By Cynthia Tobias and Sue Acuña
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.
Additional ideas by other authors to help students prepare for the school year:
Middle School Survival Tips for Boys
Navigating the madness of middle school can be difficult for any boy. Too big to be little yet too little to be big, he’s a mix of body changes, rushing hormones and learning challenges. The good news is that these awkward years don’t last forever. But your son needs you to help him learn three practical survival skills to make the most of his middle school career:
Survival skill No. 1: Respect
At their core, guys want to gain respect and avoid embarrassment. When his respect-o-meter feels full, your son will stand taller, smile more and say words other than fine. When he feels disrespected or embarrassed, he cringes, gets defensive and believes everything is “stupid.” Help your middle schooler by teaching basic life skills that will earn him some respect from peers and teachers. Start with personal hygiene. Ridicule and embarrassment follow bad breath and body odor — things he can easily avoid with your guidance. Then show him how to deliver a confident handshake, introduce himself and converse intelligently with others.
Survival skill No. 2: Maturity
Ask your boy to finish this sentence: Practice makes _____. Did he say perfect? Oops. We know practice makes better, not perfect. Convincing your son to practice something other than video games can be a challenge. Setting and tracking goals, and then celebrating these accomplishments, will help. Have him write his goal, such as “Raise my math grade from a C+ to a B in the next three weeks.” Then add action steps: 1) Ask for help in understanding difficult concepts; 2) Turn in late homework and ask to retake the last test; and 3) Meet with the teacher to discuss extra credit.
Survival skill No. 3: A competitive edge
The book of Proverbs says that just as iron sharpens iron, one man sharpens another (Proverbs 27:17), but the process often causes sparks to fly. Middle school can be rowdy and unpredictable, and by the end of the day, boys often feel more dented than sharpened. Share daily words of encouragement with your son to sharpen his emotional and spiritual edge. Tell him, “You are made of mettle.” Mettle is character that includes strength, bravery and courage.
—Jonathan Catherman, the author of The Manual to Manhood.
Middle School Survival Tips for Girls
A lot has changed since you were a tween — but if you’re like most parents, you can remember the middle school madness. Here are three ways to help your daughter successfully navigate middle school:
Survival skill No. 1: Confidence
Help your daughter recognize and gain confidence in her abilities by setting and accomplishing goals. This includes both her must-do goals about school and chores and the want-to-do goals of her hopes and dreams. Work together to create a goal list that gets her from where she is now to where she wants to be. Discuss how long each goal will take and what action steps will mark her progress. Then celebrate her successes along the way.
Another way to build your daughter’s confidence is to help her learn to interact with adults. Teach her to shake hands, look them in the eyes, introduce herself in a confident voice and to talk to them, even when she doesn’t feel capable. This teaches her how to act confident until she feels confident.
Survival skill No. 2: Fearlessness
Many girls — especially tweens — fear failure. This can keep your daughter from trying new things, practicing what’s difficult and reaching her potential. Remind her that God is bigger than her fears and that she has not been given a spirit of fear but of power, love and self-control (2 Timothy 1:7).
Take something she believes she’s failed at and walk through how she can grow from the experience. If she tried out for the school play or a sports team or a choir and wasn’t chosen, but has the ability, figure out with her what she could do differently next time. Or if her skills are in another area, direct her there.
Survival skill No. 3: Self-kindness
With the many challenges of middle school, girls may wallow in negative emotions, believing they’re stupid and worthless. Combat that by encouraging your daughter to think and speak well of herself. Remind her that you love her deeply, and so does God, and that she is God’s masterpiece, created to do good things (Ephesians 2:10, NLT). This season is tough, but it will pass. So help her stay focused on the beauty and significance God has placed within her.
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
© 2018 Cynthia Tobias and Sue Chan Acuña. All rights reserved. Used with permission. This article originally appeared on focusonthefamily.com.