Build Tweens’ Resilience by Tapping Into Their “Superpowers”
Phyllis Fagell loves the middle school years. So much so that she works happily “in the trenches” with middle schoolers and their families as both a school counselor and a licensed counselor seeing tweens and teens in private practice. She first showcased her years of experience as the author of Middle School Matters. In her latest book release, Middle School Superpowers: Raising Resilient Tweens in Turbulent Times, she offers new strategies for parents and educators to help tweens and teens learn how to build resilience in hard times. It is peppered throughout with real tween quotes and anecdotes that will make you smile.
In this latest Q&A, we spoke about her new book, what resilience is and isn’t, what middle schoolers and superheroes have in common(!), and her belief that all middle schoolers can harness their “superpowers” with help from the caring adults around them.
Eden Pontz: The title of your book is “Middle School Superpowers.” It is said that every superhero has an origin story. What is the origin story of this book?
Phyllis Fagell: When I first wrote Middle School Matters, I thought it would be the “What to Expect When You’re Expecting a Middle Schooler,” – a comprehensive, complete description of everything you need to know heading into the middle school years, whether you’re raising or educating a kid in that age group. Then the pandemic hit and lots of challenges came with it, including isolation. Kids didn’t have as much time to socialize together. They were out of school for a while in many parts of the country. On top of that, they were dealing with things going on in society, from cultural division to an increase in shootings. As a result, when those kids came back to school, they were very different. Suddenly, I realized they needed a new set of strategies. That’s really what I’m trying to impart in this book: how we can give kids the superpowers they need to grow up whether or not they’re growing up in turbulent times.
EP: What are some things that you find middle schoolers and superheroes have in common?
PF: Middle schoolers and superheroes have a lot in common! They both go on a journey, and they feel like strangers to themselves. At first, they feel uncomfortable in their own skin, and they definitely don’t know how to use their superpowers. So, they are experimenting and there’s a lot of trial and error and sometimes difficult moments, sometimes funny moments, but they come through on the other side knowing how to utilize those powers and how to handle just about any kind of challenge.
EP: You have a different view of middle school and tweens than many people – which is wonderful. You call this time the “age of opportunity.” Tell us more.
PF: I think a lot of people see middle schoolers as the sum of all the negative messaging that we hear in the culture, whether it comes from a movie like Mean Girls, or from a series like Diary of a Wimpy Kid. Those portrayals neglect to acknowledge all the strengths that middle schoolers bring to the table. They are so funny. They’re so passionate about everything. As I joke in the book, nobody feels like they can change the world with only the power of a well-worded petition the way a middle schooler can! They truly want to do the right thing. They want to be good friends. They want to make the adults in their lives proud. And sometimes they make mistakes because they’re still learning but they are doing the best they can.
EP: Before you launch into the 12 “superpowers” (or strengths) that will help young people become more resilient, you say it’s important to understand what resilience is – and what it is not – in today’s world. Can you explain?
PF: I think there’s this misconception that resilience is something we’re all born with, just like you might be born as somebody who has an ear for language or for music. In actuality, resilience is something that can be taught. It’s a set of skills that can be developed. And middle school is the perfect time to teach kids resilience because they’re still so impressionable and care what adults think. Plus, they can use those skills throughout their lives, not just in middle school.
EP: You’ve realized these “superpowers” that tweens can discover in themselves and benefit from. Tell us about some of them, and how they are the types of strengths that can make a positive difference for tweens now and the adults they will go on to become.
PF: I have identified 12 superpowers that I think are particularly powerful for kids in the middle school years, that align with the developmental phase. The superpowers I talk about in each chapter are things like “super daring,” which is the power to take risks and go out on a limb, and “super belonging,” which is the power to find your place in the pack and have a sense of belonging, “super sight,” which is about anticipatory decision making, and “super optimism,” which is about keeping your sense of hope and humor during the harder times. All the superpowers really align with the phase in tweens’ brain development that makes it especially difficult to manage their emotions and to not catastrophize every situation. They are experiencing emotions as a 10 on a scale of 1 to 10. They’re trying to figure out how to accurately interpret feedback, be a good friend, and pick good friends at an age when these are the most important things in their life. And so, if we can help kids acquire these superpowers during a time when they’re especially difficult, they will be masters at these specific strategies and skills when they’re older.
EP: Middle school is a developmental time of transition and change. And that’s before considering all the changes that our middle schoolers are dealing with in the world around them. But you talk about how despite change being constant and potentially unsettling, it’s not always bad. Why is that?
