I was happily raising my school-aged child until one day, he morphed into someone new, someone different than the sweet little boy I'd always known. The transformation didn't quite happen overnight, of course. But it startled me nonetheless. My son began challenging my rules, arguing every request (okay, that wasn't all that new), or simply clamming up when I asked him what was wrong. I can trace back the beginning of these changes to his entry into middle school.
I remember him coming home those first few months after the start of seventh grade often feeling disoriented and angry. “I have to put a shield up to protect myself,” he told me. At first, I was perplexed. But then I recognized what he meant; his more stoney, tough-guy swagger helped ward off the bullies that seemed to lurk more noticeably at his new school. He was also trying to fit in with a new group of kids and find his place in this new environment.
Middle school presents a significant departure from the warm, friendly environment of elementary school. Most public middle schools draw from a wider, more diverse cross-section of the school district, bringing together students from all walks of life. Add to that mix the vast gulf in maturity that yawns between seventh, eighth, and ninth graders, the jostling for position that occurs as kids try to figure out where they fit in, the peer pressure, the hormones, and the resulting mix can be as perplexing and difficult for your tween as it is for you.
“How can this be?” write Charlene C. Giannetti and Margaret Sagarese's book The Roller-coaster Years. “How could a child who yesterday was so happy, cooperative, and sharing, have metamorphosed into such a moody, angry, selfish individual. Parents lose patience and heart, particularly when they’re on the receiving end of so much hostility:
“Why can’t I stay out until midnight? I’m old enough.”
“It’s my room and I like it messy!”
“I won’t change my dress! It’s not too tight!”
“I don’t care if the whole family’s going out to the museum. It’s boring. I’d rather hang out with my friends.”
“You’re ruining my life!”
These comments encapsulate the frustrations, the emotional roller-coaster kids are riding at this stage of life. Their desire for more independence is hampered by their lack of maturity to manage such freedoms. Children 10 to 15 years old encounter a host of physical, social, and emotional changes, most of which are out of their control. Says Presbyterian Day School Headmaster Lee Burns, “Around this age, kids become more aware of themselves and how they stack up academically and in sports against their peers. They’re more aware of their social standing and that can create anxiety and pressure.”
The results can produce a kid who is sometimes surly, withdrawn, distracted; someone who needs and wants you one minute and then rejects everything you stand for the next. It’s like your kid has become this human pendulum, swinging between his old persona as a child to this new persona he’s exploring as a tween.
So how do you keep the lines of communication open as you and your child navigate the choppy waters of adolescence? First, says the experts, it’s important to remember that even as your child pushes you away, he still needs — and wants — your love and care. So back off, just don’t go too far. “All kids need the safety, structure, and warmth of a loving home that offers them protection when needed,” says Dr. John Townsend, author of Boundaries With Teens. Remember too, that while kids at this stage can be moody and disorganized, they are also often funny, inventive, and optimistic about the world.
The importance of acceptance
One friend recently told me about how her 13-year-old daughter seemed to be constantly worrying about fitting in with the right girls at school. “One of her best friends simply dropped her this year for another group of girls,” the mother says. “It took her awhile to rebound from that.” Kids at this age scrutinize each other’s dress, weight, speech, and everything can be a reason to ostracize another.
As parents, we often discount the peer pressure our kids live with, dismissing their angst as so much drama. But in the tween years, fitting in is paramount. Much of the jostling that goes on in middle school is driven by kids trying desperately to figure out their position in the pack, to find acceptance among their peers. “Parents minimize how important social acceptance is,” notes clinical psychologist Charlotte Freeman. “They tend to minimize it by saying, ‘I got through it, you will too.’ Yet kids today are being bombarded by so much more information. Because of the Internet, they see and hear things at a much more rapid pace. We must be sensitive to it and not create roadblocks by minimizing or intellectualizing our kids' issues.”
Just the availability of online life makes the world our kids must try to interpret far different from the one we knew as teenagers. “Parents can feel intimidated by social media,” says Burns. “We need to make sure we know how our kids are communicating and what it is they’re talking about. If we opt out, we’re losing out on a window into their lives.” So make a point to keep talking, really talking, to your child as adolescence unfolds. Let him know you’re available and want to understand what it is he’s thinking about and going through during these roller-coaster years.
• Look for opportunities to connect with your child. Have meaningful conversations during relaxed times, such as while pursuing an activity, or during the afternoon commute. “You need to be ready, to have a strategic conversation with your child, but it may be when you least expect it to happen,” says Burns. “Boys in particular do well about talking during activities: throwing a ball, in a duck blind, or playing chess.”
• Be a good listener. Try to listen to your child’s concerns without passing judgment. And remember, you don’t have to solve all of your child’s problem. Let him sort things out. “We’re too quick to rescue kids from the consequences of their actions, so they don’t learn autonomy and resilience,” says Burns.
• Share a meal together. It’s a simple act yet many families today have allowed mealtime to be whittled away. Schedules and other activities crowd out dinner around the table. Yet studies show that kids who share a meal with their families do better, both academically and socially. Use this time to learn about each other’s day and get caught up with their world.
• Control your reactions. There are days when your kid’s behavior will drive you crazy: the sarcastic tone, the cursing, the moodiness. But instead of blowing your top when she acts out, leave the room momentarily, regain your composure, then return and talk about how her behavior makes you feel.
• Model the qualities you want your child to reflect. What most influences a tween’s ability to learn responsibility and self-control is seeing how you handle issues. Be intentional about the values you want to teach.
• Step into their world. Remember the movie, Freaky Friday? Most kids would love it if we parents had to live in their world for a day. So make time to listen to your kid’s favorite music, or do an activity with them that they enjoy. Chances are, you’ll gain some insights into where your tween is at.