8th grade me

When I was eleven years old, I transitioned from the safe, inclusive, nurturing elementary school I had attended since I was four to a competitive, cliquey junior high and high school. This was a brutal transition for me, as it is for many young people, and, as a result of the groundlessness and anxiety, I experienced my first bout of insomnia and social anxiety.

The social anxiety actually started in 6th grade when I went to dance class with a group of girls who were very cliquey. They had known each other since early childhood and were part of a “dance team”. They were clearly popular girls and this was my first encounter with this type of girl.

One day one of these girls made fun of my leg warmers (I never knew anything about style and I guess you weren’t supposed to wear leg warmer stretched up to your knee but only scrunched down to your ankle – poor me!), and I could feel all the girls snickering about me behind my back. It was humiliating. Eventually I stopped going to that dance class.

But then the class roster came out the summer before 7th grade and, lo and behold, I saw all of their names on the list! My heart dropped. I lost my breath. Apart from the separation anxiety I struggled with during my early years, this may have been my first anxiety attack.

As it turned out, my anxiety wasn’t outlandish. The girls were every bit as cliquey as they were in that dance class, and, as a result, 7th and 8th grade were very hard years for me. I did find a wonderful group of friends in 8th grade, which eased the anxiety enormously, but I still struggled with the sense that I was inadequate. Those girls always seemed “better”: prettier, more physically mature, better dressed, cooler.

The Tween Years are Ripe for Anxiety

Since that time I’ve watched many people struggle during those years. Everything is turned upside-down and inside-out, and without the container of healthy rituals – of being sent on an initiatory journey into the forest or taken into the fold of elders – it’s a time when we’re more prone to reach for the false footholds of intrusive thoughts and unhealthy rituals/compulsions.

It’s also a time when our interests and passions become more clear, and if those aren’t honored they can also morph into anxiety.

We call these years the “tween” years – as in “in-between”. We know we’re in-between but we don’t have healthy ways to guide our young people through these years. And even if we know this as parents and we do our best to offer containment and healthy rituals, it’s not enough because a huge part of this time is finding your place of belonging in the group, in the tribe. The rituals need to be done with peers, but it doesn’t happen, so we end up stumbling through or watching our children stumble through as we helplessly watch from the wings and hope for the best.

The following are some key areas that I see arise during this long, painful portal of middle school. Victoria and I are planning on doing a Gathering Gold episode on The Middle School Years sometimes in the next couple of months. As such, we’d love to hear your thoughts, comments, and insights on this topic that arise as you’re reading through these areas.

The Birth of Shame

For many who find me through the portal of relationship anxiety, they trace their fear of enoughness and shame stories back to middle school. It’s not that we don’t develop stories in the earlier years – we very much do – but it’s 11-14 when these stories tend to shift into high gear and become calcified.

School also becomes harder academically, so it’s a ripe time to grow stories about intelligence. I know a lot of people in the highly sensitive population who struggled with math during this time, and math became the magnet onto which anxiety shards gravitated.


In short, it’s a time when we feel like we’re falling apart. We’re always feeling that to some degree, but it becomes heightened during the middle school years when our hormones and bodies are quite literally falling apart.

It’s when we’re falling apart that we need extra, healthy supports. The support of family, yes, and also friends, teachers, mentors, community. If we don’t receive this, our groundlessness is heightened, which means we’re more likely to reach for our unhealthy strategies to manage the groundlessness.

Finding Your Center

At this onset to adolescence, we become aware of questions of identity. Who am I? Why am I here? What is my purpose? But to clarify our purpose we have to shed what came before; that’s the essence of transitions – the shedding prepares the ground for the new birth.

What are we shedding? Early childhood. The first eleven years of our lives. Ideally we would be making a space, a vessel, inside of which this shedding could occur and we would be able to get in touch with our deepest sense of purpose and our gifts. But that’s not what usually happens.

Malidoma Some writes about the initiation rituals of his Dagara people in Africa in his book Of Water and the Spirit. Here he describes the initiation ritual for 13-year old boys, where they begin by sitting in a circle around a fire with elders in each of the four directions. Malidoma writes:

“What he said was this: The place where he was standing was the center. Each one of us possessed a center that he had grown away from after birth. To be born was to lose contact with our center, and to grow from childhood to adulthood was to walk away from it.

“The center is both within and without. It is everywhere. But we must realize it exists, find it, and be with it, for without the center we cannot tell who we are, where we come from, and where we are going.

“He explained that the purpose of the Baor was to find our center. This school specialized in repairing the wear and tear incurred in the course of thirteen rainy seasons of life.

“No one’s center is like someone else’s. Find your own center, not the center of your neighbor; not the center of your father or mother or family or ancestor but that center which is yours and you’re alone.”

How Things Could Be Different

Can you imagine if the middle school years had only one aim: to help young people find their center? Which essentially means finding their self-trust, their gifts, their purpose.

Can you imagine if we took a 3-year break from learning math and writing and history and instead focused 6th-8th grade on finding your center and repairing from the wear and tear of the first 11 years of life?

Instead, we’re thrust into the worst social situations, expected to learn subjects at a faster pace than we were used to, and asked to learn in a model that might not be a aligned with our learning style. We’re doing it all wrong. During a time when we’re at our most vulnerable and tender, we’re thrown to the wolves.

And then we wonder why we’re so anxious.

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