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How to Parent a Middle Schooler: Interview with Lori Desautels

What’s the most important thing parents of middle school kids can do? You will love what Lori Desautels, PhD, assistant professor of education at Butler University and former mom of three middle school students, has to say.

Middle School Behaviors

Being in middle school is a time of huge transition. It’s almost like when you are going on a trip, you need to pack and prepare for it. I would rather reframe middle school as a pre-adolescent trip that is going to take us on an adventure. We need to be more curious, to wonder a little more about the behaviors we see.

This beautiful complex developing brain is fragile and it is pruning away connections it no longer needs to get ready for adulthood. That’s why we see kids:

  • Bumping up against and resisting authority
  • Engaging in power struggles and control issues
  • Turning toward their friends
  • Novelty-seeking
  • Taking on more risk by being impulsive

At the same time, they are still so honest. I wish I would have listened to that honesty during 5th, 6th, and 7th grade. There is this complexity that can inform and enlighten us as parents.

How to Parent a Middle Schooler

The boundaries change, the roles and responsibilities shift and we’re not prepared for that. We’re used to being 24/7 caregivers and all of the sudden this booming time comes and all of the sudden we see this young adult who is growing in to independence. As they are doing this they are rejecting so many of the rules and structures that we put in place.

As we recognize that we’re not the boss of them anymore, we can shift toward being curious and trying to understand why they do what they do.

Our behavior as parents sets the tone for dialogue and for discipline so it’s important to take care of yourself so that you can be in a calm, regulated brain state when you approach your child. You may need to take a deep breath before you say something you’ll regret or get some exercise before you talk. Just make sure you take space and time for yourself so that you are in the best possible frame of mind. Also, pay attention to your tone of voice, your facial expression, your gestures, and your posture with these young adults.

Our interactions with our kids should focus on collaboration. This is the time to review and reframe some rules. Pick and choose your battles. Determine what you can live with now that will give our kid some more yeses. Don’t respond to their questions until you think through possibilities.

Parenting Middle School Kids in Adversity

First, I want to encourage parents that you are not alone. Every home that has a middle school aged kid in that home has some extra adversity and extra stress. What we understand about this time is that it’s creating some unpredictability and some isolation. Since middle school kids need to be social, so this is a huge frustration for them. But they don’t often feel comfortable sharing how they feel.

As a parent, I would offer several opportunities to share how you feel. It doesn’t need to be through words. Maybe it’s through journaling or creating a podcast or YouTube video. They need a way to express how the pandemic is affecting them right now so they can get it out. Maybe even through art and music – encourage them to express themselves in a way that feels good to them. It is calming to the nervous system.

Take Advantage of the Opportunity

I think it’s a myth that this is the worst developmental stage to be a parent. It can feel that way at times because of the transition they are going through, but we need to see it as an opportunity to join up with them.

Susan Borison, mother of five, is the founder and editor of Your Teen Media. Because parenting teenagers is humbling and shouldn’t be tackled alone.

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