“I hate middle school,” a friend recently messaged me, asking for advice in a difficult moment. I know those moments very well. My kids are three years apart, so I have a revolving door of middle schoolers, with one leaving the tumultuous stage while another is entering.
Navigating middle school is scary for parent and child. Kids are trying to break free and be independent while everything around them is quickly changing. They’re trying to find their identity. Hormones are raging. Caution signs flash everywhere for good reason. While they’re pushing you away faster than you want them to, they still need and want you.
As a teacher and counselor, I’ve seen many teens form their identity around unhealthy peer groups or engage in dangerous behavior because the struggle for identity is so great. Navigating your child through this time can be tiring - having one hand on them while also letting go. It’s a fine line, and sometimes you don’t know where the line is.
When my firstborn went through middle school, a friend told me even though my child was pushing me away, she still needed me. Who would have guessed words of “I hate you” also meant “I need you.”
Hind sight is better than foresight. I’m glad we’ve made it through the middle school years with three out of our four kids. We’ve learned a lot the hard way. But I can’t vacation yet. Each child is different and knowing what each one needs at various developmental stages is a big job. It requires knowing a child’s “bents.” It requires patience and perseverance. It requires loving them when they are least lovable.
Four lessons I’ve learned from the middle school parenting journey include:
- Giving teens space when they ask for it. It’s one of the ways they feel heard and understood, even in a heated moment. It builds parental credibility in the eyes of your middle schooler, and develops trust when they decide to open up to you, on their time.
- Understanding teen words are part of their development. “You don’t understand” and “You don’t know anything” was offensive to me the first round and I fought against it. But understanding that it is part of the process of kids exploring their identity and separating from mom and dad helps in hearing it the second, third and fourth times.
- Giving kids opportunities to excel. Middle School is a place where kids need to build confidence in some area. Finding their gifts and interests and making time to get them involved in those activities is important. You may need to look outside what their school offers. Building their confidence while building friendships with other kids with their area of interest is essential.
- Letting your child feel special and unique. When you’re with your child one-on-one, tell them things about themselves that make them different from their siblings. I’ve put this into practice with all of our kids, acknowledging their differences while celebrating their uniqueness, letting them know their special place of honor.
When our children were young, I bought them each a book unique to their place in faourmily. For one child, I bought the book, “I Love You the Purplest” by Barbara Joosse. It’s about a mom who sees a competitive spirit between her boys. She explains to each son how she loves them as individuals for their unique characteristics. She lets them know she sees them in their own special way.
For middle school teens, this is the secret message each one needs to hear.
- They are understood.
- They are seen.
- They are known.
- They are loved for who they are.
Middle school years can be the worst of times, but also the best of times as kids gain the strength, confidence, and courage in their own identity.
How have you helped your middle-schooler through these years? What do you remember from your own experience that would help today’s parents? We’d love to hear from you!