Many parents say, "I knew middle school was coming, but I didn't expect things to change so fast." They are caught off guard when their daughter wanders into the juniors department to check out the latest fashions and their son needs new shoes every three months. While some differences between elementary and middle school may be unexpected, parents can prepare for the changes and help their children navigate this exciting transition. Here are a few suggestions for helping tweens thrive during this season.
Loosen your grip
Remember learning to drive with hands tightly grasping the wheel? Over time you realized that a lighter touch was all you needed to steer. Relating with your middle schooler as she explores more independence is a similar experience.
You are still the authority, so don't lower standards or compromise on negative behaviors. Instead, have conversations about trust, and involve your child in discussions on limits. Emphasize that rules exist to keep them safe, not to ruin their fun. Hold the line on issues that matter most to you, but look for areas where you can guide instead of control.
During this stage, you become a consultant. While a boss gives orders that should quickly be obeyed, a consultant makes suggestions on how to get things done. If your child's grades slip, ask questions to find out why it's happening and help him think through a plan to correct the problem. When she shows up wearing something inappropriate, explain why it's a bad choice and help her come up with better alternatives.
That 7-year-old who used to chatter on about school will become a 12-year-old who shrugs and says, "Fine." Some middle schoolers complain about parents who "ask a thousand questions when I don't want to talk." Watch for natural opportunities — such as in the car on the way to soccer practice — and be available when he wants to open up, even if it's inconvenient for you.
I've heard middle schoolers say, "I don't tell my mom anything because she goes off on me about stuff!" As middle schoolers navigate the emotional storms of this age, they need parents who will be their anchors. Keep your expression and tone neutral when you're facing an upset preteen.
If your middle schooler does shares a problem with you, feel honored, but don't offer unsolicited solutions. When you can, name and validate the feelings, by saying something like, "That probably makes you mad. I'd be mad, too!" At this age, what they want from you is what you want from a friend or a spouse: to be listened to, understood and taken seriously.
Physical growth is the easiest growth to see; some boys gain six inches or more in height between the beginning of sixth grade and the end of eighth. Girls become curvier. Both genders lose the roundness in their faces. And the boys' cracking voices can create some awkward moments. All of this produces embarrassing situations and clumsiness at an age of extreme self-consciousness.
Do all you can to protect your child's dignity at this age. For many, "looking stupid" is their greatest fear. Remain low-key when your tween takes a spill or knocks things over. He's still adjusting to his quickly growing body.
The physical changes are easy to see, but changes in the brain are happening at the same time. This is when students begin to think more in the abstract (it's why algebra is taught at this age). They'll lie awake pondering ideas like infinity and creation and what would happen if the sun burned up.
Their emotional changes happen so quickly that they are as surprised as you by them. One middle school teacher has Kleenex boxes all over her classroom because seventh-graders are known for unexpected tears — from being upset, from laughing so hard and from being surprised by something unexpected and unexplainable. One tween at a student-led conference summed it up well when suddenly he had tears streaming down his face. He reached for a tissue and said, "What is happening to me?"
Spiritual growth takes place also. Don't be alarmed if your middle schooler asks hard questions about faith. Welcome the questions, and if you don't feel comfortable answering them, involve a youth pastor or Christian teacher. Be prepared to address the common secular attitude of "Whatever seems right to you is what you should do," and discuss the validity and truth of Scripture. Then encourage him to research the Bible on his own. This is not the time to give a middle schooler the choice of whether or not to attend church, because the decision will likely be based on mood and energy level rather than on beliefs.
Understand the bubble
With all of this growth, middle schoolers can come across as self-centered. As one dad put it, "Am I the only one who feels like I'm raising a narcissist?" We call it "the bubble," because kids are often totally preoccupied with what's happening to them. They're constantly checking the mirror to see what's changed, checking their feelings to gauge what might happen next and pondering the strange new thoughts going through their minds.
If you want to get a middle schooler's attention, begin your conversation with the part that has to do with him. If you say, "Grandma is sick, so I need to take her to the doctor this afternoon. Jake's mom will take you to practice," you'll likely be met with, "Wait—what? Why is Mrs. Smith driving me?"
Instead, start with, "You're riding to practice with Jake because I have to take Grandma to the doctor." The good news is that "the bubble" is temporary, at least in its most extreme form.
Think back to when your child was a toddler and wanted to do everything for herself. You let her fall down while learning to walk and make messes while learning to feed herself. You recognized that these experiences were a necessary bridge from babyhood to preschool age.
The middle school years hold the same sort of transitions as your child moves from childhood into adolescence. Instead of dreading this stage, relax and observe the progress. Listen for new insights and watch as awkwardness and self-consciousness are replaced by agility and confidence.
As a parent, the best thing you can do is take a step back, but not too far. Let your child know you're there when she needs you — but she can now take some steps on her own. If you can achieve this balance, your child will discover confidence and independence within the security of your love.Cynthia Tobias, M.Ed., D.H.L's background includes over 30 years as a popular speaker, author of 13 books, eight years teaching high school and six years in law enforcement. Sue Chan Acuña, M.Ed., has over 20 years of experience teaching middle school, and she still loves it! She is a frequent speaker at parenting conferences. They are the authors of Middle School: The Inside Story