Phyllis Fagell on Raising Resilient Tweens in Turbulent Times

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This week I’m bringing back school counselor, therapist, and author Phyllis Fagell. The last time Phyllis was on the podcast, we talked about the difficulties of going back to in-person school after schools reopened in the fall of 2021. It seems like such a long time ago but the reality is that kids are still dealing with the aftermath of the isolation, the lack of structure, and other big changes that the pandemic forced on them. So I wanted to invite Phyllis back on to talk about her new book Middle School Superpowers: Raising Resilient Tweens in Turbulent Times, which she wrote as a response to what she is seeing in her work with children in the aftermath of COVID

During this interview we talked about why this generation of tweens is more insecure, vulnerable, and eager to please perhaps than past generations, effective strategies for helping kids who might be rigid thinkers become more flexible, and how parents can coach their kids around navigating, forming and maintaining healthy friendships. And that just scratches the surface. I can’t overstate how much wisdom and insight Phyllis has for us, both through her book and in what she shares in this episode — she works with middle schoolers every day as therapist in private practice and as a middle school counselor. So very many great takeaways!


About Phyllis Fagell

Phyllis L. Fagell, LCPC is the school counselor at Sheridan School in Washington, DC, a therapist who works with children and teens in private practice, and an author and journalist. She is the author of Middle School Matters: The 10 Key Skills Kids Need to Thrive in Middle School and Beyond – and How Parents Can Help and her most recent book, Middle School Superpowers: Raising Resilient Tweens in Turbulent Times. Phyllis is a frequent contributor to The Washington Post and freelances for publications such as Psychology Today, CNN, Working Mother, U.S. News & World Report and Your Teen. Her ideas have been shared in outlets including The New York Times, The Atlantic, The New Yorker, Edutopia, Mindshift, The Chicago Tribune, and NPR. Phyllis lives in Bethesda with her husband and three children.


Things you’ll learn from this episode

  • Why this generation of tweens is more insecure, vulnerable, and eager to please than past generations
  • How to help kids who might be rigid thinkers to become more flexible
  • What Phyllis is seeing in how kids are connecting and finding a sense of belonging in the post-pandemic era
  • How parents can coach their kids around navigating, forming, and maintaining healthy friendships
  • What the “magic question is” and how to use it to support our kids in developing empathy
  • How to navigate situations where our kids are seeking support from sources that may not be our first choice
  • Why it’s important to respect how our kids want to present their neurodiversity and other parts of their identities to the world


Resources mentioned for raising resilient tweens

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Episode Transcript

Debbie Reber  00:00

Tilt Parenting is proud to partner with Fusion Academy this season. Fusion Academy is the world’s most personalized school with one to one classrooms that match your student’s pace and preferences so they can learn better, dive deeper, and never get left behind. Learn more about the most personalized school in the world and how it’s changed the lives of 10s of 1000s of differently wired students, including mine at

Phyllis Fagell  00:25

Even if to an adult observer, it looks like they’re blending in just fine that they are part of the conversation that they have people to sit with at lunch. They all are complaining that they feel awkward. They’re all struggling to figure out, how do you turn a school friend into a real friend? Or how do I deal with the fact that I’m lonely? And when you dive deeper, it might be that they’re lonely in one context or not another so maybe they’re fine at school, but when they’re on their sports team with a bunch of travel players who are going to school together who you don’t know from school, maybe in that context, you feel guilty. And so it’s an opportunity to really get a little bit granular with kids and try to figure out when is it that you feel most insecure?

Debbie Reber  01:08

Welcome to Tilt Parenting, a podcast featuring interviews and conversations aimed at inspiring and forming and supporting parents raising differently wired kids. I’m your host Debbie Reber. This week, I’m bringing back to the show, school counselor, therapist and author Phyllis Fagell. The last time Phyllis was on the podcast, we talked about the difficulties of going back to in person school after schools reopened in the fall of 2021. It seems like such a long time ago, but the reality is that our kids are still very much dealing with the aftermath of the isolation, the lack of structure, and other big changes that the pandemic forced on them. So I wanted to invite Phyllis back to talk about that, and her new book Middle School Superpowers: Raising Resilient Tweens in Turbulent Times, which she wrote as a response to what she’s seeing in her work with children in the aftermath of COVID. During this interview, we talked about why this generation of tweens is more insecure, vulnerable and eager to please perhaps than past generations, effective strategies for helping kids who might be rigid thinkers become more flexible, and how parents can coach their kids around navigating, forming and maintaining healthy friendships. And that really just scratches the surface. I can’t overstate how much wisdom and insight Phyllis has for us both through her book and in what she shares in this episode. If you don’t already know Phyllis, his work, here’s a little bit of background. Phyllis Fagell is a Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor in a school in Washington DC, a therapist who works with children and teens and private practice. An author and journalist She is the author of Middle School Matters the 10 Key Skills Kids Need to Thrive in Middle School and Beyond and How Parents Can Help and Her most recent book Middle School superpowers, Raising Resilient Tweens in Turbulent Times. She’s also a frequent contributor to The Washington Post and freelances for publications such as Psychology Today, CNN working mother, US News and World Report and your teen. And before I get to that, I want to be sure you know that Seth Perler, my friend, colleague executive function coach, who’s been on the show many times is getting ready for his next executive function online summit. The summit, called TEFOS which stands for the executive function online Summit, is going to be held August 11 through the 13th. And I know that Seth is going to as he always does over deliver on this event. He has a fantastic lineup, and it is all centered around practical, yet unconventional strategies to truly help kids who struggle with any kind of executive function challenges succeed. You can learn more by going to tilt I always learned so much from this event. And I can pretty much guarantee this is one summit you do not want to miss. Again, just go to tilt, to learn more and to register. Thanks so much. And now here is my conversation with Phyllis on Middle School superpowers.

