Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

As we hunker down to prevent the spread of COVID-19, parents and teens are going to struggle with spending so much time together in the same space. Earlier I posted the No-No List for Parents, which is a guide for parents on improving communication. In the spirit of fairness, here’s a guide for teens and tweens to help life together go a little more smoothly.

  1. Be Tidy

To you it may be just a plate on a table or a shirt on the couch, but to the people you live with, it’s a mess. Take it with you when you leave the room and deposit it in the sink or on your bed. Speaking of bed, at least toss the covers back over the mattress in the morning—sort of an “almost-made” look. Don’t be a slob! A bonus: taking care of the little things can cut down on nagging by the parents.

  1. Use Your Manners

The people in your house are not your servants. Sprinkle “Please” and “Thank you” everywhere you can. It’s much more pleasant than “Sure,” “I guess,” or “Whatever.” Or worse—making demands. Replace “Hand me the remote!” with “Remote, please” and “Move!” with “I need some space, please.” And when someone offers you a choice—“Pizza or a chicken bake?”—answer with “Chicken bake, PLEASE.” It’s amazing how manners can cut down on conflicts.

  1. Keep the Noise Down

Use your headphones or close the door if your music is loud. When you want to talk to someone, go into the same room with them. There might be people working in your house, so don’t bang the cupboards or the microwave door. If you’re on a video chat, be mindful of what others in the room might be watching or listening to and turn your volume down (or use earbuds).

  1. Share

Reconsider letting your younger sibling borrow your phone to play games. Set a time limit of half an hour if that helps. You are not the most import person in your house, so beware of behaving as if you are. Share, take turns, be considerate of others’ needs—all those things you learned in kindergarten are even more important at home, especially now.

  1. Stay Out of It

Just like you don’t want everyone up in your business, neither do they want you poking into theirs. You don’t have to know what every conversation is about, especially if you weren’t invited to be part of it. Let others have the same privacy that you want to have.

  1. Give Your Phone a Break

You don’t want to miss anything, but it’s rude to be looking at your phone when someone is talking to you. I know it’s hard to drag your eyes away from the screen but do it anyway. Stuff your phone in your pocket or toss it on the table or couch for 10 minutes—or an hour—and give people your undivided attention. Nothing says “You matter” more than eye contact and appropriate responses. Words are always better than grunts, shrugs, or the non-committal “Huh.”

  1. Communicate More

For most of us, “We all we got” is more than just a phrase used by the team to get pumped up; it’s our current reality. Your parents are concerned about you, so when they ask how you’re doing or how things are going, sum it up in a few honest sentences and skip the “Okay” or “Fine.” Try a bad and a good—“I really miss my friends, but I’m getting used to doing school online.” And don’t forget to return the favor; your parents might be missing their work buddies or at least time with other adults. Check in with them once in a while.

  1. Keep Your Emotions in Check

Your frustration does not give you the right to dump your bad feelings on the people you live with. Go back and read that again. You can express your feelings in the first person—“I hate being cooped up here!” But you should not be attacking those around you, especially since options for getting away from each other are so limited. Can’t take it anymore? Go for a walk or a run. Unload to a friend. You’ve got to live with these people for a few more weeks; do your part to keep the peace.

  1. Resist Whining

Commiserating means feeling bad together: “Man, this stinks.” “Right?” But whining is self-centered: “Why do I have to stay hoooome?? I want to see my frieeeeends!” “It’s so unfair that I had to give up my sports seasooonnn!” It is unfair and nobody’s happy about it. Commiserate with your friends or family, but don’t make the mistake of thinking it’s worse for you than for somebody else. Cancelled weddings, vacations, performances, sports—everybody is in the same boat. If you need to wallow in self-pity, you’re certainly entitled to do so, but you don’t need to pour it on anybody else. And don’t let it last too long—find something that makes you feel better.

