*Back To School, or

*Bye-bye To Summer, or

*Bring The Stress

My husband starts teasing us as soon as the Back-to-School ad arrives from Wal-Mart (usually early in July).   It’s always fun to see new boxes of crayons, brightly-colored folders, and the latest trends in lunch boxes (I see Tinkerbell and Toy Story are still big this year).

For a middle schooler the start of the year brings not only excitement but also a fresh batch of anxiety stemming from peer pressure.  Let’s start with school supplies:  the issue is no longer what makes her happy or what’s on the list, but what will prevent her from being ridiculed.  Is it still okay to have cartoon characters on your lunchbox?  Which pens are really cool and which ones will brand you as a nerd (for the record:  Sharpies = cool, RoseArt = nerd).  If you buy that cute little tape dispenser and stapler, will somebody accuse you of being babyish?  Is it safer to get a plain, single-colored binder that zips, or will that checked one with the velcro flaps be acceptable?

And of course there’s the pain of clothing selection.  Even the most carefully-selected first-day-of-school outfit can be rejected at the last minute after a sleepless night of worrying.  For the parent, financial issues are often the first concern; for the teen, it all boils down to “What will people think?”  Best shopping advice:  don’t wait until the last minute.  Leave yourself time to negotiate and compromise, as in, “If I buy you these shoes, then I can’t afford that shirt.  If you can settle for a different (cheaper) pair of shoes, I might be able to buy you that shirt AND the jeans.”  Listen with empathy to your teen’s fears and concerns but hold your ground on your standards for age appropriateness and budget constraints.

Even choosing what to eat for lunch can be agonizing.  If the rest of his crowd is buying school lunches, he might worry about being looked down upon for bringing a bag lunch.  If he brings a tuna or an egg salad sandwich, his tablemates might complain about the smell.  And what about Fruit Roll-Ups, applesauce, or “Nemo” fruit snacks?  Are they going to be considered something only little kids would eat?

These seem like little things to adults, but to a middle schooler trying hard not to stand out (and risk ridicule), they can be very important issues.  Be flexible and give in where you can – but keep in mind that everything can change without notice.  All it takes is one comment – “You’re really going to eat THAT?” “I can’t believe you wore that!” “Where’d you get that – from the kindergarten class?” – and suddenly it has to disappear.

That doesn’t mean you have to go out and spend more money.  Answer with empathy – “It must’ve been embarrassing when Robert said that in front of everyone.”  But feel free to explain the limitations – “I understand why you don’t want to use that binder anymore, but I really can’t afford to buy you a new one.  What’s your Plan B?”  Then let her give Plan B a try.  It may be that after a few days of carrying around a handful papers,  she decides it’s worth the trouble to go back to the binder.  Or she may pull out last year’s binder and use it instead.

Remember: to your middle schooler, it feels like a matter of survival.

Next time:  The social anxieties of starting school.  They’re worth they’re own article!