Debbie Reber  04:20

Hello, Phyllis, welcome back to the podcast.

Phyllis Fagell  04:22

Thanks, Debbie. It’s so good to be here.

Debbie Reber  04:24

Yeah, I was going back and checking out the last time you were on the show. It was such a different time because we’re talking about going back to school in this unusual time of COVID. It’s such a good conversation listeners. You should go back and listen to it because it’s good any time of year and Phyllis is in the trenches with kids as a school counselor therapist. She has so much wisdom to share. So anyway, go back and listen to that episode. But today I’m very excited to talk about your new book, which is so good. I had a chance to read it. It’s called Middle School superpowers raising resilient tweens in turbulent times. So first of all, congratulations on the new book.

Phyllis Fagell  05:02

Thank you. Thank you for reading it and for having me and for wanting to discuss middle schoolers again, I love it.

Debbie Reber  05:08

Well, yeah, you brought that up. So I did have a really interesting conversation with Chris Baum, about his book, finding the magic in middle school, your books are so completely different. And it is such a fascinating time of life. So it’s going to be very interesting. And I have way too many questions, we’ll see what we can get to. But as a way to get started, just tell us a little bit about why this book, what did you want to share, and what was your goal and putting it out into the world.

Phyllis Fagell  05:34

So I had written Middle School Matters, which I describe as kind of a What to Expect When You’re Expecting a middle schooler. And over the last few years, there have been just a few changes in the world pandemic here and there, a lot of cultural division, blood of isolation and uncertainty for kids, and heightened social sensitivity, plus the increase in school violence, and kids’ fears around their own safety. And as a result, suddenly, it became obvious that kids needed an additional set of skills, a whole new set of skills, really, and that I needed to write the companion book to Middle School Matters. And so this is really the book that dives into more detail about a lot of the specific challenges that kids face in these years. And how we, as adults, can help them acquire these 12 superpowers that I’ve identified, that can help them deal with everything from the social instability that they’re experiencing in these years to everything happening in society right now.

Debbie Reber  06:41

Your book is so comprehensive, I think that’s one of the things I appreciated about it so much is you cover everything. And you have so much experience and voices of kids and families and what they’ve gone through in the book, including neural diversion families, which I’m always so happy to see. It’s just very readable. So I can’t recommend it highly enough. I do want to get into some of the superpowers. But let’s even start there. Because you say in the book that tweens are superheroes in the making. So what do you mean by that?

Phyllis Fagell  07:11

I think the cultural narrative around middle schoolers is that they’re mean that they’re drama seeking that this is a phase to dread parents may have their own negative memories of the phase. And I really see it as a missed opportunity. If we don’t jump in there and parent during these years, they’re still impressionable, they’re still interested in what we have to say. They have so many innate strengths. And we simply have to unleash them, help them, identify them, help them cultivate those strengths. And success begets success with any child, but particularly with this age group, which is so insecure, so vulnerable, and so eager to please not only adults, but to figure out where they fit in among the pack. And so if we can help them see themselves as the hero of their own story, including their imperfections, they’re not only going to be more resilient and have a gentler middle school experience, they’re going to be more resilient adults.

Debbie Reber  08:04

You said this generation of tweens, middle schoolers are more insecure, vulnerable and eager to please, perhaps than past generations. That’s priceless to me. Can you say a little bit more about that and why you make that observation?

