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Dad Next Door: ‘Lip-Gloss-Gate’

Hello grade 7. Where are the smart, funny, adorable kids from sixth grade?

When my oldest daughter was in sixth grade, she had the loveliest group of friends. She went to a small all-girls school, and all of her classmates seemed to be smart, funny, adorable kids. Then, in seventh grade, something went horribly wrong. Her class (which had all the same girls as the year before) erupted in drama and emotional upheaval almost from the first week of school. This culminated, after several weeks, in a crisis of hurt feelings and accusations that began with a misunderstanding over a missing container of lip gloss. Yes. Lip gloss.

After  “Lip-Gloss-Gate” was sorted out, and an uneasy peace was restored, I remember asking one of the teachers WTF had happened to the delightful girls of the previous year. She just shrugged and said: “Welcome to seventh grade.”

Apparently, this happened to every class like clockwork. Some biological clock deep inside their brains told them that this was the time to redefine themselves, and the best way to do that was in relation to each other. Suddenly they arranged themselves into cliques and alliances, and found themselves navigating a world full of misunderstandings, slights’ and betrayals. Hardly a day went by without someone dissolving into tears. She assured us that the girls would begin to settle down in a year or so. In the meantime, she recommended that we try not to get whiplash from the sudden ups, downs, and screeching hairpin turns. Just buckle up, and enjoy the ride.

Looking back, my own middle school years occupy a hazy place in my brain. Mostly I just recall the feelings: anxiety, uncertainty, and a constant discomfort in my own skin. Like most of my childhood memories, the actual experiences of those years seem almost as if they happened to someone else. 

My memories from just a year or two later have a different quality. I think of them as part of an unbroken line of identity that leads all the way to the present day. The person I was in high school was clearly just a younger, dumber, more energetic version of me. The person I was in middle school seems like an entirely different person.

This idea, that our pre-adolescent selves were actually not the same people we are today, is more than a metaphor–it’s a neurodevelopmental fact. Vast areas of the cerebral cortex, and especially the prefrontal lobes, which enable executive function and decision-making, undergo massive growth and rewiring during adolescence. So much of our brains are rebuilt, remodeled and added onto in those teenage years, it’s like one of those big new houses constructed on the site of a cramped little shack. The old foundation is still there, and the address doesn’t change, but it’s more like a teardown than a renovation.

These days, I’ve been trying to keep all of this in mind as our 13-year-old Pippa makes her way through the seventh grade. Her emotional rollercoaster is in full swing these days. One moment, she’s sullen and monosyllabic, and the next, she’s babbling a mile a minute about some dramatic development with her friends. She challenges everything we say or do and resists every suggestion we make on principle–the principle being that if we think she should do something, it must be part of an insidious plot to rob her of her agency and autonomy and deny her chosen identity. Or maybe she’s just tired because she stayed up late last night. Who the hell knows?

Sigh. Buckle up. Enjoy the ride.

I will say, though, that halfway through this tumultuous year, we’re beginning to see some light at the end of the tunnel. Sometimes, between the wild swings of self-absorption, reactivity, obstinance and withdrawal, there are these little moments of awareness and connection. Out of nowhere, she might turn to us and express gratitude for something we’ve done, or confide in us about something that’s on her mind. It’s a little awkward–like a new AI program trying to figure out how to act like a human–but she’s trying. You can almost see her remodeled prefrontal cortex taking shape, one brick at a time. In those moments, I start to see glimpses of the adult she’s in the process of becoming, and it’s someone I’m looking forward to getting to know.

Soon. Please, let it be soon.

Read more from the Dad Next Door:

Dad Next Door: The Importance of Being Earnest

The Dad Next Door: A Moveable Feast

The Dad Next Door: Fahrenheit 451

Dad Next Door: Ready in the bullpen

Dad Next Door archives


About the Author

Jeff Lee, MD

Jeff Lee, a family physician, lives, works and writes in Seattle.