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.