Phyllis Fagell  08:17

Yes, they’re the same tweens we’ve always seen. Their empathy is still developing, they are changing rapidly in every way, they are suddenly acutely aware of how they stack up to others. They are risk averse, they are sure that everyone is scrutinizing and probably criticizing them. That has always been the case. But on the heels of the pandemic, on the heels of kids having fits and starts and stops in school, their sensitivity is heightened. And so I’m calling them extreme tweens. It’s the same developmental characteristics they’ve always exhibited. Only more so everything is exacerbated.

Debbie Reber  08:53

What does that mean for neurodivergent tweens? Because I always say that parents have differently wired kids, it was the extreme kind of wingsuit flyer experience of parents. So with neuro divergent tweens being extreme extreme in that way,

Phyllis Fagell  09:10

you know, it’s really interesting because the neurodivergent students I work with in many ways, we’re far better equipped for the pandemic and for reentry than their neurotypical peers, because they’re already used to working harder. They’re already used to needing systems to stay organized. They’re already used to feeling like they’re taking a risk in class every time they raise their hand and have built that courage muscle and built that skill set. And so in many ways, while they are in pre pandemic times, perhaps the extreme in the same way that you just described them, that is a strength that confers a superpower on them that they might otherwise not have been identified as having by their peers. They had a lot to teach their classmates.

Debbie Reber  09:57

That’s so interesting. I always say that Our kids have the potential to be some of the most emotionally intelligent adults that you’ll meet, because they have often invested a lot of time in therapy and working on themselves and exploring their inner worlds. So that’s really interesting to hear. You mentioned the superpowers in the book, you have 12 of them outlined, we’re not going to go through all 12, as I was reading through, I hold ones that felt particularly relevant for my listeners. And so the first one is super flexibility. And of course, flexibility is something a lot of us struggle with having kids who tend to be more concrete thinkers and more rigid, perhaps in their approach to things. And so I’m wondering if in all of your time working with middle school students, you’ve come up with some good strategies for helping kids who might be especially rigid thinkers in becoming more flexible?

Phyllis Fagell  10:52

Sure. And you know, in the middle school years, that flexibility comes into play in lots of different ways. In some cases, they’re switching buildings, they’re going from a smaller elementary school to a bigger Middle School, no matter what they’re doing, whether they’re staying in the same k eight, or continuing to be homeschooled, they’re changing internally, so much, and externally, and so they have to adjust to the hormone shifts into puberty, and to not recognizing themselves and to seeing everyone around them change as well. And so whether or not they want that kind of change, it’s something that we have to help them just get accustomed to, to help them deal with it. And I think one of the most helpful ways we can do that is to prepare them for what to expect. There is nothing worse than a kid going through puberty, not knowing what’s happening to them. And similarly, for a student who shows up at a middle school and a building they’ve never been to, suddenly, the academic expectations are higher, all of the peer dynamics have shifted and are more complicated. you’re encountering lots and lots of different adults. And if we want them to roll with all of those changes that are so hard for neurotypical kids, for anybody, we have to make sure that we are listening carefully to what they’re concerned about. exposing them to the environment they’re going to encounter. Helping them understand the social landscape, I always share with kids going into middle school, the statistics on social churn the fact that, from fall to spring of that first year of middle school, only a third of those friendships are constant, I let them know that everybody gets dumped by a friend at some point in middle school, it’s part of that journey. And sometimes it’s because one person is growing faster than another, or has more sophisticated interests or is experimenting with a different kind of peer group. And the more they know all of those things that they can expect in advance, the less shocking and jarring and personal it feels when they go through it themselves.

Debbie Reber  12:44

So I’m just going to fess up that as you’re talking the 11 year olds inside of me are so sad that she didn’t have you as a middle school guidance counselor, I’m just going to say like I appreciate the thoughtfulness with which you support the students that you work with. And they’re so lucky to get to have you to understand them and see them in this way. I just have to say that. Thank you. And interesting, you said listening carefully to these kids about what their concerns are. And this just really jumped out at me because I think we often tend to assume what is gonna be hard for our kids, especially if we are paying such close attention to them. If we have this differently wired kid that we feel like we know way more about their brain process, then maybe we don’t even want to know. But we can still make assumptions about what’s going on. And it’s so important to ask them and listen.

