Opinion: Pandemic plays role in rising middle school bullying, drama

Students lost more than academic skills to the pandemic; they also lost social skills needed to navigate positive relationships with peers. Parents and educators report kids are lagging a year or more in their social development, and it’s manifesting in friction with classmates, a lack of self-regulation and less empathy.

“Schools have to recognize that the loss of social skills and communication skills is, in fact, also a learning loss. We have to prioritize the socialization of our youth just as we prioritize academics,” said Chad Rose, an associate professor in the University of Missouri College of Education and Human Development and director of the Mizzou Ed Bully Prevention Lab.

In a recent study, Rose and his team focused on the damage from “relational aggression,” which is the most frequent form of bullying. It involves socially excluding peers from group activities and spreading harmful rumors. When kids are excluded from social activities by peers at school, the study found the outcomes will be just as detrimental as if they got kicked, punched or slapped every day.

The pain of social exclusion is fueling discussions on parent forums across Atlanta about how to deal with middle school drama and strife. Parents talk about their children being on the outs with longtime friends, cut off abruptly and mystified by what happened and why. As one mother told me, “We went from talking about how it takes a village in elementary school to the village shunning my child in middle school.”

In recent episodes on her popular “Ask Lisa” parenting podcast, psychologist Lisa Damour said she, too, was hearing more about kids suddenly iced out of friend groups. She cited the pandemic’s erosion of the social glue — the shared interests that connect and hold kids together.

Those healthy connections have been replaced by less savory bonds such as the using and abusing of social power. It may be a group of girls mutually ganging up on someone they’ve decided is annoying. It could be a boy who tosses off a cruel comment or saddles a classmate with an unkind nickname and discovers his peers become more cautious, more deferential to him.

Parents worried about their child’s social life must talk with them, said Kimberly N. Frazier, president of the American Counseling Association and an associate professor at Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center. Not all kids want the Friday night football games or weekday hangouts at coffee shops.

“But if their kids want these experiences, parents then should talk to them about figuring out how to get them,” said Frazier. “Communicate to your kids that you are not going to assume anything, that you want them to come and tell you what is happening. But the onus is on the parents to be uber-observant, to tell their kid that I noticed this and am wondering if this may be a sign that things are not working. That sends a message to your child that you’re checking in, but not assuming.”

While these behaviors typically occur in middle school, exclusionary bullying and relational aggression are showing up in high school. An assistant professor for school counseling at the College of Education & Human Development at Georgia State, Erin Mason says the school counselors she oversees are noting delayed social maturation. “This social delay is because students have not been in normal situations over the past two-plus years where they could experience normal social development. All of that was disrupted,” said Mason, who worked for 13 years as a middle school counselor in Georgia.

“Everyone to some extent has gone through trauma in this pandemic, and we have not really recognized what that means about our own mental health as a family or as a kid trying to just go back to business as usual,” said Mason. “Kids also witnessed the political divide happening in our country. Kids soak up what they see online and in the media. In many cases, they may be acting out what they’re seeing.”

School counselors ought to be brought into the discussion when kids struggle socially, agree the experts. Many counselors run small groups where students can share their experiences and talk about solutions.

Parents often defend their child’s decision to drop an old pal, saying the friendship ran its course. “I will say not every kid has to be friends with every other kid. We can’t manage that many friends, but what I do know is that as long as kids have one or two really good friends, they are much better off,” said Rose. “I tell teachers not everybody in your classroom has to be friends, but everybody in your class should be friendly. Teachers should give specific praise when they see respectful and inclusive behavior in action, because teaching and reinforcing these skills are just as important as the math, science and history lessons.”