My son just started high school, and one of the things that has taken me by surprise is how quickly he has blossomed into a very independent young man. Gone are the days that I have to remind him to do his homework, study for a test, or help him manage his weekend schedule so he can fit in a school project.
He just… gets this stuff done. Without constant reminders. It’s a freaking miracle.
It was not always this way. His middle years required a lot of hand holding, especially at the beginning. Like many kids, he found it jarring to go from having one teacher who gave a few simple tasks to complete each night to eight different teachers with completely different expectations. Just keeping his notebook organized was a feat unto itself.
As a parent, I found it difficult to understand my role. I knew he needed help, and I helped him where I thought I should. But I was never sure if I was doing too much at times, or doing too little at others times.
To be honest, I was kind of just flying by the seat of my pants, hoping for the best outcome, and not being entirely sure if I’d achieve it. Somehow, it all ended up okay—but I’m still shocked how independent he’s become.
I want to tell struggling parents of middle schoolers that there is light at the end of the tunnel. It’s going to be a bumpy road for sure—it’s middle school, after all!—but the transition from needful elementary school kid to confident high schooler is something all kids have to go through.
I’ll be going through it again with my younger son soon and I decided it’s probably best to not fly blind a second time. So I reached out to the experts to help me understand what’s going on in those middle school years in terms of organization and independence, and how parents can best approach the transition. Here are four tips I’ll be keeping in mind:
1. Be involved—but only when needed
“One of the biggest issues I see in parenting today is the well-intentioned help we give our kids when they don’t need it, don’t ask for it, or want it,” says former school psychologist Jeannine Jannot, author of The Disintegrating Student: Struggling but Smart, Falling Apart, and How to Turn it Around.
The more you step in and try to control things for your middle schooler, the less confidence, self-esteem, and motivation they will have in the long-run. That said, you don’t need to be completely hands-off. “Parents should be involved only to the extent needed,” she says.
How do you know which tasks to be involved in and which to step back from? Let your child tell you when they need help, but don’t step in because you think they need help.
“The hard truth is that parents jump in and help to alleviate their own anxiety and discomfort as they worry about the possibility and consequences of their child messing up or failing,” says Jannot.
2. Understand What’s Going On Developmentally
A lot of the chaos that happens between elementary school and middle schools has to do with puberty, of course. But it’s not just your child’s hormonal make-up that is changing. Their brains are going through a ton of developmental changes, too.
“The prefrontal cortex (PFC), is the last area of the brain to mature and become fully interconnected with the rest of the brain,” Jannot explains. “[This] means that as a child moves through adolescence into young adulthood their brain will continually get better at self-regulation, time management, and critical thinking.”
In a way, we parents don’t have to do much to “change” our kids or make them more responsible, because this maturation happens naturally, as they move into the high school years. But we can solidify this process by allowing them to take on more responsibilities during the transition.
“The more opportunities we give our middle schoolers to try on the role of ‘adult’—by giving them increasing amounts of independence and control over their decisions, actions, and consequences—the more likely they will learn the actual lessons of being a responsible human in the world,” says Jannot.
3. Use A Scaffolding Approach
So if kids naturally become more independent as the years tick on, and we should really only intervene when they clearly need or ask for our help, what kind of help is it okay for parents to offer?
Parenting and education expert Karen Aronian suggests taking a scaffolding approach to parental intervention. This means that when there’s a task that your child is still having trouble mastering, you start by offering direction and assistance. But as time goes on, you pull back and allow them to take over the task themselves.
“Middle schoolers are evolving and transforming, whether it’s time management, test prep, backpack organization, school communication, and advocacy, peer connections, and negotiation,” says Aronian. “Parents can watch, assist when necessary, and direct their kids on ways to help themselves.”
Without realizing it, I took a scaffolding approach with my son when it came to emailing his middle school teachers. He was very uncomfortable doing so at first, so I wrote to the teachers for him. However, I made him watch me do it so he could see how to approach matters like missed assignments and homework questions. Next, he began writing to his teachers himself, but he’d run each email by me to make sure it sounded okay. Finally, he felt able to email his teachers on his own, without any help.
4. Each Child Is Different
Probably the most important thing to remember as you navigate middle school, says Aronian, is that all kids are different, and the amount of attention each child needs during this time is very individualized.
“Parents can gather information from peers, books, schools, and professionals,” she advises. “However, they must trust their gut. Do not compare your kids to others. Development is a personalized process.”
I love this advice, and I will definitely be taking it to heart as my second child starts middle school. I know whatever seemed to have worked for my first son, might not work my second son. So I guess I’ll sort of be finding myself flying by the seat of my pants yet again—but maybe this time I’ll have more faith that it will all fall into place.