it be? Today? 

I'm gonna talk to parents 'cause I feel like, you know, and I do this myself too, I think as parents we can be really hard on ourselves. So I just wanna say to parents that you're doing awesome. You know, keep doing what you're doing. They're listening to this show. They're trying to be the best parent they can be. So give yourself some slack parents; you know, we are all learning and growing too, you know, maybe not quite as much as middle school, but as parents talk about a, a journey of change in growth. You know, there's nothing more, you know, than parenthood for that. 

So, you know, just go easy on yourself too, and keep doing what you're doing. Keep showing up, keep listening, keep learning, and you know, just being the best parent you can 

Be. Yeah. I, I love that cuz I always say to my kids, well this is the first time I'm a teen parent, you know, like, I'm learning too. This is the first time I'm doing this. So. Yeah. Well, thank you so much for talking about, just talking about middle school and just your incredible work and all those books that you have done so that parents have tools and kids have tools that'll help them just navigate this very tricky, not awkward, but a tricky phase, uh, their life. <laugh>. 

Thank you, Lisa. I appreciate and thank you for the work you do. You know what I love, what's happening right now is, you know, the work you're doing, parents coming together and just talking about this stuff, you know, this is so cool. This didn't happen even when my kids were little. I didn't have these resources. So you feel like you're in a community with other parents that are also learning. So thank you for, for putting all this information out there and connecting parents cuz we, we all need each other. 

Oh, thank you. Thank you for listening to this episode. Jessica explains why these middle school years are so tricky and how, as parents, we can support our kids. And if you enjoyed this episode, please share it with your friends. 

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Jessica Speer


Jessica Speer is the award-winning author of BFF or NRF (Not Really Friends)? A Girls Guide to Happy Friendships, and Middle School – Safety Goggles Advised. Her interactive books for preteens and teens entertain readers while exploring social-emotional topics. Blending humor, a dash of science, stories, and insights, her writing unpacks the social stuff that surfaces during childhood and adolescence.

She has a master’s degree in social sciences and explores topics in ways that connect with kids. Jessica is regularly featured in and contributes to media outlets on topics related to kids, teens parenting, and friendship. For more information, visit