The Intermediate School Child
Matt Groening, the cartoonist, drew a cartoon book called School is Hell. He reserved the description of the
deepest pit in hell for the intermediate or junior high school years. The transition from elementary school to high
school traverses this period. The terms intermediate school, middle school or junior high school are used
interchangeably in this book and refer to the years between elementary school (usually K through 5th) and high
school (9th or 10th grade through 12th). These school years are usually the grades 6, 7 and 8, and sometimes
9th. The range of development is enormous and often painful. At this age, the growth spurt begins. Children fall
going upstairs, the opposite sex is discovered, and there is a new profound sense of self.
Fitting in with peers becomes supreme for the intermediate student. Parents are no longer the center of the
universe and are frequently not listened to. Intermediate school age children develop auditory problems—they
can no longer hear their parents. Children of this age often find their parents embarrassing. I was crestfallen
when my 12-year-old daughter requested that I not acknowledge her presence if I happened to run into her at the
It could have been worse. She did confide that her friend described her father’s looks as “your typical axe-
murderer.” I was curious to see what an axe-murderer looked like. I was shocked to find he looked like any other
middle-aged father. I found myself looking in the mirror more and wondering if I looked like an axe-murderer; after
all, I was even balder than he was.
During intermediate school, children’s reactions to divorce are as varied as they are. Some children at this age
are just putting away their dolls from playing Mother and other children this age occasionally become mothers.
Some children, during their parents’ divorce, become outraged at their parents’ behavior and become very
worried about what their neighbors will think and how their friends will react to the divorce. Other children detach
themselves and report the family events with no more passion than a newscaster reporting other people’s families.
Some children will experience a decline in school performance and peer relationships. Friendships with “good
kids” may dwindle and the child withdraws from previous friendships or faces a move. The child may develop
friends who lead to trouble. This occurs as the parents, now separated, are having less contact and influence on
the child’s daily life.
Extra-curricular activities can help fill voids, provide friendships and adult supervision. These activities give
adult direction and the opportunity of friendship with other children who are working towards a positive common
goal. Supervised activities like sports, drama, camping, and scouts help fill in the time for the child and provide
structure. The unsupervised child will likely end up cruising the mall and falling in with other unsupervised
children. Trouble is predictable.
Children at the intermediate school level should be in therapy support groups during their parents’ divorce.
The benefits are clear and dramatic; the children gain both support and coping skills. In the groups, they learn
that they are not responsible for solving the family problems, outlets are suggested for their time, and divorce
details, such as custody, child support and alimony, are explained. Sharing the divorce with others provides a
sense of relief and support.
Common Reactions and Consequences
Katie’s large brown backpack filled to the brim with books stated that she was a conscientious student. She
was the type of student every teacher appreciates. She would always follow instructions and have her homework
done on time. When you are not sure where you left off in the assignment, you ask Katie. Her thoughtful brown
eyes would glance upward, as if reading an imaginary note; then in a clear voice, she would remind you that you
had stopped with the writing exercise at the last session.
I could have titled Katie’s drawing “The Organized Child,” for she had carefully laid out her drawing in a grid
style much as an engineer would chart a problem. In the squares she filled in problems facing a child of divorce.
She succinctly stated in bold, red lettering near the middle of her drawing the first reaction of a child upon
hearing that her parents are divorcing—”WHAT’S HAPPENING?”
Figure 9: What’s Happening?
Shock, disbelief, confusion and denial are usually first reactions to trauma or violence. In Katie’s case, her
family was being wrenched apart in an upheaval. Both parents accused the other of causing the divorce. Her dad,
a short burly truck driver, accused her mother, a schoolteacher, of being impossible to live with. Katie’s mother
hurled insults back. Neither parent had attended the introductory meeting for parents of children entering the
group, an occurrence all too common.
What does that tell us about some parents? Are they too overwhelmed and consumed with their own problems
that they cannot attend to their children’s suffering? To get a divorce you must go to court; to get a driver’s
license you must take a test. Why can anyone get a divorce without knowing the needs and concerns of their
children? I feel that both parents should have to attend at least one session that focuses on the needs of their
children during a divorce. Taking a course would even be better. If parents would spend just a fraction of the time
they spend arguing and violating the 18 Sure Ways to Wreck a Child’s Self Esteem (see Chapter 8) toward
learning about their children’s needs during a divorce, children and society would be better off. I am not saying,
“Don’t divorce.” I am saying, “Know what your children’s needs are and how to meet them during your divorce.”
“I’M SO LONELY!” Katie writes in capitals across a sad empty stick figure. She emphasizes the loneliness and the
alienation that a child experiences upon the break-up of her family. The fighting and the bickering initially may set
off a chain reaction. During a divorce, when siblings need to work together the most, they may instead become
more quarrelsome and distant. Children whose parents are divorcing may isolate themselves from their friends.
In her next square, Katie writes under the drawing of a broken heart, “Leave me alone! I don’t know what I’m
doing, Dad and Mom.” During the middle school years, children are able to articulate their feelings, especially
anger. Anger serves to energize us. We can use the anger constructively, such as to protest an injustice. The
Civil Rights Movement used anger and frustration over segregation to achieve legislation and positive social
change that benefited everyone.
If the anger is vented in an externally destructive manner, we see the results in a daily barrage of headlines
and evening news concerning rapes, assaults and murders. The LA riots in 1992 are an example of anger that is
poorly directed or undirected. In middle school children, the anger from divorce may turn outward in the
destructive form of a conduct disorder involving fighting, stealing, truancy, lying or decreased school
performance. Some may turn their anger inward with even more destructive results by using drugs or alcohol,
developing eating disorders, or becoming self-destructive by acts of self-mutilation or suicide.
The incidents of self-mutilation among adolescents are staggering. In one dormitory of 50 girls in a residential
job training program, over 95% of the referrals that I saw had scars on their arms, wrists or hands from cutting
themselves with razors or knives or from burning themselves with cigarettes or matches! These incidents of self-
destruction occurred while they were depressed, frequently after a fight with a boyfriend or after a family
argument. The girls turned the feelings of anger that were scary to them inward and became self-destructive.
They had never learned to use anger positively. One girl explained to me that by cutting herself, she felt that she
was letting out all the anger and bad feelings.
Fortunately, Katie had used her anger more constructively. Her anger propelled her to vocalize her
displeasure to her parents and withdraw from their bickering. Withdrawing from the fighting of the parents during
the divorce is a common reaction and one that is healthy. Rather than remaining on the family battle field to
become either a casualty or a combatant, withdrawing may be the safest course. Having the child become
involved in a school activity like sports, arts or with friends and relatives is a better path.
Continuing in a circle across Katie’s grid, she poses the dilemma most children face during a divorce, “Who
should I live with? Mom or Dad? Who should I believe?” Often parents promulgate a different story or version of
the failure of the marriage in which the other spouse is the villain.
Funny how it takes two to commit to a marriage; yet, very few couples see any mutuality in a divorce. There
are usually at least two versions of what caused the divorce. Middle school children, unlike their younger siblings,
are not as interested in attaching blame; they would rather have answers to their fears than struggle with divided