Zibby Owens: Judith Warner is the author of And Then They Stopped Talking to Me: Making Sense of Middle School. She is also the author of the New York Times best seller from 2005, Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety, and was a New York Times columnist for a column called Domestic Disturbances. She is a journalism fellow for the Women’s Donors Network Reflective Democracy campaign and a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. Her last book was called We’ve Got Issues: Children and Parents in the Age of Medication. It received a 2010 Outstanding Media Award for Science and Health Reporting from the National Alliance on Mental Illness, a 2011 Changing Lives Award from the Parent/Professional Advocacy League, and a 2012 Friends of Children’s Mental Health Media Award from the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. She was also awarded a 2012-2013 Rosalynn Carter Fellowship for Mental Health Journalism. A former special correspondent for Newsweek in Paris, she hosted “The Judith Warner Show” on XM Satellite Radio from 2005 to 2007. In 1993 she wrote a best seller called Hillary Clinton: The Inside Story as well as several other books. She’s a frequent speaker on American family life, workplace issues, and mental health, and currently lives in Washington, DC.

Welcome, Judith. Thanks so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Judith Warner: It’s my pleasure. I’m so glad to be here.

Zibby: This is a continuation of our Instagram Live during which I had major technical difficulties, so I’m glad that we’re doing this again on a different platform so we can get the full story from you.

Judith: You did a great interview anyway.

Zibby: Thank you. As I told you on that, this is such a treat for me because I remember years and years ago, going to listen to you speak at my old grade school and just being in awe of you. Now here we are fifteen years later and still talking. It’s really cool for me.

Judith: It’s great for me. Again, I’m flattered by all the nice things you’ve been saying.

Zibby: Can you please tell listeners what your latest book, And Then They Stopped Talking to Me, is about?

Judith: And Then They Stopped Talking to Me is about making sense of middle school, as the subtitle says. I quote it only because it really does sum it up so well. I can do it without seeming conceited because it was a friend of mine who came up with that wording rather than me. She said it to me because we had the title and we were just struggling and struggling to have a good subtitle. She said, “I’ve been listening to you all these years when you were caught up in making sense of it all.” I literally said to her, “I got to go. I got to write that down.” It was so perfect because there’s so much to make sense of in so many different ways. Many of us are haunted by our own middle school memories, or junior high for people who are older and went to junior high school. In some parts of the country, they just still use the name junior high school. Our memories from that time are so powerful. They tend to be so strong. For most people, though not all, they tend to be really, really painful. Often, people hold onto what happened to them at that time as almost determinative of what happened later or who they became. That really fascinated me. That was the piece that fascinated me for decades, way before I was a mother.

There also is this making sense that parents encounter when their kids get to be in early adolescence, which for most corresponds to middle school. Their kids change. Life gets a lot harder. Their world changes too. Sometimes the kids don’t change so much as just the social environment that they’re in. That changes, and generally not in a positive way. Parents want to be able to help their kids. They also want to be able to help themselves if they are suffering through it too, which was my situation. It’s very hard because it’s just very hard to have a sense of what’s actually going on, or I certainly felt at the time. To find something to read, that really helps you intellectually make sense of it as opposed to giving you a five-step how-to. Those things never speak to me. I always want to understand things kind of on a deeper level. That’s what the book is about, answering those questions and hopefully making people feel less alone with the pain they may either have brought forward from their own experience or be experiencing in the present and also just have a greater sense of understanding and feel like they have a friend who gets how they’re feeling and understands the questions they’re asking themselves and then can speak to that in an interesting and entertaining way.

Zibby: I think you did that. I liked how there were basically two different goals and functions of the book that you addressed just know but that were so evident. One is with regard to your own middle schoolers. There are parents out there — I have two middle schoolers — who are picking up this book thinking, okay, this is how I’m going to get my kids to start talking to me. Then there are the people who are just sort of having a PTSD moment about their own middle school existence that many people, as you point out in the book, haven’t even thought about it since, don’t like to talk about it, choose not to revisit it. You even mention someone in your book who was so flooded by bad feelings they had to go seek treatment after even talking to you about middle school.

Judith: That’s right. She was triggered. Her PTSD was triggered. I felt terrible.

