What Middle Schoolers Don’t Need (and What They Do)

I recently read an excellent blog titled  Four Things Children Do Not Need, and it got me thinking about what middle schoolers do not need–and what they do.  :

What they don’t need:

  1. Belittling–they’re hard on themselves already, and they spend the day feeling like they don’t measure up to their peers.  Instead of focusing on their flaws, look for what’s going well in their lives, and point it out in an offhanded way:  “I noticed you were patient with your brother.”
  2. Pressure–Grades don’t matter as much in middle school as work habits do.  Students who experience too much pressure are tempted to cheat or develop anxiety.  Help them to figure out how to organize in a way that makes sense to them and encourage strengthening skills such as writing, mental math, and critical thinking.  Such skills will help build success in high school.
  3. Overcommitment–If your middle schooler can’t start homework until 8 or 9 o’clock every night, it may be time to drop an activity.  Experimenting at this age is great, but more than one or two teams or commitments is too many and often interferes with their sleep schedule.  Making choices is an important life skill!
  4. Interrogation–This came straight from a 7th grader and was echoed by her peers:  “Every day my parents ask the same question: ‘How was school today?’ Then they get upset when I say it was fine!” I asked how parents are supposed to know what’s going on, and the response was unanimous–assume everything’s normal until you hear otherwise.

What they do need:

  1. Honesty/Openness–Again, this came from the middle schoolers.  If Grandma is really sick, they want to know.  Shielding kids from adult troubles is not a bad thing, but do speak the truth, even if it’s only a portion of the big picture.  In the words of an 8th grader, don’t “sugarcoat” everything.
  2. Unconditional Love–Teens who know they have this from their parents won’t have to make them prove it.  If your middle schooler fails a class, or gets caught smoking, or sends a bullying text, will your forgiveness be a given?  Of course there will be consequences, but is your continued love a no-brainer in your middle schooler’s mind and heart?
  3. Boundaries–They already have friends their own age; what they need from you is parenting.  Sometimes they will get mad, and they may even hate you, but they will get over it.  Be firm but fair, stay as calm as possible, but do hand out consequences and then stick with them.  No teen ever died from having a phone taken away, and no parent yet has been hospitalized from a fierce glare or a cold shoulder.
  4. Value–People of all ages want to be listened to, taken seriously, and understood.  Teens especially feel this as they begin the transition to adulthood.  Let your middle schoolers know they matter by pocketing your phone, listening without interrupting, and responding with empathy–the same as you want them to do for you.  Follow some of their suggestions and speak well of them within their hearing.  Hug them when they’ll let you, and send them understanding looks when they won’t.

These years are intense, but they will pass quickly and leave you with a high schooler.  Invest in your relationship now.  Stay connected and supportive, and you may find the last half of the teen years to be easier than the first!

 

 

 

“You Know What Would Be Funny?”

jasvcoSee that middle schooler?  He’s a nice kid, as is the one next to him–and the one on the other side of him.  On their own, none of them gets into much trouble.  But put them together and leave them unsupervised at, say, the mall?  Now you’ve got huge potential for trouble.  Somebody asks that fateful question–“You know what would be funny?”–and suddenly they’re trying things as a group that they’d never do alone.

Part of it is physiology (see Blame it on the Brain), but another part of it is a version of “gang mentality.”  Notorious for acting first and thinking  later,  two or more teens hanging out together without adults around will gather courage from each other.  I’ve heard students tell of stealing bowls of Halloween candy from porches, throwing popcorn in movie theaters, and riding bikes off roofs.  I’ve seen photos of girls dressed in goofy outfits in dressing rooms and heard their confession of running out and leaving the mess behind, laughing at how angry they’d made the store personnel.

While sometimes it’s just harmless fun, at other times it can be outright dangerous.  Young teens have been know to sniff, drink, or ingest dangerous substances, as well as set fire to, blow up, or even microwave crazy items.  Afterwards, of course, they suffer remorse (and possibly bodily harm), but at the time it seems like such a great idea.

Parents who drop off their young teens without staying with them–or at least tailing them at a discreet distance–are putting their kids at risk.  Hang around and be available, and you’ll find that your presence is often enough to head off trouble.

Think of yourself as a cross between Jiminy Cricket and the Secret Service.

Relax Your Grip

“Welcome to 7th grade!” I smiled at the parent entering my classroom.

“Whoosh!” she said.  “I don’t know if I’m ready for this!”

I was about halfway through Before-School Conferences, and already this was the theme that kept popping up.

Some parents dread having their child enter middle school because of what lies ahead:  adolescence and teenager-hood.

Do you remember learning to drive?  The harder you tried to steer the car, the more you went off course.  It wasn’t until you learned to relax and quit fighting the steering wheel that you could be successful.

Parenting a middle schooler is like that; it works best when you learn to relax and quit fighting so hard for control.  The happiest combinations of middle schoolers and parents that sat at my conference table were those where Mom or Dad made suggestions (if they said anything at all) but left final decisions about where to sit and where to put stuff to the student.  These parents communicated that they trusted their kids’ judgment, and the kids responded.

