It’s hard when our kids are struggling with friends. Here’s my advice to one mom whose middle schooler is trying to fit in at a new school.

Q: My 13-year-old son started a new middle school after being in a Christian private school. It has been somewhat of a struggle in middle school as the new student and being exposed to the real world. I did not realize how much I kept him in a bubble. In the beginning, the kids made fun of him for being a Christian and not knowing all the foul language and slang talking.

Now there are kids inviting him over who were raised completely different. They are sometimes mean to others and he is trying to fit in with them. They are like the cool crowd. They have unsupervised parties for 7 and 8th grade at their home, albeit the parents are upstairs.

I’m seeing his behavior changing some to try and fit in, like listening to not-so-nice music and using a little bad language. They still make fun of him listening to Christian music and most tell him they don’t believe in God. I’m struggling on whether to let him hang out with them. But there are only about 25 people in his grade. Do I let him spend time with them outside of school and pray he makes good choices and stands up for his faith or pull him back away and try to find others to be friends with? Unfortunately, this is the real world and all through life this can happen. Also is this mostly immaturity of the middle school age?

A: As moms, we never quite get used to watching our children suffer because of friends or classmates, do we? It hurts us when they’re hurting, and we want to rush in and fix the problem. But there’s no time like the present for your son to learn what he’s made of–and it’s sterner stuff than his new buddies are displaying.

Maybe I’m misreading things, but since you mentioned he went to a Christian school before, let me gently remind you that Christian schools aren’t bubbles. Kids are kids, and peer pressure is peer pressure. I went to a Christian school for middle school (and a different one for high school), and let me tell you, those kids were mean and cliquish and wanted nothing to do with the new student, especially one who was shy. But that’s my story, so I’ll leave it at that and move on to your son.

As moms, we never quite get used to watching our children suffer because of friends or classmates, do we? It hurts us when they’re hurting, and we want to rush in and fix the problem.

What to do about your son? I’d start by inviting the friends over to your house, not to grill them but to get to know them. Have them upstairs where you are around to do more than serve snacks. Have one or two at a time over for dinner. Make your home inviting and open, but resist the urge to lecture or pontificate when these classmates are over. Instead, play board games, keep things light, and gently correct if inappropriate language is used in your presence (“Please do not use that kind of language in our home.”)

Don’t let him go over for unsupervised parties, and tell him he can throw you under the bus as being the “meanest mom” on the block for refusing to let him run wild. As I’ve told my teenage daughters, “Feel free to use me for any excuse you want to save face with your peers when you know you shouldn’t do something.” I don’t need teenagers to like me—I’m not their friend, I’m an adult.

Middle school is tough—kids aren’t quite grown and they aren’t quite kids. Boys are really noticing girls for the first time, and they have no idea what to do with those feelings. They’re also trying to figure out who they are and where they fit in. And it’s messy, and it can result in hurt feelings, etc. So it is immaturity and uncertainty and hormones.