Most parents dread the middle school period more than any
other developmental stage—for good reason. Your previously happy, docile child
can suddenly become moody, resentful and downright difficult. Some of these
behaviors are simply part of the developmental process, but the transition to
middle school can cause emotional angst.
Heading off to middle school means new friends, a new environment and higher
academic expectations. Good organizational skills and a dose of perspective can
help soothe your nerves as well as your child's.
"Parents of students in 6th grade and lower should work as
managers. However, during middle school, parents should begin transitioning out
of that role to become more of a partner than a manager." –Karyn Gordon,
author of Dr. Karyn's Guide to the Teen
The Social Scene
Middle schoolers are all about trying to figure out where
they fit in with others—a tall order when they're not yet entirely comfortable
with themselves. Between raging hormones and a lack of self-awareness, middle schoolers
might be the most sensitive people on the planet. Drama is the order of the
day. Exuberance and hurt feelings, first crushes and first break-ups—all sorts
of triumphs and tragedies—occur on a regular basis. Remember, there's a purpose
to this developmental period beyond testing the limits of your patience.
For many children, middle school is a time to explore new ideas and
experiences. Middle schoolers interact with a much broader range of people than
they did in elementary school, and they begin to gain a sense of their own values,
interests and needs. These youngsters crave acceptance from their peers, but
they don't always know how to interact, says Ann K. Dolin, founder and
president of Educational Connections Tutoring and Test Prep, which has offices
in Fairfax, Va., and Bethesda, Md. It's an exciting period for kids, but it can
also be scary.
One of the most common fears middle schoolers express is that they won't have
any friends. You probably remember the feeling of entering the school cafeteria
and wondering if you'd have someone to sit with. Most schools have two or three
lunch periods. Encourage your child to find out which lunch period his friends
have before the first day of school so he can anticipate a friendly face in the
cafeteria, Dolin suggests.
Whether your child is the extroverted student-government type or an introverted
science genius, encourage him to join a club or other activity. "This will
not only allow him to grow a social network, but will also help him to explore
interests and passions," Dolin says.
And when the inevitable dramas come, offer an understanding ear and try to
avoid doling out advice unless your child asks for it. Steer your child toward
friends with similar interests who treat him with kindness.
Keeping It Together
Imagine how you would feel going from a small company with
fewer than 100 employees to a huge Fortune 500 company with thousands of staff.
You'd probably feel excited, anxious and maybe even downright freaked out.
Going from the comfort and relative security of elementary school to middle
school is a similar experience for your child.
Middle schoolers go from having one teacher and one classroom to having five or
more teachers and classrooms. Most schools allow a five-minute transition
period between classes, so students rush at breakneck speed to reach the next
destination. Throw in trying to keep track of all the books and remembering the
locker combinations—while simultaneously appearing cool to friends—and you've
got a recipe for major anxiety.
To calm the first-day jitters, visit the school a week or two ahead of time,
suggests Mary Mokris, an education specialist with Teaneck, N.J.-based Kumon,
an after-school math and reading program. "Get a map of the school and
walk with your child to each class (if allowed)," Mokris recommends. If
locker assignments and combinations are available, she says, have your child
practice opening her locker a few times.
In addition to the logistical challenges of getting around a new school, your
child will also be faced with keeping track of folders, textbooks, gym clothes
and planners. A few hooks or bins will help your child keep her locker
"When kids feel good about themselves they're more likely to say no to peer pressure and drugs. ... Decisions really come out of how children feel about themselves." –Karyn Gordon, author of Dr. Karyn's Guide to the Teen Years
At home, set up a system for keeping track of papers, homework and books,
Mokris advises. A box by the door conveniently stores everything for the
Making the Grade
Middle school marks the beginning of more challenging schoolwork
and paves the way for academic success through high school and college, but
getting there isn't easy. The academic transition from elementary school to
middle school is a steep climb. Teachers expect more while providing less
direction. Elementary school teachers typically work with 25 students every
day; middle school teachers might have 200 or more students. Teachers are less
likely to reach out to you unless there's a serious problem.
Homework increases in both difficulty and quantity. At the same time, your
middle schooler might balk at your offers of help, and you may wonder just how
involved you should be in her academics. The answer depends on your child's
personality and learning style, but most kids need at least some support
through middle school.
Before your child ever registers for middle school classes, take some time to
consider her learning strengths and needs. Help your middle schooler select
classes based on her interests and abilities. The ideal balance is one in which
she feels engaged, interested and challenged without feeling overwhelmed.
To decrease the chances of homework wars, set up a routine before school
starts, says Toronto-based Karyn Gordon, author of Dr. Karyn's Guide to the Teen Years.
"It's a good habit to have them finish their homework before dinner, then
use the time after dinner as a relaxing period," says Gordon, who has a
doctorate in marriage and family therapy and a master's degree in counseling.
"Parents can talk to their child's teacher to find out realistically how
much time should be budgeted for their homework."
Set up a method for communication with your child's teachers, and check in
periodically. Many schools offer websites through which you can find your
child's homework assignments, missing assignments and grades on completed work.
How often you communicate or check the website depends on your child's needs,
but aim to slowly reduce communication.
"Middle school is a transitional period," Gordon says. "Parents
of students in 6th grade and lower should work as managers. However, during
middle school, parents should begin transitioning out of that role to become
more of a partner than a manager."
The years of middle school can be frustrating for both you and your child. An
empathetic and understanding approach to parenting can keep your relationship
intact while your child makes this life transition.
A Final Note: Watch for Red Flags
Although emotional ups and downs are the norm for most
adolescents, a few behaviors can be cause for real concern.
"Be aware of social pressures," says Mokris. "Middle school is a
time when students can be exposed to drugs or alcohol. Students must learn to
handle peer pressure and make smart choices. Talk with your child daily,
showing an interest in what he or she is doing and feeling. Listen to your
child—especially to what is not said."
Gordon believes that poor self-esteem is usually behind
worrisome behaviors such as smoking pot, cutting class and eating disorders.
She encourages parents to focus on boosting a child's confidence to improve
"When kids feel good about themselves they're more likely to say no to peer
pressure and drugs," says Gordon. "Decisions really come out of how children
feel about themselves."
The experts agree that during the middle school years, children typically
become more involved with peers and spend less time at home, so make sure you
stay plugged into your child's life. Staying connected will make it easier for
you to spot any worrying behaviors, and your supportive presence can reduce your
child's risk of serious problems.