Zibby: It’s a testament to how much you can stuff these bad memories away. The part that I found compelling of how you introduced even this whole topic is from your own first-person experience about it and that the topic was not, as we said on Instagram Live, it wasn’t just your kids not talking to you. It’s that you remember girls not talking to you. There’s this one quote that I want to read. Then I’ll stop talking. You wrote, “I can still remember how it felt, the ground disappearing beneath my feet, not a single friendly face, not a word of recognition, much less reassurance. It was like one of those bad dreams where you’re shouting and shouting and no sound comes out of your mouth. I felt utterly abandoned and completely powerless. I was in a black hole of pain, and it seemed like there was no outside to it.” Take me back for a minute to your own middle school experience which clearly was upsetting enough that now you’ve written this book to sort of work through your own stuff and then also for your parenting of a middle schooler experience.

Judith: Everything that you said about that kind of dual approach is contained in the way people read the title. For me, the title was about that experience that I went through in eighth grade and that I found in my research where I interviewed so many about their middle school stories. That’s a really typical thing that happens, that ostracism that seems to come out of absolutely nowhere. One day, you’re fine. Then the next day you come, no one’s talking to you, and you don’t know why. So many people have that experience. It’s very common at that age. That was the perspective that I thought everybody would bring to the book when they saw the title. Immediately, as soon as we started having mockups of a cover, I realized, because it was a big debate within the publishers, that people were understanding it the other way, that it was about how your kid stopped talking to you. That was fascinating to me because I didn’t anticipate it. I thought in the end, that’s great because more people can relate to it or at least be drawn into it. I always think it’s worth mentioning just in case people think, I didn’t have that experience, so it’s not for me.

Yes, the book worked for me personally on both levels. When I started working on it, what compelled me to write it was the experience of being a middle school parent and how painful I found it. It just was miserable. I found I was really angry with the other moms, not with the other kids, but just the other moms in a way that felt very much the way I felt in seventh and eighth grade. I knew that something was getting triggered because my reaction was too strong. Again, it was childish. It was middle schooler-ish in the form that the emotion took. It’s not so much the way I did act on it, but the way that I wanted to act on it. The things that would come to mind were these really childish, mean-girl things, which I will say again I didn’t do, but that’s how I felt. I also noticed the moms around me, a lot of them, seeming to go into a kind of regression. You had some who started really dressing and talking like their kids. There were a lot who were really caught up in the swirl around popularity like their kids were. Then there were a lot who were just looking the way I was feeling, looking really pissed off, withdrawing into themselves, holding onto grudges against the other moms. I knew about it because, at least with one daughter, she was completely out of it. People would complain about other people to me. I knew what they were feeling and why. In the book, I combine my two daughters into one to protect their privacy, but it’s harder to keep the conceit going when you’re talking.

The working through was from the outset really about that experience, but you are absolutely right. What ended up happening once I started writing, and this complicated the writing a lot, is that I started working through my own experience from thirty years earlier and what I had carried forward into the present. That was actually much harder. It had more of an emotional kick. It complicated the writing a lot more. It would send me off onto different tangents. It would bring up a lot of emotion that I wasn’t even aware of having. It even, in one case I noticed, affected me really badly as a journalist, as an interviewer. The interviews I did for the book were just amazing. People would talk. I would speak to them usually for two hours, these one-on-one phone calls. I would basically get their whole life wrapped up in that period of time. They were incredible. I interviewed a woman who I had gone to middle school with. We were doing it actually over dinner. I hadn’t seen her since the last day of eighth grade. When I listened to the interview afterwards, I was so embarrassed because I was a terrible interviewer. I kept cutting her off. I kept almost talking over her. I was so nervous that I was talking a mile a minute and doing all these bad interview tactics. You end up with tons of me on the recording. Every time she was about to say something interesting, I get worked up and I cut her off. So embarrassing, so it tells you.

Zibby: Now I’m afraid to talk because I’m worried you’re going to think I’m a bad interviewer.

Judith: I already did an interview with you, and you’re not like that at all.

Zibby: There was a part in the book where you go visit a middle school. You start talking about all your own experience with the cool kids and the one girl who’s staring down and not talking. You identify right away that clearly she’s being shunned right now and you don’t know why. You start opening up not just about journalistic techniques, but your own experience. Next thing you knew, every kid in the room was hanging on your every word. That’s sort of how I felt reading this book and I think why it can be helpful for people in all different stages of going through middle school. What was it like when you realized you had that, not power necessarily, but that shared experience in common with people even going through it right then and how much it helped to share it?

