The ABCs of Middle School Boys: ‘B’ is for Belonging

This is part 2 of a three-part series.

In part one of this three-part series, we addressed the distinct challenges and fears that come along with parenting a middle school boy. We assured you that feeling uncomfortable and uncertain about your parenting techniques is normal, and that it’s healthy and developmentally appropriate for your son to distance himself from you during this time.  

Recently we examined the role that acceptance plays in an adolescent boy’s life. Today we look at “B” of Fessenden’s School Psychologist Dr. Jonathan Goldberg’s “ABCs of Middle School Boys.”

‘B’ IS FOR BELONGING

According to Dr. Goldberg, belonging is the primary goal of all boys at this age. “More than anything in the world, they want to belong to a group of boys; they want to have a ‘Band of Brothers,’” explains Dr. Goldberg. He adds that being part of a group is critically important to a boy’s comfort level at school—so much so that it is common for a child’s interest in academics to take a nosedive during these years as they place a greater emphasis on social aspects of school. The American Psychological Association refers to this as the “Middle School Malaise.”

Concerned parents can rest assured that this doesn’t necessarily mean that middle school students won’t achieve academic success; many students will continue to push to get good grades. But it often plays second fiddle to a need to socialize and fit in with their peers. Dr. Goldberg hears students explain that they’re receiving good grades and faring well in school, but their response is often, “I just don’t want to get a worse grade than my friends.” Children become acutely aware of their desire to blend in with those around them. “They don’t want to stick out,” shares Dr. Goldberg. “The desire to affiliate exists for a very specific reason: boys are very uncomfortable, and their identities are confused. They don’t have a good sense of ‘self’ yet.”

So how do social groups differ from the groups of friends your child has had since Pre-K? According to Dr. Goldberg, “They tend to be more fluid in younger grades; one student can be a best friend and the next day an enemy. In middle school, social circles are far more rigid than they have been in the past.” Early in the year it is common for a boy to come home and say that he doesn’t have any friends. It can feel isolating and uncomfortable to feel like you don’t have a group or a sense of belonging. Don’t be alarmed if your child feels this way, but talk to a teacher or a counselor if the problem persists.

As the parent of a middle school boy, it probably won’t surprise you to learn that boys are looking to use any tactic they have to fit into a social group. These can be very sophisticated or very primitive tactics, says Dr. Goldberg, including the music they listen to, what materials they possess, or what games they play. “They will change their opinions and deviate from what you thought you taught them just to fit into a group. They might resort to getting some laughs at sophomoric behavior just to get people to notice and like them.” At the end of the day, boys don’t want to feel different or alone.

It is important to note that there is a difference between getting a few laughs and being a class clown. If boys get too primitive, suddenly things will start to change for them. They can come across as “too babyish,” and these tactics have an adverse effect. Other boys will isolate themselves from this behavior. They don’t want to be associated with anything that’s too childish.

It is true that bullying can occur in middle school—and in any grade—but at this time in particular boys are jockeying for their social status. Oftentimes bullying is an attempt to raise up one’s own social status, and these boys aren’t always aware of how it impacts another person. But it does occur and it is something to be aware of. Dr. Goldberg states that it is important to understand the impact bullying can have on a child and ultimately affects how they view themselves. So if you’re witnessing pushing and shoving as your son and his peers are getting larger and trying to figure out who they are and where they fit in, just remember that middle school years are a great time to teach boys about the importance of social responsibility. It’s important for them to recognize that being a bystander is just as wrong as bullying. Most of all, remember that everything you’re experiencing is perfectly normal.

You tell us.

Have you seen your middle school son express a desire to “belong”? What are some ways you have been able to support him as he navigates this feeling?

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