In my previous post, Peer Pressure: Why Our Struggles Aren’t Different than Those who Worshipped a Golden CalfI shared many of the struggles I see in clients based on developmental stages, societal norms, and peer pressure. I spoke about how people have struggled with doing what leaders and peers want them to do—even early on in the Old Testament. Adults were influenced by others even if they knew it was wrong. In general, we long for acceptance and being apart of the group.

The age that has come up as a new concern for me as far as dealing with extra pressure is that of the 11-14 age group. Most of the middle school aged kids I see are struggling with religion and their sexuality. While learning about and being interested in peers romantically and understanding what sex is about and how it works is not new, the trend that is new with kids I see is a need to label their sexuality.

While I’m sure different types of labels are not new, when I was in that age group the only two I knew that existed were gay and straight, but most of the time the term gay was certainly not a label people wore proudly. While I certainly do not advocate hate for anyone who identifies with a different sexual label (unless it involves abuse or harming a child), I also feel kids today have a very unhealthy obsession with wanting labels that are considered the least judgmental by society.

Let’s think about the implications of this for a second. Society has made sexuality a very big deal in that we suddenly need to know what everyone’s preferences are. Many feel they can’t express how they really feel because of disapproval from peers and adults. We also discuss sexuality as occurring on a spectrum. Once upon a time, you were either gay or straight, now you can be several labels and switch, which many kids subscribe to.

Some of the things I’ve experienced with middle school kids include labels such as bisexual, gay, asexual, demisexual, transsexual, and pan-sexual. There are others, but these are the labels I hear often. I had a couple clients describe them self as asexual and bisexual. To me at least this seems rather confusing. So what do we do with all these new labels and also knowing that our kids are questioning their sexuality?

Here is one way I handle it in session. I explain that when we learn about something new, we often try it on to see if it fits. Let me give you an example that may resonate more with you than sexual labels. Ever try to figure out what illness you have by looking up different ones? You read through symptoms and try to see if it fits. We all do this with different things in life. Now imagine feeling encouraged to do this or that and to feel that something is wrong with you if you don’t.

Confusing right? Especially considering this is the age that puberty is happening and interest in romantic partners begins to develop. Now you may also feel a need to declare and label your sexual feelings. Often, parents aren’t sure what to do or say about this. They often feel it’s a phase and they try to ignore it.

Additionally, because at least here in Georgia world religions is also taught and discussed in middle school, kids are also questioning faith—if they have one. My kids have come home telling me what is taught in these classes and they wanted to have me answer questions about what they are being taught. While I have no issue with my kids being taught about different beliefs, I am not sure why a school and a teacher, who likely don’t practice these religions, should be left to teach and offer insight on them.

I bring up both of these points to say that it is so important that we are in tune with our children. The experiences they have at school are much different then what many of us experienced. We need to really listen and instill values in our children so that they can be loving toward others, but also understand why they believe what they believe.

Some of the ways parents can do this in my view is allowing their kids to be themselves and being comfortable in their own skin. So your sixth grader loves my little pony? Okay. Is that morally an issue? Or is it a concern that others will think she’s childish? If it’s the second, we need to let it go. This age group is exploring who they are.

In my own household the way I determine if something is okay or not is do what I think God would approve. If the answer is yes, even if it’s not my thing, I try to make peace about it. I also believe it is important to remind our kids that if our rules or morals are different then other people’s, our duty is to be a good example. To explain why we do or don’t do certain things. Lastly, I think if we are coming from a Christian perspective our duty is to explain to our kids that if people are not Christians they won’t share our values. The Bible is very clear that we are not to judge those outside of the church (1 Corinthians 5:12-13).

As parents we need to be sure we know what our kids deal with every day. Their challenges are certainly different than ours. I hope this post has helped you to think about some of the challenges middle schoolers face every day.