Dear Therapist: I’m So Upset by My Kids’ Middle-School Drama

I’m not sure why I’m reacting so strongly to hearing about conflicts at school.

Bianca Bagnarelli
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Dear Therapist,

We have two sons, fraternal twins, who are in middle school. They both play sports, participate in other activities, and have some mutual friends.

This past school year, I’ve become more emotionally involved in their social interactions. For example, there is one boy, “Matthew,” who bullied one of my twins last year, and now seems to be getting into trouble this year with my other twin. I don’t like how Matthew is acting. I’ve talked endlessly to both of my boys about him, tried to give them advice and let them work it out, but now I’m so angry at Matthew I can barely say hi to him at school. I recognize that my kids have faults as well, but I can’t seem to separate my anger from how I treat Matthew when I see him.

Another example is during sports. Both of my boys are on the same lacrosse team. Another child, “Peter,” brags all the time and puts my kids down in subtle ways. It bothers my boys—one much more than the other—but it bothers me so much that I find myself angrier at Peter than I should be.

Why am I getting so emotionally charged lately, when I know I should just be there for my kids and let them work this out?


Dear Anonymous,

It’s natural for parents’ protective instincts to kick in when they feel that their kids are being mistreated, but it’s also important to be curious, as you are, about the intensity of these reactions.

Your question isn’t just about the intensity, though—it’s also about the timing. You’re wondering why these feelings are so strong now, and it may have to do with the fact that many parents experience a sense of loss as their kids get older. When children are babies and toddlers, parents are wholly involved in their social worlds, and the leap into elementary school doesn’t feel so far because they still need so much from us.

But a big shift occurs in middle school. Parents generally have a much less significant role at school because there tend to be fewer ways to get involved, and kids don’t want their parents around as much. Their growing independence is on display, and that can leave parents with a mixture of pride and grief.

How do some parents deal with the grief that accompanies the process of letting go? They hold on tighter. For some, that might manifest when preventing their kids from being age-appropriately independent—say, not allowing them to go to the mall or movies without an adult. In others, it might be an attempt to dictate their decisions, as if they were still young and incapable of making these choices on their own. And in others, the grief might be experienced as an over-the-top need to protect them from the world into which they’re rapidly moving—which might look a lot like the anger you’re experiencing.

It’s also true that as our kids get older, we have more memories of being their age. And if those memories include being mistreated, excluded, or belittled, we may have intense emotional reactions when we perceive this happening to our own kids. But it’s important to remember that you and your sons are different people and that your kids may have different responses to difficult social interactions than you did, just like they bother one son more than the other.

None of this means that you should disengage from your sons’ social interactions. Letting them work it out doesn’t mean you can’t be a sounding board and help them think through things if they come to you for help. (Letting them come to you is crucial: If you’re coming to them, you may be unintentionally escalating this.) They still need your guidance and support, and doing so effectively might quell some of your anger. So let’s consider how to do that in the two examples you gave.

First, you say that last year Matthew bullied one of your sons, and it’s important to distinguish between your perception as a protective parent and a real case of bullying. The National Centre Against Bullying defines it as “when an individual or a group of people with more power, repeatedly and intentionally cause hurt or harm to another person or group of people who feel helpless to respond.” Bullying should always be taken seriously and requires adult intervention—starting with apprising school professionals of what’s going on and making a plan with them to address it immediately.

If, however, it’s not bullying but something more like unkindness, joking around in a way that’s not well received, not being a good friend, or generally being a doofus or clueless middle schooler, this is a great learning opportunity for both you and your boys. Here, you can help them understand what role they might play in this dynamic with Matthew (since you recognize that they aren’t perfect either). You might ask them: What would Matthew say about the difficulty between you if he were to give his version of events? Is he bothered by something you’re doing? For instance, maybe your boys talk to other kids about how much they don’t like Matthew, or about how annoying he is. Maybe something happened between them a while back that hasn’t been resolved. Or maybe something’s going on with Matthew, independent of your boys, and they can learn to respond to his behavior in a way that doesn’t provoke more of it.

The point is not to say, “Yeah, Matthew is awful,” but to ask instead, “What do you think this is really about?” and “What do you think are other possible reasons that he did/said that?”

As for Peter, here again you can help your sons—and you—focus on the bigger picture. Rather than getting emotionally riled up by Peter’s put-downs, maybe you can talk to your boys about having compassion for this kid who feels so insecure about himself—and that is where these put-downs are coming from—that he feels the need to belittle others. Here, you’d be modeling how not to personalize these types of comments and how to be less reactive to them. The world is filled with difficult people, and we all have to learn how to deal with them.

Not only will these kinds of conversations give your sons practice with resolving conflict and considering another perspective, but they will help you gain some perspective as well. Meanwhile, if you do find yourself becoming nostalgic about their childhood, or thinking a lot about how quickly they’re growing up, in those moments it will help to remember that you aren’t alone—and that being present for your boys in a healthier way will give all of you the kind of experience you’ll be proud to look back on.

Dear Therapist is for informational purposes only, does not constitute medical advice, and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician, mental-health professional, or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. By submitting a letter, you are agreeing to let The Atlantic use it—in part or in full—and we may edit it for length and/or clarity.