Judith: It was very exciting because I had no plans going into working on this book to actually interview middle schoolers. The main reason was that there are other writers who have written really great books where they immerse themselves in the world of middle schoolers. Peggy Orenstein did. Linda Perlstein did. Then there are others too. Those are two of my favorite authors. I felt like their books were fabulous and stood, and there was no reason to add to that, frankly. Also, I was really interested in the adult experience. I write about adults. That’s consistently what I write about, adult ideas, adult behavior, and how adults relate to each other through their kids. I ended up in that classroom in the school you are talking about. It was actually a K-through-8 private school. I was supposed to be talking to the head of the middle school. For whatever reason, I had to wait. Somebody ushered me into a classroom and put me in the back just to have me somewhere, I think. It was an English class. They were doing this really boring grammar exercise. Then they started talking about their passion projects. The teacher wanted me to talk to them and share techniques for how they might go about doing their research. I had no idea how eighth graders should do their research because my techniques were not really relevant for them. Also, at that point, it was early on and I had no idea what I was doing. To be perfectly honest, my life was incredibly chaotic. I was barely making it through workwise. I said a couple of stupid things.

Then I just started talking to them about the book to fill the time. I just started telling my own story, that story you told about being ostracized and about how that story had stayed with me after and it was my main memory. My main memory of middle school generally was I could remember every instance of the victimization. When I got to be an adult, though, and I started trying to write about this, and this way predates just this book, I started to discover that things were not at all what they seemed. There was a whole lot I had left out. They were, at that point, really holding onto it. They were sitting forward in their seats with their mouths hanging open. It was amazing because when I looked at that girl who was there but not there — she was in the classroom, but it was as though she had a glass box around her in the sense that everyone treated her like she was invisible. She looked like she was trying to shrink into invisibility. I knew exactly how that felt. Though I didn’t know what the drama was that had led up to that, I imagined it was something relatively similar. Also, again, these are such common stories, I know now.

I didn’t get to go any further because the person I was supposed to interview came in just at that point and looked kind of annoyed because I hadn’t been cleared to talk to the kids. I hadn’t thought of it just when I was called to do so. For one thing, I was very nervous to do so. It was a classroom of popular kids, and they made me nervous. It really changed everything, though. For one thing, I realized, just as you said, these stories are actually important. It is important, if possible, to talk to kids, whether in the course of the research or after, because maybe as adults, maybe we can kind of speed the process of whatever drama is playing out there up a little bit so it comes to a resolution a little bit faster and we spare them some of this pain. Also, the fact that I was saying things were not as they seemed, things are not so black and white, that was important for everybody in the room. They think in a very black-and-white way at that age. Parents, even more so today, think in a very black-and-white way because they want to really rush to their kid’s defense. That does not help them. I do hope, now that it is out, that there will be opportunities, once life goes a bit back to normal, to speak with middle schoolers. Even if life stays abnormal for a long time, I do it by Zoom or something. I just feel like it would be helpful. At the very least, it would be interesting for them.

Zibby: Absolutely, especially your findings that people who peak in middle school generally aren’t as happy as people who peak later and that the characteristics that make you popular in seventh and eighth grade are not necessarily those that will give you prolonged popularity, even, or success in life. I think that when everything seems so important and magnified when you’re in middle school, having the perspective that, actually, research shows that that girl who’s having all the parties, this isn’t the be all and end all. There are other things that are more important, things like that. I think that perspective is also really helpful.

Judith: I think it’s really important. There was a psychologist I interviewed relatively early on who specializes in working with girls that age and throughout their teen years. She said, “Often, the ones who are super popular in seventh and eighth grade get to tenth grade, and the social skills they had that worked for them really, really well at the time are not working for them anymore. They have kind of a crisis, and they come to me.” I interviewed people who had those stories exactly and then saw in the clinical research, large-scale studies that bore that out in slicing and dicing what popularity means in a lot of different ways and looking at the how and why it is that the kind of popularity kids have, if they’re in the popular crowd in middle school, doesn’t serve them well as they get further on in high school, in college, and young adulthood. There’s a lot we can do for kids. First of all, just that storyline is definitely interesting and fun for them for a variety of reasons. It gives us the opportunity, also, to sort of deconstruct the nature of popularity and what it means, the fact that there are two kinds of popularity that social scientists study. There’s the kind where people actually like you, which is the popularity we have in adulthood, I think. Then there’s the kind of popularity that comes from having power and being high status. That’s the kind of popularity that kids care about the most in middle school. That tends to come with all these negative side effects. The first kind is great, but it’s the second kind that everyone is thinking about when they’re eleven, twelve, and thirteen.

