She comes down from her bedroom dressed in clothes from the day before. It is almost noon on a Saturday. The morning, spent making breakfast and figuring out what the rest of the weekend holds, is quiet. It will not last. A tornado of seventh-grade problems is forming, ready to begin swirling through the peaceful living room.
“You need to. . .” my daughter says, her body wedged into a spot she stole from her six-year-old brother on the couch.
I do not hear the rest. And I don’t have to. I don’t want to. Maybe it’s her tone or the way she demands instead of asks, but one thing segues into another until she is fighting with her siblings. Soon she is fighting with me, but no matter how hard I try, I can’t seem to do what I know I should, what all the articles I’ve been reading advise—don’t engage. Instead, we lock horns and do the same dance we’ve been doing since the beginning of the school year.
It’s alright*, Mama, I try to tell myself, it’s only seventh grade.
The dust settles with my daughter’s self-exile to her room. Thinking back, I’m sure I was much like my daughter at her age, and so were my friends. There’s a reason for all of it, though it doesn’t make me feel better. Seventh grade is the most trying year for kids, the one that tests them—and their mothers—the most.
Seventh grade marks the onset of puberty for many kids. Puberty means hormones which confuse and exacerbate already difficult social situations. The hormones of puberty mess with both their bodies and brains, neither of which are fully mature yet. The prefrontal lobe of an average 12-year-old brain is not fully developed enough to manage impulse control, predict consequences, or plan ahead, which explains so much when I’m dealing with a seventh grade girl.
Friends waging the same war with their own seventh-grade children attest to the lack of impulse control.
Their kids are like hibernating bears, calm and sleepy until someone pokes at them, or looks at them, or says hello to them.
No one quite knows what sets off the lunacy that takes over seemingly normal kids. With an arsenal that includes yelling, crying, insults, and whining, kids at this age act more like toddlers than the middle schoolers they’ve become.
It’s as if the sixth grade kids we were starting to see mature suddenly regress. In fact, they have. They’re no longer at the beginning of middle school with its shiny newness of more freedom and friendship possibilities than elementary school. This year, teachers expect more of them than they did in the sixth grade. The work becomes more demanding, as do the friendships and social situations.
Seventh grade isn’t yet eighth grade either, where they will be the oldest kids in school, ready to move on to the next phase, high school. Seventh grade is the middle of middle school. It sucks for them, for us, and for anyone in the orbital path of those in its grip. Seventh grade is the year when they cannot figure out where they fit.
I have witnessed this with my own girl.
The constant self-doubt surrounding every choice—from hairstyle to whether or not to wear a coat to the bus stop—is consuming. The awkward stage began in September and continues even now as the school year pushes into the final few months of the year. She is miserable. She is lost.
With my daughter’s precarious footing, I notice my own. I’ve read the articles and tried to heed the expert advice offered. Do not engage, they say. I still fight back. Watch how you behave because kids at this age model their behavior after yours, they tell me. Sometimes I scream and yell. These actions, my actions, make me second-guess my own parenting. I used to be comfortable in my decisions; now I find that I’m often wondering what to do next or how we got here.
How did this girl transition from waking up on time and getting herself to school to someone who often can’t wake up at all or function well enough to do what needs to be done for school? How can my daughter go from needing me one moment, to loathing me the next? She is a child and an adult in one body, and I don’t know who she’ll be from one moment to the next.
“Hi,” I say as I pop my head in her bedroom.
She is lying down, ignoring me.
“You still want to paint?” I ask, knowing that she won’t come to me. I have to make the first move after our fights. After all, I am the adult, the parent—even if I sometimes wish I didn’t have to be.
“Sure,” she says, because she really does want to paint her room and finally get rid of the bright pink she picked in the third grade. The one I gave her the freedom to choose. “I can’t stand the Pepto pink you let me pick.”
And I don’t blink with the accusation for letting her make a decision she now wants to punish me for. I do not engage. The parenting articles would be proud. Instead, I simply repeat in my head, ‘It’s alright mama, it’s only seventh grade.”
I’m sure next year will be different. I’m sure eighth grade will be better.
*The misspelling of alright is intentional. It is a play on the Bob Dylan song, “It’s Alright, Ma.”