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Parenting Middle Schoolers: 6 Things that Worked for Me

As the mother of three grown children, I still get misty-eyed in August when the loose-leaf notebooks and colored pencils hit the stores. The school years seem to fly by, and it’s exciting to watch our adolescents unfold their wings from the elementary cocoon and air them out to dry in middle school before taking flight to high school and beyond.

Exciting, but also emotional.

Especially those middle school years, when children seem to be on a roller coaster ride of emotional, physical, hormonal, social, and academic changes.

Wisdom That Helped Me Support My Middle Schoolers:

1. Children develop—physically and emotionally—at their own pace.

Physical growth spurts can be preceded by emotional turmoil, or vice versa. Patience is key. Teenage brain chemistry is akin to a toddler’s—changing every other minute. It can feel totally irrational, and you never know what to expect. Keeping a calm home routine can go a long way to creating a place where your child can really unwind and be herself. But home is also the site of many a melt down, so be prepared.

2. The social pressures are real to them.

Peer pressure can become pretty intense for middle schoolers. You need to reinforce your own family values so your children know they have something to stand on. They will eventually find their group of friends. But let your children navigate their own social situations—don’t step in and be the helicopter parent or your middle schoolers will never develop their own coping skills.

3. They need us to LISTEN to them.

Pay attention to today’s lunch table drama. Be willing to listen because they don’t always  want your suggestions. Show interest in the things that interest them.

4. Keep your kids appropriately busy, but not overloaded.

We had a rule in our house—you must do three activities: one must be physical, like dance or a sport, one must be creative, like playing an instrument or acting in a play, and one must be community oriented. These pursuits provide balance and other outlets to develop new groups of friends. But too many activities in middle school can be hard—both on the academics and the pocketbook.

5. They are figuring out who they see in the mirror.

I used to tell my husband that when our girls would look in the mirror, they had no idea who was looking back at them. Middle school is a crucial time to develop a sense of self, and that includes finding the right look so they can feel good about themselves. Sometimes the clothes do matter, and you might want to let your child buy the “right” boots or the “in” jeans (or the lower price facsimile) if it makes your child feel comfortable and positive. My sister also taught me an important lesson: if they don’t want to wear a winter coat to school, fine. Pick your battles. When they get cold enough they will put on the coat. Same goes for flip flops in winter.

6. They need us to help them be organized so they can succeed academically.

This may be the first time your adolescent has different teachers for different subjects or changes classrooms during the day. Help your middle schooler devise an organizational system—and then step back and let your child manage the work. Only step in if a major problem arises. We found it helpful to go over our weekly calendar together on Sunday night and to prepare for the next day of school the night before.

Nancy Kekst is a development manager and professional organizer.

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