Zibby: Of course, we know as parents that when your kid is excluded or hurt or shunned or anything, you feel it as well as they do. You even said in your book that you learned that “watching your child be rejected socially can be a form of misery that’s every bit as bad as being a middle schooler yourself.” In actuality, the pain that we feel as parents is actual legitimate sorrow and hurt when we watch it. Having the tools to put things in perspective and help the kids understand their own middle school experience is actually really beneficial to us.

Judith: It is hugely beneficial. The lessons I learned in the course of writing this book from all of this research that I combed through from hearing stories from talking to people, even though my kids are now, of course, well out of middle school, those lessons stayed with me and were really important just for understanding social dynamics in general and coming to peace, and coming to peace with the past because I think it actually is more painful to see your child be rejected or excluded or worse, bullied. I’m not talking about bullying because it tends to be a more extreme case and a problem in and of itself. Again, there are other excellent books on that including one by Emily Bazelon which is great. I’m talking about the more mundane nastiness and unhappiness. It potentially hurts more than having it happen to you. The reason is it lasts longer. The pain lasts longer. Also, it’s happening to the person who you love more than anyone or anything on the planet, and you’re powerless. You can’t do anything about it. That combination just makes it killer. If you have more both emotional and intellectual tools for dealing with it, it becomes so much easier because you can talk to them about it more productively. You can talk to yourself about it more productively. If necessary, you can talk to the school or encourage them to talk to the school in a way that is going to be actually useful and hopefully productive as opposed to making matters worse, which unfortunately we often do even with the best of intentions.

Zibby: It’s so true. There were a couple moments in the book where you referred to situations where you were kind of staring out at people but not really seeing them. You had your head in the clouds or you were thinking about something else or you were zoning out. I just wanted to ask you about those things. You made some joke in the beginning about how that sounds like you and you just didn’t even notice them. When people thought you were staring at them in a mean way, you just were not even seeing them. I was just wondering what that was about.

Judith: In my opening anecdote, I talk about the ostracism. Our homeroom teacher, and this was very unusual for the time because teachers didn’t usually get involved, actually set up a kind of confrontation to have us talk it out because it was so ugly. I sort of painted it in the book. Then I can just remember it so well. There was a ringleader who was really creating the situation, and then the followers. It’s always like this. The followers were sitting in the back. She was sitting up front. She was very calmly and sweetly laying out why everyone hated me. One of the reasons was that I thought I was better than everyone else and I looked through people like they didn’t exist. I didn’t think I was better than everyone else, certainly. I felt terrible about myself, as kids that age often do, especially girls. The thing of looking through people like they didn’t exist I knew was actually probably true. I wasn’t aware of doing it. When she said it, it kind of resonated because if that was happening — I don’t think at the time, actually, it dawned on me that I was doing it, but I didn’t deny it. I thought to myself, unfortunately didn’t say, I don’t see them. That’s true. That is a form of spacey-ness. You can call it what you will. You could call it mild ADHD or self-obsession. The description for it can be more or less judgmental and negative, but I know now that it’s true because someone called me out for it just a couple years ago. Once again, I wasn’t aware of doing it.

I was actually about to do a speaking event, very nervous about it, playing out in my mind what I was going to say. I happened to be standing with somebody I knew and did not say hello, just ignored him. I didn’t see him, literally didn’t see him. The thing about those kinds of behaviors at that age, you need to become aware of how you impact the world, not just how the world impacts you. Otherwise, you just feel like a victim all the time. People are angry with you. People are aggressing you. People don’t like you. They are attributing motivations to you which are not right very often, certainly in my case, but there was a behavior coming from me that was upsetting other people. I was completely unaware of it. I tell this and share it, one, because a lot of that has to do with traits, with personality, with, in some cases, mental health stuff, with all kinds of mechanical elements of who we are that tend to stay with us throughout our lives that we tend not to be aware of unless someone points it out to us.

