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Why pre-teens need adults more than ever

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“I don’t know how to disciple the kids with what we have.”

This was the comment a high school mentor made to me last fall — and it is one I hear with relative frequency.

Many of the students coming into the high school ministry of Young Life sometimes behave more like middle schoolers, and Young Life is not alone in recognizing this pattern. Ask nearly any teacher or school administrator today and they will attest to the fact that COVID-19 and the other larger issues in our society — including political and racial tensions — have played a significant role in how quickly (or not) our kids are maturing emotionally and socially.

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The reality is that many of our kids have lost as much as 2 years of social development, and for middle schoolers, this can have significant consequences not just now, but down the road.

Let’s face it: middle schoolers can be awkward in many ways — physically, emotionally, and socially. Middle school is a key time for finding friend groups, social interests, and a general sense of who you are. Now add into the mix a two-year global pandemic that has cut opportunities and connection points for making friends and expanding interests.

What we have left is an emergency in child and adolescent mental health, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Children's Hospital Association, and the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry. In fact, according to the latest U.S. Surgeon General’s Advisory report, even before the pandemic, mental health challenges were the leading cause of disability and poor life outcomes in young people.

Ever since the pandemic began, the report continues, “rates of psychological distress among young people, including symptoms of anxiety, depression, and other mental health disorders, have increased.” Depressive and anxiety symptoms doubled during the pandemic, with 25 percent of youth experiencing symptoms of depression and 20 percent experiencing symptoms of anxiety.

According to the Children's Hospital Association, there were more than 47,000 mental health visits to emergency departments in the first three quarters of 2021. This is nearly 40 percent higher than the same period in 2020!

Over the past 32 years, I have been asked over and over why I work with this age group. Middle school, by nearly anyone’s standards, is hard. Many of us feel like we barely made it out. Even more of us insist we would never relive those years for any amount of money!

While kids in middle school can be cliquey and unkind at times, those I’ve worked with have also displayed a creativity, wit, and desire to learn and grow. They are seeking independence, but also are still highly dependent on the adults in their lives. This formative time offers few clear lines, and healthy adult mentors and guides can make all the difference in the world.

So how can we come alongside our middle schoolers during this time of social development, especially while many kids face additional mental and emotional stress? Let me share 3 practical ways.

Be available

Because kids this age are seeking independence, changing physically, and thinking more critically, we may assume they need us less than they once did. Nothing could be further from the truth. And now that COVID-19 restrictions have let up in many parts of the country, we may be tempted to believe that the best thing our kids can have is freedom. Helping our middle schoolers reintegrate into the social and emotional realities of life in community with others begins with asking questions: How are you doing — really? How is it going with your friends? Is there anything that is scary to you? Is there anything that keeps you up at night?

Listening to another person speaks volumes and is just one way to confirm that they matter and are worth investing in. We have the opportunity to be a place of safety, vulnerability, and discovery for middle schoolers who need to develop healthy social, emotional, and mental health practices.

Be authentic

I have spoken to many middle schoolers who have not only been isolated from their friends as a result of COVID-19, but who have watched the ongoing chaos of the world with confusion. Kids have seen dissension and conflict around major issues of justice, politics, and health, and asked themselves, “Why aren’t the grown-ups fixing all of this? Aren’t they supposed to know how to handle all of this?” Kids have been left feeling uncertain and confused, wondering if they can really trust adults to take care of things.

Our kids need a reset, and the wonderful thing about middle schoolers is that they are at an age where they are beginning to think more critically. The worldview wheel has been set in motion, but they still need help navigating the ship.

As adults who care for them, we need to be honest with ourselves and with kids about what is happening in the world and closer to home. We need to give them space to ask questions about what they’ve seen and heard. We can admit that we don’t always have the answers and that sometimes we respond out of our own fear and uncertainty. Kids need to hear from us that even when the world seems out of control, God hasn’t gone anywhere.

Be affirming

In her book, 3 Big Questions That Change Every Teenager, Dr. Kara Powell takes a deep dive into the questions kids today are asking: Who am I? Where do I fit? And What difference can I make? For middle schoolers, everything is up for grabs — their identity as a person, a friend, and someone who can make the world better.

I still remember sitting down with two girls who showed me how fragile that identity can be. Both posted on Instagram a picture of themselves in their cheerleading outfits after a basketball game. Within a few minutes, one had received 20 ‘likes’; the other 100. The first one deleted the post for fear that it would make her look unpopular.

Middle schoolers need people who will remind them that who God has made them to be is good. They need to know that there is always one place where their identity is never in question — they are always and ever a beloved child of God. When friends fade, He remains.

And as adults who care about them, we are an extension of this. We can never do enough to tell them or show them how loved they are. One of the ways we do this is by affirming what we see in them. “You are so kind” is good to say to our kids, but how much better if we colored in the lines on our affirmations: “What you did today to help Mr. Smith bring in his mail was very thoughtful.”

Details matter in creating a safe and loving space for our kids to develop well emotionally, mentally, and socially. Even as COVID-19 has unearthed very real issues of mental unhealth in our country, we now have an unprecedented opportunity to step into the lives of our middle schoolers with a posture of availability, authenticity, and affirmation. As they travel the road from childhood to adulthood, let’s commit to being travel companions who ensure they reach a safe and healthy destination.

Julie Clapp is Vice President of WyldLife, the middle school ministry of Young Life.

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