Make your expectations clear, offer suggestions, and then relax a little and give your middle schooler a chance to make the right decision.  Don’t be too quick to assume the worst and overreact, or you could create problems where there were none and slide right off the road.

And remember – to avoid oversteering, keep your eyes on the road ahead, not on what’s right in front of your bumper.

(Reblogged from August 2012)

We’re Just Not Friends Anymore

Girlfriends

Every year I counsel parents  and middle schoolers about the ebb and flow of friendships in this age group.

In lower grades, it seemed easier:  everyone who liked to play soccer would get together on the field at recess.  Those who preferred the Big Toy would hang out there.

Everything is different in middle school.  Because kids mature at different rates, friendships change – often without warning.  Friendships are based on common interests, because “If you like what I like, that validates my choice.”  And boys who aren’t interested in sports or girls – or girls who aren’t interested in make-up or boys – will find themselves adjusting their friendship circles.

Middle school is also when the whole class is no longer invited to birthday parties.  Some middle schoolers are allowed to have their first boy/girl parties, which creates all kinds of social calamities as feelings get hurt when one’s not invited.

It helps to remind middle schoolers  that this is a difficult time everyone goes through, but things usually get better in high school, where there are more clubs and teams to join.  Most teens find their niche (or their “group”) by the time they’re 15 or 16.

My advice to parents is to step out of “Problem Solver” mode and work more on “Good Listener” mode.  Give lots of empathy – “It’s hard when things change, isn’t it?” – but don’t feel like it’s your job to make the bad feelings go away.  Middle schoolers need to feel they’ve been heard and understood, and then they can move forward in dealing with feelings and social issues on their own.

Friendships change like the tides – it’s a parent’s job to be the anchor.

Faking Nice

Be Nice

I’ve always said that civilizing students is part of my job.

While discussing how to improve classroom relationships, one of the girls said she didn’t feel the need to be friendly to girls she didn’t like.  “That would be like faking nice,” was her argument.  I explained that the world revolved around people “faking nice” to each other.  In the adult world, “faking nice” is another term for courtesy, tact, and manners.

For instance, when a senior citizen meanders down the supermarket aisle ahead of me, I wait for an opportunity to smile and go around.  It wouldn’t do either of us any good if I yelled at her to move faster.  And when someone greets me with a cheery “Good morning!” before 10 a.m., I refrain from biting his head off and instead reply with a terse “Morning.”

Learning to be genuine without hurting others’ feelings is an important social skill, despite what teens may see on reality TV.  But “faking nice” doesn’t come naturally; parents have to teach – and model – appropriate social behavior.  It’s helpful to point out to your teen when you’ve said something contrary to what you were thinking, and then have a discussion about why tactful responses are kinder than hurtful ones.

(By the way, if you run into those judges from American Idol, please tell them I’d like to talk to them.  Thanks!)

Relax Your Grip

“Welcome to 7th grade!” I smiled at the parent entering my classroom.

“Whoosh!” she said.  “I don’t know if I’m ready for this!”

I was about halfway through Before-School Conferences, and already this was the theme that kept popping up.

Some parents dread having their child enter middle school because of what lies ahead:  adolescence and teenager-hood.

Do you remember learning to drive?  The harder you tried to steer the car, the more you went off course.  It wasn’t until you learned to relax and quit fighting the steering wheel that you could be successful.

Parenting a middle schooler is like that; it works best when you learn to relax and quit fighting so hard for control.  The happiest combinations of middle schoolers and parents that sat at my conference table were those where Mom or Dad made suggestions (if they said anything at all) but left final decisions about where to sit and where to put stuff to the student.  These parents communicated that they trusted their kids’ judgment, and the kids responded.

Make your expectations clear, offer suggestions, and then relax a little and give your middle schooler a chance to make the right decision.  Don’t be too quick to assume the worst and overreact, or you could create problems where there were none and slide right off the road.

And remember – to avoid oversteering, keep your eyes on the road ahead, not on what’s right in front of your bumper.

(Reblogged from August 2012)

Mirror, Mirror – Minus Two Tablespoons

This morning on the radio I heard that a successful salesman will mirror the temperament of his client.  What great advice for dealing with teens!  If your teen is excited about something, you should share that excitement.  And if she’s disappointed, your face and tone should reflect her mood.  Almost.

Have you ever used a recipe that called for “2 cups minus 2 tablespoons” of milk?  This always puzzles me; how did someone figure out that just that little bit less will make a difference?  However, when dealing with teens, just a little bit less of whatever emotion they’re exhibiting is definitely a wise option.

So when he slams the door behind him and shouts, “Guess what?!  I made the VARSITY TEAM!!” you don’t have to shout, “WAY TO GO!!”  You should, however, wear a big smile and congratulate him instead of shrugging and saying, “Oh.  How nice.”  Conversely, when she flings herself onto the couch and mutters, “My life sucks,” it’s not the time to clap your hands and suggest a Girls’ Night Out.   Lower your voice, look concerned, and ask casually, “Bad day?”

Mix up your metaphors – mirror what your teen is feeling, but hold back a little.  About 2 tablespoons should do.