When my son started middle school last year, I wasn’t just concerned about whether he’d be able to keep up with the increased workload. I don’t have the fondest memories of middle school (who does?!), and I fretted about how he’d handle the social and emotional gut-punches middle school is famous for.
Middle school is a time of profound changes (hello, puberty!), and we can’t expect it to be smooth sailing all the time. I caught up with several experts in adolescent development to discuss the issues middle-schoolers most often face, and what parents can do to help navigate these choppy waters. Here’s what they had to say:
1. Friendships shift.
Above all else, expect change. Your child may not keep the friends they had when they were younger, and it may feel like their new friendships evolve at a rapid pace.
“Don’t be surprised or take it personally when this happens to your child,” suggests Megan Cannon, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker. “So much growth and development happens during these years; it’s expected that kids will develop new interests that may involve a new group of people.”
What your child needs is a good listening ear, says Cannon. Rather than getting entangled in the drama, stay neutral. This will help normalize the experience for your child. If your child’s friend finds a new lunch table, instead of reacting with, “I can’t believe your friend did that!” you can try, “I’m sorry; it can be hurtful when that happens.”
2. Their bodies are changing.
Girls hit puberty first, but boys aren’t far behind. These changes can be distressing for your child. The best thing to do is emphasize that the changes are normal and be open about what is happening.
Body images issues are common, says Dr. Christine Selby, Professor of Psychology at Husson University, and we can’t always control how our children feel about their bodies, including feelings of dissatisfaction.
That said, we can help our kids become more body positive. “Trying to force a middle school student to fit an ideal is not healthy and potentially dangerous,” Dr. Selby warns. Instead, model body acceptance and reasonable eating and exercise habits for your child. Connecting exercise to stress relief, instead of to weight management, is a good way to send a positive message.
3. They worry about fitting in.
Middle school is a time where kids feel an intense need to fit in, and while this is normal, it doesn’t come without risk. “Kids make some very poor choices in order to feel accepted,” says Dr. Tara Egan, parenting coach. Social media can magnify these issues, as kids strive for “likes” from their peers.
Keep in mind that middle school is also a time when your child will begin to value individuation, and you can use this to help them break out of the “in crowd” mindset.
“While being alone can be incredibly painful for a teen (the brain receptors that respond to emotional pain are activated similarly to physical pain), this can be the first chance for your teen to learn how to be independent,” says Lauren Cook, a clinician specializing in family therapy. Look for opportunities to praise your teen for going their own way when they try a new activity or pass on the latest fad.
My son’s transition to middle school wasn’t always pretty, but ultimately he thrived—and so did I. I think it helped that I went in with realistic expectations, compassion and a healthy dose of humor.
Wendy Wisner is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in the Washington Post, Family Circle, and Parenting, and is a frequent contributor to Your Teen magazine at www.YourTeenMag.com.