Middle school comes with changes. A new school, new routine, a new just-about-everything. Concurrently, middle school aged kids are rapidly changing physically, mentally, and emotionally. On the surface, we notice the pimples, and newfound stinkiness, and we manage it. We instill in our children good hygiene practices, and try to support them through it, while giving them the space they crave. Less often do we discuss, and work to manage the drastic behavioral changes middle school brings. No different than physical transitions, these shifts can cause headaches for your child, and giving them tools to cope is a lifelong gift. So, how can we begin to manage behavioral changes in middle school?
Let Go of The Reigns (A Little)
Up until now, you’ve been captain of the ship, and your child a loyal, dependent passenger. However, it may be time to promote them to deckhand. Although older kids need lots of gentle guidance, and even heavy-handed steering, its important middle school age kids feel a sense of autonomy. For many kids, there’s a perceptual shift from “my parents help me do stuff” to “my parents stop me from doing stuff.” Don’t get me wrong, they’re not ready to move out, nor pay rent, but it’s time to let them make some (small) decisions.
Now, it’s important to be crafty about how you delegate liberties. Ultimately, you want to maintain your authority, so keeping a line in the sand is critical. Explain to your child that despite newfound privileges and voice, some things just aren’t changing. The hardlines parents have to draw are highly variable, but parents often begin granting their child many of the same privileges. For many parents, curfews, screen time, and purchases from clothing to shoes are the first matters up for negotiation. When including your child in conversations about rules and standards, take the time to explain their purpose. By no means will this magically shift your child’s thinking, but it assures them you aren’t merely trying to aggravate them, nor flex your authority.
Rethink Your Dialogues
Young kids are consistently amongst the most fun people to chat with. Preteens are too— minus the consistency. Whereas you may be accustomed to your child being an open book, reciting their day in beginning to end in painstaking detail, this tends to change once kids move up into middle school. Of course, this doesn’t mean you can no longer speak to your child, despite what they may tell you.
First and foremost, don’t force it. Have you ever met somebody who incessantly tries to strike up a conversation, and can’t get the message? Nobody likes this. Middle school aged children are particularly prone to this feeling. Amongst middle school aged kids, perceived smothering can feel like an intrusion, an attack on their independence and adultness. If trying to talk falls flat on its face, you can let it. It won’t be your last chance to chat, and granting some distance makes your child more likely to open up in the future.
Better yet, allow your child to come to you first. Impossible? Not at all. Your child likely still wants to talk to you, but their approach may look different. Perhaps they briefly mention something in the car they’re upset about, or are suddenly loitering in the kitchen. Oftentimes, kids are unsure how to seek out conversation and comfort from their parents, as it seems contrary to their independence and self-reliance. So bear in mind, your child’s approach may very much say “don’t ask me about it,” when they really mean “please ask me about it.”
You’re Worlds Away
Parents frequently feel like their child and them are on different planets. That’s because in some sense they truly are. Middle school is its own brand-new ecosystem, and a magnitude of the shake-up is the most recent in memory. In an effort to learn the terrain, or merely for the sake of exploration, your child may seem to depart from your “planet.” Sometimes this looks like an enormous time spent on their phone, or a complete preoccupation with niche games or hobbies. If your preteen feels distant, try not to fret, it’s likely because they’re immersed in a new environment and there’s much to discover.
You can’t always expect to understand, and it’s important you don’t. Trying to be keenly aware of every move your child makes, or understand every new behavior, interest, and friend, will drive you, and them, up the wall. Learning to play the role of “spectator” from time to time will serve you and your child in the long run.
It’s clear the behavioral changes that come with middle school can feel scary. Your child will be experiencing lots of new freedoms and situations, and you’ll be watching it happen. Although cliché, you have to meet these challenges with kindness and empathy. Sometimes things will feel stinky for the whole family. Understanding that this is completely normal, and that it doesn’t reflect poorly on you, nor your middle schooler, should bring some peace. As your child is developing their own social sphere, consider following suit, and enjoying the company and comradery of other middle school aged students. With a little hope, a few deep breaths, and these tips on navigating changes in middle school you’re more than equipped to make it through some rough patches.