PF: When middle schoolers are getting ready to graduate to high school, there’s a lot of anxiety. They are excited, but they’re also nervous about what that change will bring. They may have fears that they won’t get to go to the high school where they want to go, or that it won’t turn out the way they want. I’m always telling kids that change is hard because we know what we’re giving up, but we don’t know what we’re getting. We also don’t know – and this concept blows my mind as an adult – if getting what we want is actually a good thing or a bad thing. One of the stories that I share in the book is about my own kid who, when he was in eighth grade, was supposed to get his braces off. He wore them much longer than other kids. So, he was incredibly excited on the day they were supposed to come off. But when he went to the orthodontist, the orthodontist didn’t feel they were ready to be removed, and my son was incredibly disappointed. Fast forward to later that week when he was playing baseball and got hit in the face with a ball. In addition to it messing up his face, it also broke his braces and even loosened a couple of permanent teeth. But when he went to the orthodontist to fix the wires, the orthodontist said that the only thing that kept his permanent teeth from flying out of his mouth were those braces. So, in the end, that disappointment of not getting those braces off when he wanted to ended up being a blessing in disguise.
EP: One topic that seems to come up throughout the book is the importance of making connections and friendships. Why is this so essential to tweens and teens?
Middle school is a time when kids are pulling away from their parents and identifying more with their peers. It’s a time when they can either take a huge dip in their confidence, or they can solidify their self-awareness, their ability to make choices that actually enrich their lives, including the kids that they surround themselves with. And it’s a time when kids are so impressionable, and so insecure, that the people they spend time with make a huge difference in the choices they end up making for themselves. So, it’s really important that we as adults are coaching kids, helping them develop an awareness of what they need from their peers, and who brings out the best in them. I hammer home the idea that you don’t need one best friend. Having one friend and putting all your eggs in that one basket can backfire if that friendship goes south. Meanwhile, others may feel like a third wheel and feel left out if you’re too close with that one best friend. When kids go on to high school, the ones who do the best are the ones who are floaters, who can make friends with all kinds of different people, and who are comfortable engaging with people who aren’t necessarily exactly like themselves.
EP: What do you say to the parents who have kids who may be struggling making those connections or friends at this time?
PF: One of the pieces of advice I always give is to make sure that you are not transferring your own anxiety. If you’re incredibly extroverted, and your child is introverted but they’re very comfortable and happy having a few friends and not being part of a big social scene, or if they have people they are comfortable with at school and feel a sense of belonging, and they simply don’t have the energy after school to socialize with peers, that doesn’t mean there’s a problem. If there’s a child who is turning kids off, or who really wants to connect and can’t, that’s an opportunity to help them develop their social skills. Teaching things like how to enter a conversation or how to give somebody an authentic compliment, helps develop those skills that sometimes we neglect to teach kids in this age group because we think they’re too old for this type of concrete advice, but they actually appreciate and benefit from it.
EP: In the book you say that adults should “cast aside their assumptions and start with curiosity.” Explain what you mean by this and why it’s so important for adults to adapt this mindset with their kids.
PF: As adults — whether we’re working with kids in a school setting, or we’re raising a middle schooler — when we hear that somebody said something cruel, it’s easy for us to make assumptions that the other child intended to wound our kid. That this is something that is part of this phase that we’ve heard we’re supposed to dread. In actuality, most of the time when kids are making those kinds of mean comments, or excluding someone, it’s not necessarily done with any kind of mean intent. So much of the insensitivity we see in this age group comes from social clumsiness, from lacking the skills and still having that developing empathy. And these are all things that we need to be talking to our kids about, and helping them acquire, so they can adopt someone else’s perspective and also be kinder to themselves. I often remind parents that when kids embrace differences in other kids and really feel and internalize the idea that everyone is worthy of respect, they also are reinforcing the concept that they are worthy of respect. And at an age when kids are so self-critical, that’s important.
EP: If not every child can have every superpower, is there one to focus on that you would choose?
PF: My answer is that you need to work with the child in front of you. One child might be impulsive and have a hard time anticipating how their choices today will impact tomorrow, whereas somebody else might have a kid who really needs to work on their social skills and feels lonely or excluded. For a kid who has trouble with decision making, or problem solving, they might need to work on “super sight.” For that kid who is relentlessly negative, they may need to work on super optimism.” For a kid who has a really hard time with change they may need to work on “super flexibility.” So, starting with wherever your child needs the most support and building on the strengths they have is usually the way I recommend people approach this book and their child in general.
EP: What is something that parents should know that may be helpful when they are dealing with their children’s school educators about issues their children may be having?
PF: One of the ways that parents can support their kids is to be vulnerable and to be open with the school if they see their child is struggling with something at home. Or if there’s something going on in the family that is leading them to be off at school, it’s helpful for parents to give the school a heads up. Often, educators can give an assist if a child is having trouble with, for example, eating in the cafeteria. If instead they’re eating lunch in a bathroom, and nobody at the school knows, it’s hard to support them. But if a parent calls and alerts us to the issue, then maybe a school counselor or a teacher could invite them to a lunch group or a more structured activity during that lunch hour. It can be hard to admit that your child is struggling with something, it might even feel like you’re betraying them. But in many cases your advocacy can end up leading to better results than just letting them flail on their own until somebody hopefully notices what’s going on.