  1. Step It Up

Whether it’s schoolwork or housework, it has to be done. Make yourself some kind of schedule, even if it’s a loose one: one hour of studying and one chore completed in the morning before playing any games. Another hour of studying and some exercise after dinner. Or get it all done first thing and be done with it. Find a routine that works for you and stick to it. Don’t get to the end of the day only to discover you’ve done nothing productive; eventually it will take a toll on your emotional health.

We don’t know when these restrictions will end, but they WILL end sometime. Until then, do what you can to live in peace and harmony in your house. Better yet—be the one to create the peace and harmony!

That Naughty Laugh

Photo by mentatdgt on Pexels.com

From across the lunchroom, above all the other hubbub, a suspicious sound catches my ear. My middle school teacher radar goes to DefCon 5, and I make my way to a certain table of boys. One of them looks up, a twinkle in his eye, “Mrs. Acuña, you did not just hear our naughty laugh.” “Oh yes,” I say. “I definitely heard it, and guess what? I’m going to hang out with you for the rest of lunch.”

Because this is a regular occurrence, the boys rarely protest my presence. They may ask, with mock seriousness, “Mrs. Acuña! Don’t you trust us?” And I will just look at them, one eyebrow raised.

I don’t waste time asking them what made them laugh. Chances are they’ll deny everything and possibly even head down the road of disrespect. They’ll also just continue the discussion when they’re out of earshot. All I want at this moment is for them to realize I’m onto them, and for them to stop whatever it is they’re doing.

This is a choice I have to make every day: to deal with a situation or to just make it stop. My response depends on who’s involved and what I either know or suspect is happening. I will always get right in the middle if I see or hear meanness directed at another student, or if I hear inappropriate language, or when I sense someone’s about to escalate into rage.

On the other hand, I’ll let it go if it doesn’t seem too serious, if it’s between two close friends, or if there isn’t time to deal with it. How do I know when to wade in and when to turn the other ear? Instinct and experience.

Over the years I’ve learned that getting to the bottom of a situation isn’t always necessary. Sometimes it’s enough just to stop the behavior and move on. They already know they’re being naughty, and they know they’re caught. No consequence needed.

But there are times when the behavior is so bad that there must be consequences. Bullying, cheating, showing disrespect to authority or peers, vandalism–all of these are serious and need to be pursued.

If you are a parent or leader of middle schoolers, don’t be too quick to react when you suspect improper behavior. Take a moment to listen and even ask a question or two, and then choose how to proceed. Maybe laughing and staying close is all that’s needed. Or maybe something tougher.

And here’s a veteran tip: instead of yelling when you confront misbehavior, lower your voice. It’s much scarier–just ask any of my students.

The Awkward Years

I remember the day The Awkwardness hit. I was 13 and had just arrived at the pool in my aunt’s neighborhood. It was blue and sparkling and I couldn’t wait to get in it. But as I walked to the edge of the pool in my modest 2-piece swimsuit, I was struck by self-consciousness. I felt exposed and judged.

Jumping in to hide my embarrassment, I stood in the water feeling confused. I couldn’t remember what was fun about swimming. Not a strong swimmer, I took a few practice strokes and then stopped again, bouncing in water about neck deep. I looked at the other kids: some were doing cannonballs, but that would involve climbing out of the protection of the water; some were splashing each other, but that was irritating; others were screaming and laughing for no apparent reason. I did a couple of underwater handstands just to prove to myself that I still could, and then I climbed out, hiding my exposed skin under a beach towel as I stretched out on a lounge and tried to understand what I’d lost.

Most adults remember junior high as a difficult, sometimes painful stage. Middle school and early adolescence are well known for causing insecurity and self-consciousness. When you think about all the changes going on during this time of life, it’s clear that are many reasons to feel out of sync.

Physical Awkwardness. Because limbs are growing so fast, it’s normal to be clumsy. Parents and teens are both relieved to hear that it’s temporary, but I do suggest moving some valuables off of end tables to protect them from off-balance stumbling. Body shapes are changing, which is why 13-year-old girls stand with arms folded, while the boys leap to see if they can slap the top of the doorway yet. Acne, greasy hair, braces, and body odor make their appearances during middle school, leading to being obsessed with one’s reflections (and incessant selfies).