Phyllis Fagell  13:36

Yes, and also to recognize that it’s not a one and done conversation. So in one conversation, they might tell you, they’re worried they won’t have someone to sit with at lunch on the first day and you can offer with their willingness to problem solve with you. We don’t want to just jump in and offer unwanted advice. But you might be able to say to them, what if you called a friend in advance that you know, is coming from the same theater Elementary and arrange to meet in front of the cafeteria. Sometimes there’s very low hanging fruit things that you can do to just make it a little more comfortable for them. And then in a subsequent conversation, they might confess that they’re worried what if they don’t have enough time between class to go to the bathroom? Or what if I get lost? How do I ask for help? And you’re right, I think as adults, we tend to think big picture, we tend to think they’re worrying about these big global shifts in friendship groups. And often they have very practical, concrete worries. I know for me, as a middle schooler, I can still remember even though I was going to a building that was a square, if you missed your classroom and just kept going, you would eventually get to it again. And still, I can remember that panicky feeling of not being able to find room 201 As if I might never find room 201 Because once you get up in your head and you’re 12 or 13 and you don’t know how to ask for help or who to ask for help or think it’s weird that you need help in the first place. It can make it very challenging and simply normalizing that everyone feels the same way that everyone feels like a stranger in a strange way. and is very reassuring.

Debbie Reber  15:02

That’s great. The second superpower in your book is super belonging. I love all the language that you use for these superpowers, so belonging, and you describe that as the power to find your place and make strong connections. So I’m just wondering, generally speaking, what have you noticed in terms of this specific superpower, and kids navigating social dynamics in this post pandemic era, you’ve had that bird’s eye view before, during and after? What are you seeing right now?

Phyllis Fagell  15:29

As a school counselor, I’ve always worked with kids who had social skills deficits, who needed a lot of concrete help to connect with other kids. What’s different is that everybody falls into that category. Now, even if to an adult observer, it looks like they’re blending in just fine that they are part of the conversation that they have people to sit with at lunch, they all are complaining that they feel awkward, they’re all struggling to figure out how do you turn a school friend into a real friend? Or how do I deal with the fact that I’m lonely? And when you dive deeper, it might be that they’re lonely in one context or not another so maybe they’re fine at school, but when they’re on their sports team with a bunch of travel players who are going to school together, who you don’t know from school, maybe in that context, you feel guilty. And so it’s an opportunity to really get a little bit granular with kids and try to figure out, when is it that you feel most insecure? What kind of support do you need from me? And I think, particularly with kids who don’t present with any specific challenges were unaccustomed to giving them concrete practical social skills advice, it feels as if we’re infantilizing them. But all kids want that kind of help. I spend a lot more time now teaching kids how to give an authentic compliment, how to ask a question how to show interest in someone else, how to pick up on cues that someone has lost interest, how to identify when you’re interrupting somebody in a way that doesn’t shame them or embarrass them in front of peers. And I’m finding that they’re very grateful that it emboldened them to take more social risks when they feel like they’re armed with strategies.

Debbie Reber  17:03

I want to hear a little bit more about some ideas you might have for parents who are especially concerned about their differently wired middle schoolers social lives. But we’re going to take a quick break, and we’ll get right back to that.

Debbie Reber  17:16

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Debbie Reber  18:06

One of the biggest concerns I hear about from parents is this concern that their kids have these fledgling social lives, they’re struggling to make connection with their peers, do you have any specific you’ve already shared a lot of really good ideas for how to guide and scaffold or kids around this, but any other specific thoughts on how we could coach our kids around navigating, forming and maintaining healthy friendships.

Phyllis Fagell  18:32

We can’t tell them who to be friends with. And I know that that’s really frustrating, especially if your child is hanging out with kids who you just can tell in a nanosecond are likely to ditch them, you know, it will be painful, you know, you could probably protect them from that if only they would listen to you. But unfortunately, kids are only going to twist themselves into a pretzel to prove me wrong if you try to talk them out of a specific friendship. And the good news is that we don’t really want to do that work for them anyway, as painful as it is to observe. Because this is when they’re figuring out what they need from a friend and what they have to give to a friend to sustain a reciprocal relationship. And if they don’t know when to walk away from a friendship that’s not working for them, if they don’t know how to form those meaningful bonds, and they don’t develop those skills. Now, when the stakes are fairly low, they won’t be able to leave a bad or unhealthy relationship later or a job with a supervisor that’s on there to them. So we want to be giving them those skills now. And the best way to do that is to start from a stance of curiosity, to make observations to ask them how they feel about a particular relationship and to avoid it being conflict filled rather than denigrating somebody who you think is a bad influence or leads them to make bad choices or who you think is hurtful to instead, notice when they’re with somebody who makes them feel really good or they seem really relaxed. They’re cracking jokes, they’re able to be their own silly, goofy self, and ask them what’s different. About that friendship, just a less critical way of helping them engage in that discussion.

Debbie Reber  20:06

I love that answer. And it, it makes me think of something else that jumped out at me in the book, you shared a magic question that you had posted on Twitter as a way to help kids consider whether or not they’re acting in a way that’s in line with their ethics, when talking about our kids who might be engaging in a friendship that is not bringing out the best in them, made me think of this, the magic question that you tweeted was, do you think you were your best self? I love that. And I’d love it if you could go into that a little more? And how we could use that question.

