When the words “middle school” come up in conversation, many reactions result—few of them positive. This response seems to transcend age groups, affecting children, teenagers, and adults similarly. These pivotal years in the American school system seem to mark the transition between childhood and adulthood, and can prove just as difficult to navigate for the parents, as it does for the children actually attending school.
What’s so different about this phase of education than say, elementary or high school? Part of it is the age range in question. Between 10 and 14 years old, a lot of changes occur, both physically and hormonally. Kids start figuring out their sexuality, while their bodies grow, stretch, and develop new features they didn’t know they needed. Moreover, mentally they have a war waging. A war between their child-self who still craves cuddles and wants to play with toys versus their emerging independent adult-self who desires freedom and autonomy. When you combine this with the transition to a different educational institution with new expectations and dynamics, it’s no wonder middle school traumatizes millions each year. Originally, middle schools were introduced in the 1960s as a strategic ploy to desegregate the American school system. Now, however, they create what researchers dub the top dog/bottom dog (TDBD) phenomenon. By plucking 5th graders from their coveted spots at the head of the school, and transferring them to lowly 6th graders, it affects their overall performance. Of course, there could be many other factors at play during this transition that would account for the marked decrease in academic achievement during this period, such as the increased workload, the different schedules, or simply the change in student/teacher relationships. However, one study comparing student performance in a traditional middle school to that of a school that kept the same students from kindergarten all the way through 8th grade seemed to indicate that the latter provided a better learning environment. The pattern of poor grades dissipated in the setting where the TDBD phenomenon was removed from the equation, and observers noted less bullying as well. It’s possible that reorganizing the school system could remove some of the dread that accompanies entering middle school, but how would that then affect the transition to high school? For more information, read the full article on TDBD in schools found here: https://qz.com/785653/as-if-being-12-years-old-wasnt-hard-enough-a-new-study-confirms-many-schools-make-it-even-harder/. Until that happens, however, parents and children alike must prepare for this inevitable stretch.
In some cases, parents might actually dread the middle school years more than their children. This could relate to the lingering trauma from their own formative experiences, or to the prospect of having their adorable children turn into rebellious teenagers in just three short years. Nevertheless, parents shouldn’t let their own bad memories color their children’s experiences, especially before middle school has even begun. Thus, there’s no need to share every embarrassing moment, or bully-laden tale from your own life, unless it’s relevant to the situation at hand. Remember, kids will follow your lead. So, if you’re confident in their abilities to coast through middle school and remain optimistic about the many changes ahead, they might be too. When it comes to these preteen years, though, your children may be less likely to follow your lead than they were in the past. At this point, they’re usually beginning to exercise autonomy, and you should let them—within reason. It’s really a fine balance of placing boundaries and allowing them to still be children when they need to, but also encouraging them to begin transitioning to adulthood and make their own decision, then deal with the consequences of that. “Too often, [psychologist Carl Pickhardt] said, parents might think they should let go completely, especially of their child’s academic responsibilities, which…could be a big mistake.” Allowing your child to fail is one thing, but permitting them to give up as a result is another matter entirely—especially academically. Ultimately, experts recommend that your follow your child’s cue. If you maintain open lines of communication, you can better be aware of when they need guidance, and when they need space. As a mother who survived having multiple children in middle school, CNN correspondent Kelly Wallace talks more about this topic here: http://www.cnn.com/2014/08/18/living/middle-school-tough-transition-teens-parents/index.html.
For those days when the going gets a little too rough for you and your offspring, here are a few tips from The Washington Post to help get you by (and the full article if you’re interested: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/parenting/wp/2016/11/21/5-ways-to-help-your-child-survive-the-social-turmoil-of-middle-school/?utm_term=.29d88db6dc56). Step 1: Walk away from the drama. In middle school, scandal and romance seem to abound, and unplugging can be one of the hardest lessons to learn. Turning off the offensive app, or ignoring the inflammatory text, can be a hard step and/or a painful lesson, but one that will, nonetheless, benefit everyone in the end. Tip 2: Believe in the goodness of people. If you assume that people are simply careless or insensitive, rather than cruel, it makes it easier to forgive perceived slights and move on (both in childhood and adulthood). Step 3: Know when to let go. Possibly the hardest piece of advice to impart or follow, it’s also one of the most important as growing up invariably involves growing apart—from friends, from family, from old interests. As a parent, you can help children evaluate their options, look at them objectively, and point them toward a final decision. Unilaterally making their decisions for them, however, prevents them from developing the skills needed to do so on their own later in life. Tip 4 is a tried-and-true method: use humor! Ultimately, you survived middle school, so it’s only natural to assume they will too. Humor is one of the best ways to alleviate uncomfortable situations and remain positive, even through the most difficult of times. Last, but not least, encourage your middle schooler to be observant. By watching the social interactions between others and understanding the techniques that allow people to navigate common social situations, they can learn a lot. At the end of the day, middle school is just one long life lesson. You already learned yours, now you just need to be there to help your children through theirs.