Some kids want to dress like their older peers while others don’t want to give up their childhood icons. It’s a good time for discussions about the impressions we give by what we wear, and the importance of learning what’s appropriate in various social situations.  It’s also a good time to discuss modesty, grooming, and how to do laundry.

Social Awkwardness – Middle schoolers are known for mumbling, laughing loudly, being inconsiderate, using bad language, having no manners, and being lazy. Much of this stems from being smack in the middle between childhood and adulthood. They want to have a foot in each world, and the adults in their lives will expect them to be children one day but young adults the next. If I hand out treats in class, I have to remind the first 5 or so to say thanks. The rest will eventually catch on. I daily remind them to to clean up after themselves, and to step to the side of the hallway because they’re blocking traffic.

Keep in mind that much of what we call “common sense” is actually a collection of life skills and courtesies gained from experience. Someone taught you to modulate your voice in consideration of others; it’s your turn to teach the teens in your life. I like to use one-word prompts rather than questions or demands. I’ll say “Manners!” instead of “What do you say?” or “Volume!” instead of “Lower your voice!”

In social situations, there are also skills that need to be taught, such as shaking hands, looking people in the eye, and making conversation. Teens will answer with “Fine” or “I guess” unless they’re taught how to converse and given a chance to practice. Explain that when an adult says, “How’s school?” a better answer is “I love math, but I hate gym.” Teens are relieved to hear that often adults will then take over the conversation with their own stories, but they also have to be taught to respond with “Wow” or something to indicate they’re listening.

Emotional Awkwardness. I remember being 11 and crying in the backseat because we were in my grandma’s neighborhood but couldn’t stop to visit her. My parents were as surprised by I was by my tears. Hormones and growth spurts contribute to the emotional roller coaster that is adolescence, and teens are often surprised and embarrassed by the strength of their feelings. Being out of peanut butter can bring on a raging tantrum, while a misused word by a friend can cause uncontrollable laughter. I sometimes send students out of the room to get themselves under control. Usually it just takes a walk down the hall to the restroom for them to calm down.

There are red flags to watch for at this age, such as violent rages or depression that lasts for more than a few days. Thanks to social media, this is also when self-harm (cutting) or experimenting with chemicals becomes a real temptation. It’s not just drugs and alcohol; there are YouTube videos encouraging teens to try various items from the medicine cabinet or kitchen cabinet to “make you feel funny,” which young teens don’t equate with “getting high.” Familiarize yourself with the possible signs of substance abuse: glassy stares, ongoing changes in sleep or eating habits, new friends that make you feel uncomfortable, a sudden drop in grades (learn more here). Try to keep tabs on what they’re doing on their phones. Parents who want to protect their teens’ social privacy can miss early warnings.


I know adults who say they never outgrew their awkward years, but the reality is most of us learn to fit in with the grown-ups through observation and practice. Last week I went to the pool and got into the water without feeling (too) self-conscious. However, I only swam a few strokes before getting back out because the kids near me were splashing.

Some things don’t change.

Easing Into Middle School

As we walked through Target last week, my husband and I watched the clerks make room for school supplies. “Summer’s almost over,” he teased. “Time for back to school!”

If you have a brand-new middle schooler, chances are good that as summer wanes, school has been on both her mind and yours for longer than the school supplies have been out. The transition from elementary to middle school is a scary one for parents and students alike. There will be more pressure, more students, more homework, more everything. It’s easy to stress about what might happen, but for most students the transition goes more smoothly than expected.

Here are a few tips to ease their way (and yours):

Visit Campus
If your middle schooler hasn’t already walked the halls, stop by this summer and ask for a tour. While visiting when students are present is best, having a mental picture of classrooms and hallways is helpful. And knowing where the bathrooms are is a must! Having a mental picture makes everything less scary. There may be a teacher or two on campus, but if not, getting to know the office staff is beneficial, especially if you have a scheduling problem or illness.