Phyllis Fagell  20:38

Sure. So I think what we want is for kids to be their best self because they want to not because they don’t want to get in trouble, not because they want to please an adult. And one way we can do that is to put it back on them, and to give them back that intrinsic motivation. And so ask me a question like, do you think you’re your best self, rather than saying, what were you thinking? Or how could you, which is likely to shut down the conversation and get them stuck in shame anyway, to instead, drop the rope and force them to wrestle with whatever that ethical dilemma is, whatever that choice is, that they made. And I think the story that I share in Super Bounce related to a girl who I was talking to on the heels of an interaction she had had with a peer in which she did something really unkind. And this was a girl who normally was very kind, was very good to her friends, and in fact, had been bullied in the past and had come to our school with that history. And I expected, frankly, more of her because she knew how bad it felt to be treated like that. And so after seeing this other girl collapse in tears because of her actions, when I went to talk to this girl, I was so tempted to say something like how could you, you of all people should know how bad that feels. But her posture was so defensive. And I could tell she was so upset at how things were unfolding, and so worried about disappointing me and not being seen as her best self, because they do even when they make mistakes very much want to be a good person. And so I reframed the question. And instead, what I said to her was, do you think you were your best self, and she started to cry, because she really then was forced to ask herself if that was the way she wanted to show up in the world. And it really wasn’t. And once she said that, and her defenses were down, that’s when I could say to her, you know, can I support you in making this right? And she wanted the help. And we were able to repair that relationship, that if we leave them feeling like we’re judging them, and that there’s no runway back to being that good kid, then we lose them, we’re not able to engage in that problem solving process with them.

Debbie Reber  22:51

It made me think of another question. I had an ADHD coach on the show many years ago. His name is Andres ra now and actually wrote about this in differently wired. And this was specifically regarding how we, again, as adults often assume a meaning behind an action or an inaction. And the question is, instead of what were you thinking is, what were you trying to do? So thinking about that, especially with differently wired kids who might be not reading some of the social cues and may do things in a way that could be misinterpreted, or might have the complete opposite effect that they wanted? That question too, can be a nice way to be nonjudgmental. Really try to understand what they were trying to do, they could have had a completely different intention than the outcome was and navigating that carefully, I think is a nice piece of this.

Phyllis Fagell  23:42

I love that question. And I love it, especially for this age group. Because so often, and this is something I’m seeing more of right now post pandemic as well. Kids want to impress their peers, they want to be funny. And they make a comment that they think in their head is going to be funny, and it lands as mean. And then they’re as shocked as the person who is taking the brunt of the joke that it didn’t come out the way they intended. And helping them come back from that is hard, too, because a lot of kids dig in their heels. They don’t want to take accountability. So one of the other magic questions that I share in the book is, okay, I hear you. It’s 98% the other person’s fault. I get that I get that you really feel like you had to react in this way or you had to say whatever it is you said, but if you had to own your 2% What would your 2% be, and again, it is giving them a runway back to sharing what they might be able to do better. And if they let their defenses down, you can get some really good information and you can find out what it is that they were trying to do. Even if you guess wrong, you often will get information. You might say something like I’m guessing that When you made that comment, you were impulsive, and you didn’t really think it through. And you thought it would be super funny. And if you’re wrong, they’re going to tell you, you’re wrong. But you’re still going to get information. They might say, No, I didn’t think it was funny. But I didn’t realize that it was going to hurt her feelings. And then you can talk about why it hurt her feelings or what they might have been able to say instead, that would have actually elicited the response they were hoping to get.

Debbie Reber  25:27

Yeah, that’s great. And I love this idea, too, of helping our kids kind of understand what their values are, what their ethics are, this is something that you talk about, you have a chapter, what’s this superpower, which is super sight, that’s the power to anticipate problems and make a plan, the super power of Supersite. It’s a mixture of so many good things, proactive problem solving, executive function, planning, organizing all of these things. I’m wondering if you have some tips for parents about how they can better identify their values, what’s important to them? That’s something that you talk about in this chapter. I just wanted to know, what does that look like and action to help our kids really start to get curious about who they are. And what matters is that a big conversation at the dinner table isn’t many conversations, like, how do we do that?