If adults can make middle schoolers more aware of their behavior and its effect on others, they’ll not only make life easier for the kid and easier for those around them potentially, but certainly easier for them and make them feel more empowered and less like victims most of the time, but they’ll also be setting themselves up later in life not to keep making the same mistakes over and over again. These are social skills. Kids need to be taught social skills the same way they need to be taught math or science. They don’t necessarily come naturally. Some of the ones that do come naturally aren’t very nice ones. They’re not going to self-correct. That’s impossible. Adults don’t even self-correct most of the time. I’m glad you brought that up because it’s something that I think, it really, really is important. That case just happens to be my own. That’s the social skill that’s lacking in me. It’s not necessarily very typical of a lot of people. There are all sorts of other things that are more typical and that can be fixed pretty easily.

Zibby: For the parents who picked up this book whose kids did stop talking to them or who are worried that their kids are going to stop talking to them soon, what advice would you give to that group of readers of yours?

Judith: I would say the research shows that even if they stop talking to you for a while or start fighting with you all the time or start finding fault with everything you do, they don’t seem to like you anymore, that it doesn’t necessarily mean a whole lot and it’s not going to last. They’re going through what they have to go through. They are at a point in their lives where they are literally biologically programed to start to withdraw from you and try to figure out who they are, where they fit, what kind of person they’re going to be, etc., on their own. They need the space to be able to do that. You have to be able to tolerate the distress of their doing that without experiencing it as a kind of abandonment. It’s hard not to. It’s really hard for parents themselves to go through that transition where they’re cuddly little kids where they knew everything about their lives and they told them everything, suddenly withdraw and close the door or just become noncommunicative or become very unpleasant to talk to. It’s painful. It’s really easy to worry that something really, really bad is going on, that they’re withdrawing because they have some horrible secret or something like that. It’s so important to remain calm, to remain the adult, to be cool about it, and be friendly too, and be there when they’re ready to come back and when they’re ready to talk, to be ready to listen, to not talk at them. Be receptive. Be a good listener the way I was not in that interview that I embarrassed myself in so greatly. Don’t interrupt. Don’t try to push the conversation one way or the other. Ask questions. Listen nonjudgmentally. They’ll come back sooner. The door will reopen sooner. They’ll come back to you. Again, most importantly, it’s normal.

Zibby: That’s good to know. Just one last question. Having worked on this book, and I know you’ve written other books and your Perfect Madness was a best seller and all the rest, what advice would you have on other authors undertaking a big research-type project like this when they are attacking this project?

Judith: I had a terrible experience in writing this book, which actually I’ve not talking about publicly before, in that I developed a kind of OCD where I lost the ability to write for a while. I was researching obsessively and rewriting. The worst of it was that I was rewriting basically compulsively without realizing I was doing it to the point that where at a certain point my editor said she was taking it off the schedule because we’d gone back and forth so many times. I felt really insulted. I was like, what is she talking about? She’s only read it twice. Then toward the end when I was looking for something — I actually created a folder where I put all of the drafts and all of her responses. I realized she had read it eight times, and I had no idea. I would say do not rewrite excessively. Also, be a little self-aware with the research. Don’t go to a point where you start to drown. Again, this was not a typical experience for me. It had to do with other stuff I had gone through. My brain was going a little haywire. Look, the good side of it is I have research that I have not seen pulled together anywhere else that’s deeply fascinating and that I can pull from when I speak, even if all of it isn’t in the book. I would also say have a good outline that you’re working off of. I normally do. For my other books, I have a really tight outline. Even if the writing part of the book deviates a great deal from the outline, the research follows the outline. That means that the research files that I create are well-organized and easy to access. In this case, I was working in a very — it was a chaotic environment. I was working in a very chaotic way. That is partly what made the research so circular, often, and made the writing kind of chaotic too. Things were just all muddled up together. I think the best advice that I can give that maybe has a more universal application is really have a good outline when you start out. If you end up changing it, fine, but use it while you’re doing your research.

Zibby: Excellent. Judith, thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.” Thank you for helping middle school parents, middle schoolers, and every adult who’s had a challenging middle school experience and wants to just take a minute to work through it in their own head. Thank you for all of that and for all your time.

Judith: Thank you so much. You’re a wonderful interviewer, which is why I end up telling you things I wasn’t planning on saying at this point.

Zibby: That makes me happy. That’s awesome. Thanks. Bye.

Judith: Bye.