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Pediatrician Discusses Pandemic's Effects On Middle Schoolers

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're going to switch gears to talk once again about how the current health and economic crisis is affecting students. And you've probably seen a story or two about adorable little ones making gratitude signs for first responders. And you've probably heard about high school and college seniors graduating without cherished rituals like prom or spring getaways. But what about all the kids in between?

Middle school students are usually between the ages of 11 and 14, roughly, and kids go through some pretty important social and physical changes during that time, so we were wondering, how does a global pandemic, particularly social distancing, affect kids during this important time?

Our next guest, Dr. Cara Natterson, is a pediatrician who's spent a good part of her career guiding parents through one of the trickiest times in a child's life, adolescence and puberty, which usually begins in middle school. Her books include "The Care And Keeping Of You" and, most recently, "Decoding Boys." And she's here once again to share her thoughts.

Dr. Natterson, welcome back. Thanks so much for joining us once again.

CARA NATTERSON: Thank you.

MARTIN: Well, as we mentioned, middle school - that's generally sixth, seventh and eighth grades - is a time when lots of kids are going through social and physical changes. And so, you know, look - in the best of times - right? - it can be a pretty fraught time - confusing. I was wondering what you - what are your thoughts about the - all the steps that have been taken to address this globally, particularly social distancing? How might someone in this age group be experiencing this in their own kind of way?

NATTERSON: I think that the biggest piece to this for the middle schoolers is that they, just like their high school counterparts, are starting to break away from their parents. In middle school, what happens is that you have a shift from thinking that your parents are kind of the be-all and end-all, or at least weighing their opinions and their advice most heavily - you shift from that to thinking your friends, your peer group, is the be-all and end-all, and their impressions and ideas and opinions matter more than anything.

Well, that shift is very palpable in social settings and in school. It's really different when you're talking about having that developmental shift and only interacting virtually.

MARTIN: Well, what have you - what are you hearing? I know that you're not practicing at the moment. You're consulting. But I'm sure you're still hearing from parents. What are you hearing from parents of middle schoolers during this time about how their kids are coping? And if you're hearing from any kids directly, what are you hearing?

NATTERSON: I'm hearing - particularly from the girls, who are generally a little bit more articulate or verbal about how they feel - I'm hearing that they're frustrated because the only way they can interact with their friends is either through video chat, through social media or in person with physical distance between them.

And everything's closed. The restaurants are closed. The shops are closed. The malls are closed. So nothing's happening. So there's nothing to talk about. So the things that they would bond over aren't happening, and then there's no fodder for the conversation. So this is tricky. It feels very isolating. And the thing about being in middle school is you don't realize you feel isolated, or if you do, it's hard to articulate.

MARTIN: Do you worry that there might be some developmental impact for kids not being able to interact with each other in the way that they are accustomed to? I mean, even as much as we've all kind of come to recognize how terrible it is to be that age and how painful it can be, do you ever worry that there might be some developmental impact to kids not being able to go through these things together in the way that they have become accustomed to?

NATTERSON: I think we're in the middle of the biggest science experiment in the world. I wish I was getting a PhD right now because there'd be a thousand things I could study and look at from this point forward over the next several years as we work through pandemic and then get past pandemic. No one knows what the developmental impact of this pandemic will be because it's so new.

But we can postulate. And I think there will be significant negatives, and I think there will be things that we need to then identify and remedy for our kids going forward because during this moment of trying to pull away from parents and pull towards peers, we have basically said, you can't.

MARTIN: So before we let you go, what - do you have some just sort of general thoughts about how parents can be thinking about these next couple of months with their kids?

NATTERSON: Middle schoolers - they're not infants. They're hungry for education and information. They want to understand why you are making the decisions you are making or setting the rules you are setting. And frankly, this is - this preceded pandemic, OK? We should be approaching parenting middle schoolers this way whether or not coronavirus is involved.

When we set a rule for our kids, if we educate them as to why, talk to them, engage them in conversation, share articles with them, watch videos with them, they can begin to understand the rationale for our decision-making. What do we think is going to keep them safe and healthy? So I encourage parents because every family's going to do this slightly differently. Talk to your kids. Ask them what they're thinking and feeling. Tell them why you think they should or shouldn't do certain things.

That's how you can have this back-and-forth in parenting. It will open up the lines of conversation. And especially if you have a quiet child, especially if you have a boy who has retreated into himself, you will find that those conversations help bridge that gap and bring your child kind of out of their rooms, out behind the screen, out behind the closed doors and into the fold of making a difference, not just in your family but in the whole world.

MARTIN: That's Dr. Cara Natterson. She's a pediatrician and an author, most recently of "Decoding Boys: New Science Behind The Subtle Art Of Raising Sons."

Dr. Natterson, thanks so much for talking to us once again.

NATTERSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.