Phyllis Fagell  26:14

You know, there are a lot of different ways you can do it. One of my favorites, and I share this strategy in the book, is to print out a list of values. Sometimes I use Brene Brown’s daring greatly values, there’s also something called the Values card sort, and generate a list of about 80 different values, everything from kindness, and compassion, generosity, security, risk taking creativity, and print out two copies, one for your child and one for you, and sit next to them. And each of you go through those through the list of values, and choose your top 10, the 10 values that you think are most important to you in terms of how you show up in the world, and how people see you. And afterwards, you can explain why you chose yours. And they can explain why they chose there, especially with middle schoolers, who don’t like to be lectured. This is a way to make it more of a conversation. And you’re not trying to impose your values on them. You’re trying to help them identify what matters in their own lives. And kids do, as I say, want to be good people. And then in practice, here’s how it works. And this is something I did with an entire seventh grade class this year, I give them a scenario. And you can use a real scenario that your kid comes up with. And in this scenario I gave the seventh graders, somebody invited them. Somebody asked them if they wanted to have a sleepover and you agree, and this is somebody who has less social capital than you, not as popular, but they’re a nice person. And you say yes, and you know, it’s a really big deal for them. Because over the subsequent week or two, they keep asking you what your favorite snacks are, what movies you want to watch. And you’re an empathetic kid. And you know that it’s a big deal. And you’re glad that you’re able to have these plans with them. And then there’s a twist. Somebody with a lot more social capital says that night is the only night that they can have their sleepover birthday party with your close friends. And because they’re middle schoolers, and they always look for a loophole, I give the caveat that it’s not an option to invite that kid to the second party and rescheduling, the first one is not an option. And then I asked them to wrestle with what they would do. And I tell them, I want you to think about what the kind thing to do would be. And it’s fine to also factor in what you want. That’s realistic, and then they share what they would do. And 95% of them find a way to justify bailing on the first plan. And when I asked them why they have all kinds of reasons, you know, you should always put your best friend before your sort of friend. It’s a birthday party. And so it’s more important, they have lots of reasons to justify it. And then I do the Values card sword with them. They have no idea it’s tied to that scenario. And when they’re done choosing their 10 values, we go back to that scenario. And I tell them, I want them to think about that scenario again. But this time, I don’t want them to think about what the kind thing to do is, and I don’t want them to think about what they want. I just want them to make the decision that’s most closely aligned with the values they chose, and see what happens. And it’s really interesting. What happens is most of them change their mind. In the long run, they realize they would feel better about themselves. And it would be truer to who they want to be if they didn’t ditch the first person. And so what I explained to them is that they’re not always going to make the right choice. They’re not always going to avoid hurting someone’s feelings. But if they’re not sure that the decision they make is going to impact someone else, they can do a double check on their gut by making the same decision again using those values. And if there’s a discrepancy, they might want to have a conversation with someone about why that is and rethink the decision.

Debbie Reber  30:04

That is absolutely fascinating. I love all the data that you bring to this in the experience, it just brings it to life. I would just love to be in the room and observe that conversation happening among all those kids. You have a chapter about vulnerability, and you wrote that tweens often struggled to distinguish between the normal mood fluctuations of puberty and clinical depression. They’re more likely than older teens to have difficulty articulating their sadness. And they often choose to seek support from a similarly impaired middle schooler, rather than an adult. And that jumped out at me, this is very much true among differently wired teens and tweens, that peer group and feeling like other people are in this with me and really get what I’m struggling with. And I think it can become somewhat of an echo chamber. And I’m just wondering if you could dig into that a little bit. And if parents are listening, whose kids are seeking support from sources, that may not be our first choice, how would you suggest we navigate that?

Phyllis Fagell  31:02

So it goes both ways in the chapter on Super forcefield, which is about helping kids establish healthy boundaries, I look at it from the opposite angle from the kid who feels overburdened by that needy friend who is relying on them to help them with a problem that really isn’t best suited for a child, and may not even be best suited for any old adult, it might be somebody who has professional experience, who’s a psychologist or a doctor that can support them. If it’s something like cutting or an eating disorder, or school avoidance or child abuse. Anything along those lines, we want to make sure that kids know how to establish those healthy boundaries and help their friends find the appropriate support. And one way to do that is to reinforce that not only are you ill equipped to help them, you might be preventing them from getting the support that they need. On the flip side, we want the kids to know from the onset, that if they have a big problem, they want to be an adult. And as you just read, they’re not that in tune with their internal life, they have a hard time labeling their feelings with specificity, they don’t intuitively seek help. And if they do seek help, it might be at a point when it’s too late when they’re not thinking clearly. And so asking your child just calmly as part of a conversation to think about who is the adult you would go to in a crisis has three parts. The first is that you’re normalizing that help seeking behavior. The second is that you’re reinforcing that you want them to get that kind of help in a crisis from an adult, and not a nother eighth grader who is having suicidal ideation. And you’re having them make that call when they’re calm and rational and not in the fight, flight, freeze part of their brain so that they have a plan in place, which also plays into that Supersite that you talked about earlier.

