Middle school. There are few words in my vocabulary that elicit such a visceral reaction. Reading them together takes me right back to sweater vests, Girbaud jeans, bad bangs and a burning desire to fit in.
A few years ago, as I watched my oldest walk up the hill toward junior high, it felt as if I were feeding him to the wolves. Gone were the insulated, comfortable days of elementary school, and my stomach was in knots, hoping he would return intact.
As my second child heads that same direction next week, it got me thinking about what I’ve learned about those crazy, difficult, exciting and formative years and what I wish someone had told me before we started this journey. So I thought I’d share.
For some kids, middle school is wonderful. They breeze right through with friends, A's and popularity, and their parents exclaim things like, “Oh, my daughter LOVES middle school!” or “My son has really found his niche as student body president!”
I liken these parents to the ones who had babies who slept through the night at 6 weeks old. Some people just get really lucky, and I hope you are one of them. But if you are not, maybe a few collective experiences can help, because for most kids, middle school is tough. Even the kids who look like they have it all together, who seem to be breezing through, are struggling. It is what this stage of life is all about.
Middle-schoolers leave the sunshine-and-rainbow discussions of elementary carpet circles and are thrust into exchanges about controversial current issues, difficult moments in history, sex and drugs. They listen to crass words in the halls and locker rooms, see ugly things being applauded and watch jerky people rise to the top.
They are probably using most of their energy just to keep their heads above water. Know this, and let them open up about what they are seeing, hearing and feeling. Understand that they are being forced to grow up in a week, so help them make sense of this brave new world; don't act as if nothing has changed.
Though you have been organizing play dates, study groups, car pools and sports teams for their entire lives, suddenly you are expected to step WAY back and let them handle things, and you have to do that. Unless it is something serious, adding a parent to the mix usually just embarrasses kids and makes things worse. It will feel almost impossible to resist your mama-bear urges when your children are left out, excluded, blamed or passed over, but the best thing you can do is encourage them to figure things out, help restore their confidence and let them grow.
This can be painful as you watch them decide that everyone is prettier, better, cooler and smarter than they are; when they are home alone on a weekend; when drama seems to engulf everything, or when forever friends become awkward acquaintances. Be prepared for your own heart to break over and over again.
But tell them they are not alone, that everyone feels this way in middle school, because it is true. When the drama is high, use your perspective to help them see both sides of a situation and bring them back to reality. Teach them what it means to be a friend, then remind them of how you changed friends and found new ones, and how it all ended up being OK. Show them that you, unconditionally, still see them as a star and will always be their biggest fan.
When things are rough, they are going to want to disengage and lie low. Being lazy will become their top priority, because if they don't care or don't put themselves out there, they won’t get hurt. They will refuse to try out for or participate in anything. They will slack off in school and try to get away with the same at home. This is when you will have to force a few things. Find opportunities for them to get involved and then make them do it. Hold on to expectations. They might hate you in the moment, but they will thank you later. I promise.
There will be times your middle-schooler will really not like you. It is natural for them to push the boundaries, to not respond as a book says they will and to be angry about your stupid rules and plans. They will tell you what all their other friends get to do/have/buy and how much cooler everyone else is compared with you.
This will make you question your parenting daily. You will feel emotionally exhausted and mentally depleted. You will look left and think you are much too strict. You will look right and feel guilty about allowing too much freedom. You will wonder how everyone else seems to be making it work so easily and wish for a redo. The best thing you can do is stop comparing, because you never see the whole story on the outside and this isn’t easy for anyone.
Your situation is unique and there is no one-size-fits-all solution, so figure out what works best for your family, for your child, and start from there. Be confident in the way you have chosen to parent, but be ready to adjust as life and situations change.
If nothing works, enlist the help of others. If your child seems especially low or beyond your reach, find someone ... a teacher, a counselor, a professional. The mental health statistics and suicide rates at this age are alarming and not to be taken lightly. Don’t brush a concern under the rug. If things feel serious to you, fight for a solution.
And when things are good, live it up. Middle-schoolers can be so much fun! It is remarkable to see them change and mature. Your conversations are about to become much more adult and interesting, and you will marvel at the way they are suddenly able to contribute to your family and the world in ways they never could before.
There will be a new level of honesty between the two of you that will deepen your relationship and make you both better. You will find you have started enjoying the same activities, movies, books and food, so take advantage of those bonding moments and happy times. Help them find something they love. Celebrate their accomplishments. Get to know their friends. Look for the positive. Take time to enjoy watching them start to become the people they were meant to be.
There really is so much good happening, and I never intended to paint a bleak picture of middle school, but I do want to be real about what these years might hold. Your child may very well rock it, but if they don’t, it's OK; they are OK; you are OK. Growth is painful, and the teen years are full of it, for parents and children. So hold on tight and love them hard. You are about to start a wild, beautiful ride.