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Middle School Comes With Lots of Emotions, Here’s 4 Survival Tips

Middle school students smiling in class.
How can we prepare students for the behavioral changes they’ll experience on their middle school journey? Preteen behavior can, at times, be unpredictable and intense. The challenge of managing new, strong emotions is exceptionally hard on young people. The best things parents can do is instill emotional regulation skills in their preteen. So how might we start?

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With middle school on the horizon, parents and students begin preparing for big changes. Whereas parents may be more concerned about supplies and the academic aspects of middle school, for students this preparation may be a cool haircut or new, trendy clothes. But how do we prepare students for the behavioral changes they’ll likely experience during their middle school journey? Well, preteen behavioral changes are usually underscored by their volatility, and the inability of young people to cope with their new, strong feelings. Consequently, one of the best things parents can do is instill emotional regulation skills in their preteen. So how might we start?

Reset Your Perspective

We have a natural tendency to crudely dichotomize nearly everything. For instance, when your child has an outburst, you may consciously or subconsciously label their behavior as “bad.” However, this limits your understanding of their outburst and can push you towards judgment instead of understanding. Moreover, it’s difficult for your child to recognize that your frustration, or the “bad” label, is directed towards their behavior and not their feelings. Unfortunately, this “labeling” may cause your child to exhibit further inappropriate outbursts, or a tendency towards bottling their feelings.

Alternatively, think of your child’s behavior as a feedback mechanism. Their behavior, whatever it may be, gives you insight into their ability to regulate their emotions. When we shift perspectives and recognize that “bad behavior” is merely your child’s confession that they’re having a hard time keeping their emotions in check, we can more easily access the empathy they need. Better yet, this reinforces the idea that there are no “bad” emotions, so much as there are “bad” reactions to those emotions. Middle school age children are navigating these new emotions themselves, so it’s important they don’t grow to fear them.

Take Five

Although cliché, sometimes the best course of action in the short run is merely walking away. Acting on impulse, or reactionarily, is one of the hardest tendencies teens have to overcome. For that reason, you should model healthy strategies for regulating emotions, even if they’re as simple as waiting until you’re calm to engage. Moreover, it may, effectively, encourage your child to do the same. No less, when you tap-out for a minute, it allows your child the opportunity to calm down and think about their feelings.

When I was in middle school, I confess to less than always stellar behavior at home. On some of my moodiest days my pre-teen angst and emotions made it impossible for me not to have the last word. If I was quarreling with my siblings, or arguing with my Dad, I became frustrated and worked-up, so much so that I could not walk away. Luckily, this nugget of knowledge from my middle school self has been a life-saver. If your pre-teen emotions are running high, sometimes it’s best to give them some room. They haven’t yet experienced the value to their emotional health a quick cool-down can offer, but you could be the first to show them!

Try to Be Objective

The more objective our analysis of our preteen’s emotions, the better we can help navigate them. Unfortunately, we sometimes project problems onto our preteen, and fail to allow them to explain them to us. Getting an accurate sense of the terrain will allow you to steer dialogue. Moreover, if preteens feel understood or validated, they are given a chance to explore and consider their emotions further. However, if we are biased in our assessments, or miss the mark, teens can be left alienated and confused.

Simple Reminders that Can Shift You Towards a More Objective Perspective: 1. You are not in middle school. 2. Your emotions have changed greatly since middle school. 3. Middle school has changed a lot in recent years, as has the emotional health of students. 4. Your emotional health has been a lifelong journey that your child has just begun.

Empathy, Always

Oftentimes, listening to your preteen with your heart and ears open can take the edge off their emotions. When preteens are feeling ignored, or like you’re not hearing the problem, they tend to get louder. Getting louder or acting out for attention is a natural solution to feeling as though you aren’t being heard. Making space for your preteen to feel emotions, especially intense ones, gives them a way to practice managing and redirecting emotions in more appropriate ways. 

Doing the hard work to instill emotional intelligence in your child can feel like an uphill battle. Between the natural turbulence that comes with puberty, academic stress, and social pressures, pre-teens have lots on their minds. Middle school is a circus of unique stressors that make us aware of our emotional health. While you’re both trying to get a handle on this new landscape of emotions, be kind to yourself. We’re humans, and emotions are inherently messy. It’s unlikely you consider yourself the master of emotional health and wellness, so be careful not to expect that of your child. So long as you’re steering them towards healthy practices for expressing themselves, you’re on the right track! 

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