Buy Most – But Not All – Supplies
Nothing ruins your first day of middle school like being made fun of for your choice of binder. Some kids won’t care, but for others, a casual “You have a Harry Potter notebook? Seriously?” will be devastating. I’ve seen kids teased for pencil choices, pencil pouches, and lunch bag characters. If yours is the kind of kid who wants to fit in by not being singled out, either choose neutral options or wait and see what’s popular this year. Then determine whether it fits into your budget.

Get Familiar with the Dress Code
Middle school is when many students become fashion conscious. While they may want to dress like their favorite YouTubers, every school has rules about what to wear. Even schools with uniforms have some leeway regarding colors, skirt style, shoes, hair length, etc. It’s uncomfortable for both teacher and student when someone shows up in unacceptable attire and has to be sent to the office. If you’re sure you know the rules, stand your ground; don’t cop out by saying, “Fine–I’ll just let the school deal with you!”

Let Them Talk
When your middle schooler expresses his fears about what’s coming, don’t jump in and try and make him feel better. He’s trusting you to understand, and he doesn’t want you to negate his feelings by saying, “What’s there to be afraid of? You’ll do fine!” When she says she knows everyone is going to hate her and she won’t make any friends, don’t put her off by telling her she’s just being silly. Saying, “I remember how scary that was” or “New situations make me nervous, too” lets your middle schooler know you’ve heard the feelings and understood them. Learn to respond with empathy, and you’ll hear more throughout the year.

Most parents and students will tell you those first few days were crazy, but not as bad as they’d feared. Taking a few proactive steps can help calm everyone’s nerves, but rest assured that by the end of the first week, middle schoolers will be feeling pretty comfortable with the whole experience.


Until they learn the word “midterms.”

For more tips, including a “Get-Ready Checklist,” check out Chapter 13, “Not So Brave in the New World,” in our book, available below.

Sue Acuña is co-author with Cynthia Tobias of Middle School, The Inside Story: What Kids Tell Us But Don’t Tell You, available from your favorite bookseller or by clicking here. Sue currently teaches middle school at Concordia Christian Academy in Tacoma, WA.

When Middle Schoolers Cry

During a recent student-led conference, a 7th grade boy was surprised by the tears streaming down his cheeks. “What is happening to me?” he cried. It wasn’t as if his grades were bad; he’s a well-behaved student who gets As. I’d just asked if he minded people calling him by his last name. He’d said no, but when his mom pressed the issue, the tears had flowed.

This is not unusual in middle school. In fact, it’s so common that we have a discussion about it at the beginning of the year, when I point out the Kleenex boxes all around the classroom. “If someone starts to cry,” I instruct them, “calmly hand over the tissue box.”

The emotions of middle schoolers are all over the place and are often intense. When I ask who’s been embarrassed by the strength of their reactions, every hand goes up. From fierce anger to hysterical silliness to heartbroken sadness, the feelings hit them hard but can just as quickly switch off or switch to another.

Last week I took an envelope with fundraising money from a box of candy bars that was left in the hallway. After several panicked minutes, the owner figured out where it was and came to me for confirmation. As she rejoined her classmates, a friend asked if she was okay. “Yeah, I am now,” she said, and then burst into tears. “I don’t even know why I’m crying,” she wailed as she requested permission to go to the restroom. I asked if she needed a friend for company, but she declined, wanting only “some time alone for an ugly cry.” She returned to class a little later with an embarrassed smile.

When middle schoolers find themselves in the midst of an emotional storm without an obvious cause, they need adults who will be their safe harbor. They don’t need someone who will get sucked into the pit with them; they need someone to hand them a tissue and wait patiently while they get their emotions under control. If it’s serious, a calm adult can then help them navigate the issue. If it’s really nothing, an understanding adult might pretend it never happened.

If you see a middle schooler in tears, don’t assume the worst. Wait it out, offer support when it ends, and be prepared to let it go if your help is declined. But keep the tissues handy.