Debbie Reber  32:57

What I also love about that question is who was the adult you would go to in a crisis, you’re also as a parent or caregiver saying it doesn’t have to be me. And I think that is really hard for a lot of parents to feel that other adults, other people get to have access to that inner part of a child that they might feel is their job to be privy to,

Phyllis Fagell  33:19

I sometimes reassure parents that what feels like a slight or feels personal, that they don’t trust you with their feelings, often is actually that they are protecting you. Especially if they sense that you’re not at your peak, they are going to do whatever they can to get that support from somebody else so that they can avoid burdening you it actually comes from a place of love, or they don’t want to disappoint you, they’re afraid they will in some ways damage that the way you see them.

Debbie Reber  33:50

That’s a very loving reframe. Thank you for that. There’s so much that we can get into your book. And as you listeners can already hear, I’m really just scratching the surface, we’ll dive into a few more superpowers. But I just wanted to say to you, Phyllis, that I appreciated the language you shared, for navigating mental health challenges with our kids, you have some scripts for lack of a better word on how to even talk about therapy with our kids. If we have a child who may not want to go instead of saying you have to go to therapy, you need to get treatment, this is what’s happening. You recommend, among other things, saying I bet this feels scary right now. And it makes sense to me that you really don’t want to go. And I also understand that people there are good at helping and that you’ll get help too. So I just wanted to say that I think having access to that kind of language is so helpful for parents.

Phyllis Fagell  34:40

I’m glad and I do think that we as parents, and I say this as a parent myself, we put a lot of pressure on ourselves to be everything to our kids to solve all of their problems. And often the most impactful way we can support our children is by remaining in that parent role and letting the professionals dive into the really tough stuff. And we’re just there to love them unconditionally and to support them and to guide them and coach them and help them get that support.

Debbie Reber  35:11

I’ve talked to within my differently wired club, we did a whole month about creating your own high Jedi Council because we can’t be all the things for our kids. And it is so important to have other people who we can rely on because first of all, we’re not mental health experts. Most of us are, but we can’t be that person for all the situations we’re going to be facing. There’s a chapter called Super agency that I wanted to point out. Emily Kircher-Morris is in that chapter who we love Emily, listeners she is the host of The Neurodiversity Podcast, you’ve probably heard she’s an expert on twice exceptionality. And you interviewed her about a child’s self acceptance, if they’re neurodivergent. She said they get to decide how they want to respond when someone doesn’t get them. I know I’m jumping all over the place to Phyllis. So I appreciate you for following the loose threads of my brain right now. But one of the things that Emily said was, do they want to ignore it? Do they want to educate that person about it? Or do they want to try to camouflage their neuro divergent trait? I’d love it if you could expand a little bit more on that identity development and having agency over how you present yourself to the world.

Phyllis Fagell  36:19

Yes, and that particular chapter is so all encompassing, because in this age group, there are so many different ways that kids can struggle with identity issues. And whether your child is neurodivergent or not, I think it is helpful for them to understand that every child is struggling, one person might be feeling less than because other kids are drinking big Starbucks drinks, and they can’t afford a Starbucks drink, or they can’t go to the mall without a credit card. And kids tend not to be that sensitive to socio economic differences in this age group. Another kid might be one of the few black kids in their class and are struggling with issues of identity related to that and are feeling misunderstood. And the list goes on. And it is part of the developmental phase to figure out who I am and am I good enough. And that can show up in 1,000,001 different ways. And what I love about Emily’s advice is that she is giving kids who feel very little agency, especially over those identity pieces that they don’t have control over back a sense of control back as a series of choices. They can decide how they want to reveal what their struggles are, with whom they want to share those struggles and be judicious about those disclosures to ensure they’re in safe company, that they are not putting themselves at risk of feeling worse. And I think that’s pretty sage advice.

Debbie Reber  37:43

Yeah, as you’re saying that you’re bringing to mind something that came up, I don’t know if it was in my book club or something recently, where a parent was really feeling concerned about wanting their child to fully like embrace their identity as a neurodivergent person to get excited about the gifts to look into role models and really go down that path we have this conversation about, it’s really up to your kids how they want to feel about it. And I think as you’re talking about this, I think we as parents can bring a lot of our fears about our kids’ identity into the equation, and that can influence how we feel about their disclosure or wanting to stay private.

