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Why Some Lazy Kids Get It Wrong When They Start Worrying About What Other Kids Say

Studies show that “situational guilt” — when kids internalize a fear of being perceived as a problem kid or bully — leads to higher stress levels and anxiety, even while other kids are still learning. You’re in the middle of the group and you think you’re going to turn on every other kid, so you do. And then you notice it’s actually the teacher. In this scenario, there is an opportunity for a positive learning experience.

Studies in recent years have shown that “situational guilt” — when kids internalize a fear of being perceived as a problem kid or bully — leads to higher stress levels and anxiety, even while other kids are still learning. You’re in the middle of the group and you think you’re going to turn on every other kid, so you do. And then you notice it’s actually the teacher. In this scenario, there is an opportunity for a positive learning experience. But the moment your mind goes there (and your parents or other adults in your life say or do something about it) you stop thinking positively or, more often, simply freeze; unable to make a decision. This is commonly referred to as “staying in the middle” — not actively participating in the activity or being directly affected by it. It also tends to create feelings of loneliness and alienation. This is why it’s crucial to have a clear plan of action when it comes to activities like going to school.

We know that kids will often be less motivated if they feel like they’re “in the middle” of someone else. But when you’re in the middle of it all, it’s more about how the activity feels to you than to other kids. By the way, many of these kids also are anxious about doing it and can have difficulty going to the next step (like asking for what they want). And even if they go ahead and do it anyway, they might feel ashamed and think, “I’m an idiot, why would anyone want to help me do that?”

This is another thing that makes it difficult for kids in the “middle” in school. They tend to feel isolated and alone, even among the other kids. But when you’re the center of attention like everyone is talking about you, it’s no longer self-perceived — it’s reality.

In our recent study, one child reported that “The principal and I gave us different assignments: she said she would give me an essay, and I would write something for her.” His parents said they “told me [he] could write anything.” He said, “Dad, are you kidding me? If you told me that, I would have run off screaming.” He felt very embarrassed — that everyone knew what he had written.

We had multiple studies where kids felt more pressure to participate in a project when they were in the middle. They had trouble finishing. They did the best they could. But when other kids stopped the project, they thought to themselves, “why would you do that?” If you have more than one person or a group of people (like schoolmates) pressuring your participation, that’s a great way to get into anxiety or depression.

Another recent study found that kids in the middle were more interested in doing homework than those in the middle or on the right of the study. This may seem counterintuitive — maybe kids who can do the homework are too excited to do it at all. But the researchers found that the kids who felt they had to do the homework were less able to keep it organized, and as a result the homework that was assigned was more difficult. For instance, if everyone in a group has to do homework first and later someone else is allowed to go do some of their homework, some kids will give up and do their homework late, and others will just get lost in their own thoughts.

A final issue is that children who are in the middle tend to see and react to situations more strongly – for example, when they’re watching movie trailers on TV. There’s a clear distinction in their thinking. Kids who are in the middle can’t see the full movie. But kids who are to the right can see the whole movie. They know exactly what is happening. There’s nothing to lose as far as they’re concerned; they know what’s going on. It’s all going to be okay now.

So kids who are in the middle might not know how to stop or change a situation they are involved in and feel stuck in for as long as they are. But they always know what’s going to happen next and what they can do to prevent it.