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Tweens and the Lunch Table

Lunch time for tween girls can often be the most difficult part of the school day. Since it is the most concentrated social block during the day, lots of pleasant and not-so-pleasant social dynamics play out during that time. And an hour or so of lunch can set the tone for the entire school day. Sadly, what should be a time to regroup, relax, eat and take a little break often turns into a gut-wrenching experience. I'm surprised that more tween girls aren't suffering from gastrointestinal problems.

Here is what happens at many of these largely unsupervised lunch tables. Girls are often blocked from sitting at lunch tables by either subtle or not-so-subtle strategies by other girls who want to exercise their power, inflict emotional pain and/or assert their own status by being exclusionary.

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This is what I hear from tween girls repeatedly, and yes, I can remember when this happened to me in 7th grade:

1. I don't know where to sit at lunch since (insert name here) doesn't want me to sit at her table.

2. When I try to join the popular table, they stop talking.

3. They let me sit with them, but then they ignore me and don't include me in their conversations. It's like I don't exist. I feel so stupid.

4. This is the third day in a row that they got up and walked away when I sat down at their table.

5. I don't want to sit at the "loser" table.

6. Since I don't have a best friend, I feel like I don't fit in at any table.

I've also heard variants of this:

1. I eat my lunch in the bathroom so nobody will see that I don't have a place to sit.

2. I hide out in an empty classroom pretending to study and hope that no one sees me.

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It makes me so sad in my roles as a psychologist, mother and former tween girl to think about these kids who are trying to fit in and simply eat their lunch, but instead have the experience of shame washing over their youthful bodies, probably accompanied by churning stomach acids. Unfortunately, none of our girls are immune to this experience, which seems to be a tween girl but not a tween boy phenomenon. (Boys more often bully each other with pranks or by fighting rather than by excluding and freezing each other out. The lunch table tends to be a place where tween boys simply refuel, rather than hurt each other.)

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I suggest that when you talk to your tweens about their school day, you ask them who they're eating lunch with, because they do seem to talk to parents about this. Of course, you may be wondering what to do. Here are my suggestions:

1. Remind them that friendship patterns change very quickly during the tween years. The girl who threw your daughter under the lunch table today may try to be her friend tomorrow.

2. Validate your tween's feelings without becoming overly emotional about the situation that she is describing. Try saying something like, "That must feel lousy" rather than "Those kids are horrible and not worth your time."

3. If your tween is asking for your advice, then you can suggest that your daughter try being a "floater" or someone who tries out different tables. She may not need to belong to just one table. Sometimes trying too hard to fit in with one particular group backfires, as the other girls sense neediness.

4. Consider suggesting that your tween daughter focus more on where she would like to sit rather than sitting with the often-elusive "populars." This may give her a sense of control. Remind her that popular is not necessarily a positive characteristic, and that it is often associated with exclusivity.

5. Reinforce the idea that just as friendships evolve and dissolve, so do seating arrangements.

I wish you luck as you help your tweens navigate the murky waters of the lunch room. At least they have a spot at their dining table at home—yet another reason to have dinner as a family.

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