(CNN)When you are a middle school teacher, people view you as either a saint or a masochist. When you are the parent of a tween, strangers offer sympathy.
Middle schoolers are the most maligned and misunderstood age group. I taught these grades for more than 10 years and developed a quick retort to pitying comments: "It's an easier age to teach than it is to be."
I now have a tween of my own, and I'll admit it: Middle schoolers are my favorite. So why do these years feel so hard for both adults and kids?
Why middle school can feel so rough
Phyllis Fagell, a school counselor and author of the forthcoming book "Middle School Superpowers: Raising Resilient Tweens in Turbulent Times," told me, "Contrary to the negative cultural narrative, the hits your kid takes in middle school aren't inherently worse than the setbacks they experience at other points in their life. They just happen at a time when kids have little life experience or perspective, their hormones are fluctuating wildly, and they're still figuring out who they are and who they want to be."
Because of that, what "looks like meanness often is social clumsiness," she said, because kids are sorting out how to pick a good friend and be a good friend while swimming in choppy social waters.
Adults' perception of 11- to 14-year-olds is often colored by our own emotional memories of those years. As one salesclerk told me, "Middle schoolers scare me because those were the worst years of my life."
Also, parents are often surprised at how early adolescence seems to start. Dr. Lisa Damour, a psychologist and author of the new book "The Emotional Lives of Teenagers: Raising Connected, Capable, and Compassionate Adolescents," told me that because we use the term "teenager," we often don't expect to see "teen" behavior until about 13.
"But psychologists have always marked age 11 as the beginning of adolescence," Damour said. "Because of this misunderstanding, many parents feel unnecessarily surprised or worried when their sixth graders suddenly become more private, reject their childhood nicknames or start caring about whether their clothes match what their peers are wearing. This is expectable adolescent behavior, and it's arriving right on time."