Phyllis Fagell  38:25

And I think one of the things that we can do is help bolster their confidence, without necessarily even delving into this specific issue that they are wrestling with. It doesn’t really matter whether they’re struggling with body image issues, or where they fit in the social hierarchy, or whether they have dyslexia. They’re all struggling with insecurity. And so there’s two activities that parents can do with kids that I think are really helpful. It takes five positives to make up for one negative. And so to help them think more expansively to develop some cognitive flexibility, especially since this age group is so relentlessly self critical. I encourage them, and I do this with kids a lot, I’ll have them write down everything they like about themselves. It can be something superficial, it can be that they like their hair, it could be that they’re a good listener, it could be that they’re really good soccer goalie, but write down at least five and then put them somewhere where they can see them. Maybe it’s where they study or in a binder. And whenever they catch themselves having that inner self defeatist voice, to force themselves to read those sticky notes. They don’t even have to believe what they’re worried about themselves in the moment. And parents can always add some things that they like or ask them to add things that they think their friends might say about them. The idea is to challenge that negativity, because it does bolster their confidence and it makes them more resilient. And a variation of that is especially if they tell you that they are really struggling with something. Maybe it’s a specific learning disability or something That makes them feel less than this came up recently with a kid who was insecure about their weight. And it was actually in a classroom setting. And we had done this activity where I told them, every weakness or perceived weakness comes with at least two hidden strengths. And then as a class, we did it as an exercise, we said, let’s come up with a couple of hidden strengths within a weakness. Does anyone want to throw one out, and this one kid who I thought was super brave, because he did struggle with his weight said, Can we do being overweight? And this was a fifth grade class actually. So on the younger side, and one of the other kids yelled out, and they said this super compassionately, and even though to an adult, it might not sound that kind, it was meant in a very kind way. They said, You would be the first person I would want on my tug of war team. And they meant that and someone else then raised their hand and said, I know that if I’m not feeling good about myself, you’re not going to judge me because you know what that feels like. And you do that across enough things. You know, the kid with ADHD who blurt something out, they’re also often the first person to get the good conversation going, or to come up with the best ideas for the group project. We don’t want kids to get stuck on whatever it is that they’re feeling low about. We want them to see that every perceived weakness has some hidden strengths.

Debbie Reber  41:26

I love that so much every weakness comes with two hidden strengths. That’s just beautiful. I’m just going to say there are other superpowers in the book at listeners — super daring, loved that. Super optimism. We’re not going to go through them all, I guess I need to ask you, do you have a favorite? Like, is there one superpower that you’re like, This is really where the bread and butter is.

Phyllis Fagell  41:49

Super belonging has to be, to me, the meat for this particular age group. Everything else hinges on Super belonging, if kids don’t feel like they have a safety network, whether it’s adult or kids, and it doesn’t mean they have 100 friends or that their friends are popular, but they have some kind of a safety network, even as they’re bolstering their social skills. And we as adults are helping them find their place in that pack, they’re going to be able to weather everything else. And they’re also going to be able to acquire those other skills so much faster if they have that sense of belonging.

Debbie Reber  42:25

And I just want to say for listeners who are listening to that, and are thinking, oh my gosh, but my kid does not have a best friend, my kid does not have a social circle, what would you say to them?

Phyllis Fagell  42:37

Oh my gosh, my students make fun of me, because I absolutely hate the phrase best friend. I think it is not something we want our kids to aspire to at all. And I’ll tell you why. For a couple of reasons. The first is that you are putting all of your eggs in one basket. And if something goes awry in that relationship, you have no safety net. Meanwhile, by the way, everybody around you is feeling like a third wheel and feeling left out. But the other reason I don’t think it’s adaptive is because we want kids to be learning how to interact with a wide variety of personalities, people who are like them, and unlike them, because the kids who do the best in high school, in terms of emotional well being are the floaters, the kids who can relate to absolutely anybody. And so it’s not about having one friend or one best friend, it’s not about having even one or two good friends as being protective. In fact, for a kid who is just a lot for one particular friend, they might be better off having very brief structured interactions with lots and lots of kids. That goal is really to help them practice social skills. And the more competent they feel in those social interactions. The more confidence they’ll have, the more confidence they have, the more willingness they’ll be to take those really hard social risks. The more social risks they take, the more friends they’ll have, and that will enhance their sense of belonging.

Debbie Reber  43:58

Thank you. So listeners, I’m just going to repeat the name of the book. There’ll be a link in the show notes. It’s called Middle School Superpowers: Raising Resilient Tweens in Turbulent Times. Great title. And where can listeners connect with you and learn more?

Phyllis Fagell  44:13

I have a website I’m on Twitter at Phyllis Fagel. I have the same handle @phyllisfagell on Instagram. And I’m also on Facebook and LinkedIn.

Debbie Reber  44:24

Awesome. Easy peasy. So again, listeners check out Phyllis’s stuff. Phyllis, as always, I mean, I get to talk to you outside of these conversations. But this is always a pleasure. So thank you so much. I loved the book. Thank you very much for everything that you shared today. It’s my pleasure.

Phyllis Fagell  44:39

I always love talking to you too.

Debbie Reber  44:43

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