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DEAN: Avoid being stuck in the middle: tips for parents of middle-schoolers

• Mar 9, 2018 at 4:00 PM

No one likes the middle seat, finishing in the middle of the pack, or getting the middle finger, and a lot of kids feel the same way about middle school. It’s a time of body odor, acne, cracking voices and awkwardness.

Have you ever heard of someone wishing to go back to middle school? Me neither.

However, the middle grades are a critical time in a child's developmental journey and shouldn’t be looked at as just a time to try and survive until they enter high school. The mindset that middle school is just a transitional period to “get through” ignores the reality of the physical and mental development needs of preteens and teenagers.

The same way graduated driver’s licenses have reduced the chances of teen accidents, supporting students in the middle years on their way to adulthood will help reduce the chances of stress and risky behaviors. Parents and people who work with students at this age need to be prepared to address the physical changes of puberty, the release of responsibility, and have discussions about tough topics.

This age is generally the start of puberty triggered by hormones — lots and lots of hormones. Walk through the halls of any middle school and you’ll see kids who could pass for 19 and others that look 9. The physical changes associated with puberty can be difficult for kids, and they’re more likely to experience moodiness and extreme mood swings.

But there are ways to help kids navigate these changes. Maintaining bedtimes that allow for 8-10 hours of sleep, providing a balanced diet, requiring healthy personal hygiene all help to ease the transition from their kid body into their adult body. They’ll try to fight you on some or all of the rules you have in place, but stand firm. As the adult, you know best.

Sex, drugs and electronic dance music

Just like my grandparents didn’t like my parents’ rock’n’roll, and my parents didn’t like my rap, you’re probably not going to like your kid’s choices in music. However, that should not stop you from having frank discussions about sex, alcohol and drugs with your kids. In today’s online world, information is everywhere, and kids talk about these things with each other, but the information they have is not always reliable. Ultimately, your honesty, openness and gentle guidance will do much more to nudge your child toward positive choices.

The first conversation will be uncomfortable, but there are ways to make it easier. Instead of asking them, “What do you know about marijuana?” or “Do you have any questions about sex?” ask questions like, “Have any of your friends started their periods?”; “Has anyone at your school ever talked about drinking?”; “Do you know the different names for marijuana?” By asking what your child has seen or heard, you take the focus off the personal, and that serves as an easy ice-breaker into the topic. Once you start the conversation, it’s easier for everyone to transition to proper education and shared family values.

One “talk” isn’t sufficient. Start early so you are ahead of changes to come. Have the deodorant talk before they start stinking. Have the alcohol talk before they’re at the party. Have the sex talk before they have the boyfriend or girlfriend. In this age group, a few months can bring major changes, so plan on having multiple conversations.

The middle grades are a destabilizing time for kids as they test the limits of authority. Kids at this age are experiencing more freedoms and greater independence. They may be allowed to ride their bikes downtown, access the internet and social media with fewer (or no) restrictions, and make more decisions about their lives. They are thinking (or not thinking) about their future and making choices about friendships and relationships.

This transfer of responsibility is a good and natural part of growing up, but it should also come with clear limits, expectations and consequences when they make mistakes. While they may argue for complete freedom and autonomy, in reality the security of knowing an adult is still in control is ultimately comforting, although they probably won’t tell you that.

The relationship bank

Interactions with your middle school child should reflect a more grown-up tone. Just like our “adult” issues are complex, the same is true for your student. Listen, be empathetic, acknowledge your child’s feelings, but also help them see situations from the other person's perspective. Don’t offer to “fix” the problem, but help your middle school student seek multiple possible solutions. Share with them the tools that as adults we’ve learned to use and be there to support them.

We are all busy and it can be easy to let your teenager veg out in their room or be on screens while you make dinner, do your work or veg out yourself. You have to create moments for conversation and to connect. They’ll push back, call you annoying and roll their eyes, but stand firm, be annoying and invest in moments where you can make deposits into the relationship bank. Force your son or daughter out of their room and go on a walk with you, go to the library, play a board game, go fishing or to a museum. These quiet moments allow you to talk without distraction.

It is in the face of challenges that we have opportunities to show our greatness. Facing the trials of adolescence allows for moments where kids learn grit and resilience. It is good for them to attempt things that are out of their comfort zone like giving a presentation in class, trying a new sport or activity, engaging independently with teachers or coaches, changing friend groups, or otherwise advocating for themselves. Give them coaching on what to say, how to say it, and the support that you are there for them no matter the outcome.

It is not failure that we should teach them to fear, but rather the lack of courage to attempt difficult challenges.

The years of transition from childhood to adulthood are difficult and full of awkward moments, but these are the life lessons only gained through the experiences of adolescence. Providing unconditional love, clear expectations, structure and guidance are critical in supporting your son or daughter through this pivotal stage of life.

Aaron Dean is the assistant principal of Lakeshore Middle School.

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