Teaching Teens to Have Compassion

On any day in middle school, someone will trip and fall, or maybe drop some books, and those nearby will laugh. Or in a classroom, someone will stumble over an answer, and another student will mimic her struggle. At lunch, middle schoolers might entertain each other by mocking someone with a disability or an unusual accent.

All of these are hurtful behaviors, yet the perpetrators give little thought to how mean they may sound. The immediate goal is to get a laugh; the overall goal is to win acceptance and popularity.

Just as teenagers don’t wake up one morning and decide to be more mature, neither do they suddenly acquire compassion for those who struggle. Like driving safely or leaving appropriate tips, being compassionate is a life skill that has to be taught. Here are three helpful steps:

Teach—and MODEL—empathy  “They should know better!” It surprises parents when they hear that their children have said or done something that thoughtlessly hurt another. But peer pressure and impulsiveness rule at this age. We need to be talking to the kids about how to respond with kindness, even if it means pretending not to see the incident. Certainly jumping in and helping is better, but not adding to the embarrassment is a good option. Teach kids to imagine themselves in the same situation.

But parents also have to check their own attitudes. What do you say when your kids (who are clumsy at this age) fall up the stairs or knock over a drink? How about the slow-moving elderly driver in front of you? Empathy starts at home; if you want your kids to use it, you have to show them how.

Look for examples  In a restaurant, when a server drops silverware and a passerby picks it up, or at a basketball game when the player who knocks someone over reaches down to help him up, or on TV when one sibling comforts another—all provide parents with the opportunity to say, “Hey, did you see that?” You may get an eyeroll in response, but at least you know you’ve been heard.

Mention it when you see it  One common complaint in middle school is that parents are quick to criticize but slow to praise. When you notice a sibling choosing not to tease another, comment in a low-key tone: “I noticed you didn’t pick on her when you had the chance.” Don’t make a big deal out of it, but do acknowledge the desired behavior. I’ll thank students for running to grab paper towels for a spill or offering to go check on an upset classmate. “The behavior that gets rewarded gets repeated” is as true for the good behaviors as it is for the bad.

If you show them how to do it, show them where it happens, and show them you appreciate it when they practice it, middle schoolers will learn to make compassion a habit. And when they learn to use it on the small stages of home and school, it will carry over into the larger stage of adult life.

Sue Acuña is co-author with Cynthia Tobias of  Middle School, The Inside Story: What Kids Tell Us But Don’t Tell You, available from your favorite bookseller. Sue currently teaches middle school at Concordia Lutheran in Tacoma, WA.

Photo courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

“I Heard About This Guy. . .” Middle Schoolers and Their Stories

On the Internet

“Is it true that. . .?”
“My brother told me. . .”
“I saw a video about. . .”

Sometimes middle schoolers won’t talk to you, but there are times when you can’t get them to stop. Any of the above openers is guaranteed to have several affirmations by classmates–“Yeah, I heard that, too”–followed by a potentially lengthy discussion. While it’s true they love to use stories to deflect or distract, there’s a benefit to letting them talk.

Middle schoolers are on the cusp of adulthood, and they’re trying hard to understand the rules and expectations of being a grown-up. Their worldview is limited, so they have lots of questions and misconceptions.

One year a student requested prayers for her grandpa, who was in rehab. Another student piped up that his cousin had gone to rehab but was still doing drugs. “You’re grandpa is a drug addict??” was the concerned question. I explained the various meanings of “rehab,” which in this case involved a stay in a nursing home following a stroke.

When a major news event takes place, I give my students time to share what they’ve heard so we can sort out fact from speculation. Because they are just beginning to foray into social media, it’s important that they learn how quickly false information spreads.

For example, when a train crashed recently, the rumors flewhard and fast: “I heard the engineer was texting;” “My sister said someone put something on the tracks;” “I heard a guy say therewas an explosion before the crash!” It turned out none of these had actually happened, and it was a good lesson in waiting for the facts to be uncovered.

Middle schoolers hear things. If given a chance to share what they’ve heard, they’re often happy to do so. Don’t be too quick to dismiss their chatter as babbling; take time to listen and to encourage both critical thinking and reserving of judgment.