As a family therapist, I like to see films that explore family relationships. Middle school is a particularly awkward and difficult time developmentally. It's a pivotal moment in the family life cycle that challenges both parents and teens. A film released this week called Eighth Grade, by director Bo Burnham, will help parents and teachers to understand just how hard it is to be a teen or pre-teen right now. It's a time of so much change. Your body is changing, your skin is breaking out, you're trying to fit in, and you not only have to live through it, but in this generation, also watch it all documented on social media.
The heroine, talented 15-year-old actress Elsie Fisher, is wrapping up the last week of eighth grade, and preparing for graduation and the upcoming transition to high school. Her performance feels very natural and candid. We watch Kayla deal with self-consciousness and body image, social anxiety, trying to create friendships and fit in socially, comparison from Instagram and social media, and the desire to be perceived as 'cool' by others. The film is creatively shot, including showing us how a birthday pool party feels to a 13-year-old girl with social anxiety by showing it from her perspective.
Kayla's single dad, played beautifully by Josh Hamilton, teaches all of us how important it is to continue to love and try to connect with your teen. This is true even when they push us away, find us annoying or are hard to love. Kayla's dad gives a shining example of staying connected to your son or daughter as they navigate the changes of middle school and high school. He's trying to adjust to her pulling away from him and individuate. He is always nearby and consistently patient, loving and reassuring. He's a great dad. He's not afraid to apologize. He doesn't give up. He believes in her. There are some very tender moments where he is like the National Guard, close by and there when needed.
Director Bo Burnham, age 27, has sensitivity to teens and social media. He became a Youtube celebrity in his teens when he performed his songs. There is a level of care and compassion for the teens in the film that I appreciated. Being a teenager now is not what it was in the past, and Burnham understands this.
In the middle school and high school years, teens need to develop a house of self, and they have to be the ones to open and close the doors to their house. Parents feel it when your loveable child pushes you away as a teen. It can feel like a loss. The best we can do is to appreciate this developmental shift, accept that it doesn't work to force your way closer, but continue to love, listen and set reasonable boundaries. Keep communicating, and listen more than you talk so they don't just tune you out. In Eighth Grade, Kayla asks her Dad to please knock before he comes into her room to say goodnight. She gets annoyed when he talks too much or even if he's quiet. It illustrates how much parents need thick skin to not take things to personally. (It might all look better when they are in college.)
The movie also gives insight to what it feels like to have some social anxiety. Director Burnham acknowledges that he suffered with anxiety growing up. It feels honest.
Parents should see the movie first, as you may think it's not appropriate for your teen to see. The film is rated R for a couple of cringe-worthy scenes about sexual pressure teens experience, which parents may feel could open up important teen-parent dialogue, or may feel is too much. The movie will definitely give you insight into some of the challenges your son or daughter may be dealing with that weren't a part of your growing up experiences.
There has never before been a generation that got through the struggles of adolescence while simultaneously curating and branding the experience on social media. They are pioneers, and it's not easy. This is a big experiential divide, and seeing this film may well help you navigate this with compassion and care. Teens have never been more connected, or felt more depressed and anxious. Parents who can stay connected, even when it's hard, make a huge difference.