Why Tweens Need a Good Laugh

Being a tween in a post-pandemic world is no picnic. The resulting learning loss and emotional toll of lockdowns have changed the very definition of “tween.” To help tweens be resilient during these difficult times, one indispensable quality they need to cultivate, which is often overlooked, is humor. And no, we’re not joking.

“I like to call them extreme tweens,” says Phillys L. Fagell, a nationally board-certified school counselor and therapist who works with kids and families in private practice. “They’re the same insecure, vulnerable middle schoolers, only more so.”

In addition to being a counselor and therapist, Fagell is a speaker and author who provides practical tools for parents and educators to help students excel. She recently joined us on our How to Have Kids Love Learning podcast to talk about her new book, Middle School Superpowers, where she describes 12 different superpowers for raising resilient tweens in turbulent times.

When she published her first book, Middle School Matters in 2019, Fagell initially defined “tween” as ages 10–14, but she recently added 15 to the tween window thanks to the impacts of the pandemic and online learning.

“So many freshmen and 15-year-olds are presenting with the skills of a 14-year-old or even younger,” she told us. “They are not only trying to deal with all of the instability that goes along with growing up and going through puberty, and being a young adolescent, but they’re also going through a really complicated time where so much of their life is online, where they have taken a hit to their social skills because of the pandemic.”

As the plight of the American tween has become even more challenging, middle schoolers (and now freshmen too) need to develop their superpowers, as Fagell suggests. One such power is “Super Optimism”: the power to find hope and humor in the hard stuff.

Funnily enough, a good sense of humor can be a tremendous boon for tweens. Fagell shared how tweens use humor to cheer each other up and take a break from worrying. Whether it’s jokes or funny animal videos, humor can lighten the mood and give students a breather amid anxiety and expectations.

“This age group is so funny and it’s so central to how they recover from things that go awry,” Fagell added.

Additionally, when tweens can laugh at themselves, they can improve how they’re perceived by their peers. “When kids are generally seen as capable and competent, and admit weakness and admit that fallibility,” Fagell explained, “they actually rise a notch in their peers’ eyes as opposed to falling a notch.” She calls this phenomenon the “Beautiful Mess Effect” in Middle School Superpowers.

Fagell also noted that, similar to how a court jester can speak truth to a king, “humor is something [tweens] can use to share how they really feel without necessarily feeling exposed or overexposed.”

Perhaps this is one of the reasons why humor is a powerful way for parents and educators to connect with middle schoolers. The fact that there’s frequently a bit of truth behind the jests means that with every joke, we’re given a glimpse into their inner worlds.

One note of caution for adults is to avoid sarcasm with tweens. According to Fagell, at their developmental stage, it simply doesn’t work and can negatively affect them. Instead, she recommends good-natured humor, which reinforces optimism.

Some tweens run amok when they make jokes at the expense of others that come across as mean. Fagell stated that boys in particular struggle to realize how their jokes might land with others.

Jokes, laughter, and well-intended humor are vital for raising optimistic and resilient tweens. But on occasion, kids can have experiences so painful that they’re unable to find the humor in it. And in some cases, maybe there is none to be found. In moments like these, Fagell said that there is at least something tweens can learn, like what kind of friend is important to them or who they can trust.

While she decried toxic positivity — the refusal to acknowledge painful, difficult, or otherwise negative experiences — Fagell stressed that a central component to cultivating optimism in tweens is helping them see that even painful experiences aren’t for not.

“When somebody’s really dejected,” she explained, “and they really can’t find any meaning in an experience, if nothing else, it was a vehicle for their own self-discovery. It was an opportunity for you to learn about yourself.”

To hear our full conversation with Phyllis L. Fagell, find the How to Have Kids Love Learning podcast on the following streaming platforms: SpotifyApple PodcastsPandoraPodcast Addict, and Castbox.

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