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Headed to Middle School? Be Prepared for the Changes

For both parents and kids, starting middle school feels like a demarcation: the end of something old and the beginning of something new. But the changes in middle school are really just another step in the progressive development of our children—and to see it as part of the arc of our children’s growth makes it less scary to everyone.

What sort of changes in middle school should a parent expect to see?

Well, the name of the game is fluctuation, because they are changing internally, but not smoothly.

They will vary between insisting on independence and being very dependent, between tremendous competence and tremendous incompetency, between being sensible and being irrational, between being obnoxious and being delightful. Their inside world is beginning to get reorganized, but that takes time, and disorganization is part of moving towards being organized.

6 Tips for Middle School Parents

1. Offer support.

Our kids need a lot of support through the journey of becoming increasingly independent. We can’t expect them to start at the end of the journey; we need to help them with the newness of expectations and the newness of how they are experiencing the world. So we will help them when they need help, then help them learn how to do things themselves, then help them feel good about doing things themselves.

2. Understand it’s not about you.

It’s helpful to recognize that the bumps, vicissitudes, successes, and failures are theirs, not ours. It’s hard not to take on their anxiety, angst, hurts, or anger when things don’t go well. And things won’t always go well, especially during the middle school transition. But growth and security and self–esteem come from their learning how to negotiate things for themselves. So we help them learn how to do that, but we don’t do it for them.

3. Set limits.

Third, we provide clear guidelines and rules in areas that are new and confusing to them—social media, parties, and drinking or drugs, etc. It’s a relief (though not an acknowledged relief) that there are external controls when the internal controls aren’t fully operational.

4. Don’t over react to their behavior.

If we know that their behavior is for a reason, then we can use it as a form of communication and information about what is going on in the outside or inside world, or both. Try not to overreact to their behavior during the middle school transition.

5. Focus on process not product.

We can’t measure our kids’ progress by one grade or one performance, but we can focus on their sticking with something when it’s hard. That is, focus on their effort and their reactions when they don’t do well. Mastery provides great self-esteem, and mastery takes time and persistence, so we need to support that.

6. Be tolerant (of yourself and your child).

It’s a new era for everyone, and no one gets it right all the time. And it’s okay to not always nail it. After all, we want our kids to be able to make mistakes and learn from them. So it’s appropriate that we do the same.

Deborah Paris, LISW, has worked with countless adolescents and their families in her private practice in Shaker Heights, Ohio.

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