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.

5 Signs You Are Raising a Middle Schooler

img_3425“I used to pick out all her outfits for her,” a mom told me recently, “but now that she’s in 5th grade, I’m not allowed to.” “He claims he’s in middle school now,” said another 5th grade mom. “I told him not until he’s in 7th grade!”

Parents may not want to believe it, but–ready or not–middle school starts as early as age 9. Here are five classic middle school characteristics and how to handle them:

1. Withdrawal from the family. Remember that 7-year-old who annoyed you with, “Watch this!” and “What are you doing?” and “Guess what? Guess what?” In middle school he’d rather spend time in his room than hang out with the parents and/or siblings. Or, if he is with family, chances are he’ll have his headphones on. Parents have to find the balance between giving some personal space and expecting participation in family activities, but spending some time with family should still be required.

2. Moods, moods, moods. A simple question about how the day went might be answered with 1) snarling; 2) bursting into tears; 3) shrugging; 4) all of the above. Hormones, changes in sleep, peer pressure–the causes of the moods are as varied as the moods themselves. Middle schoolers need parents to be the anchor, a calm oasis in the midst of their giddiness, gloominess, and apathy. When a bad mood or depression persists for more than a few days, it might be time to be concerned, but changeable moods are normal (and hard to keep up with).

3. Physical changes. Between the beginning of 5th grade and the end of 8th grade, many students will grow 6-12 inches or more. Body shape changes, hair grows in new places, voices change, faces lose their roundness. Because hands and feet grow first, followed by arms and legs and then the torso, middle schoolers are clumsy. Their arms and legs don’t end where they used to (this is the challenge of coaching this age group). It might be a good time to “child proof” the house in the same way you did when they were toddlers: put the valuables up out of reach of hips and hands!

4. Self-centeredness. In addition to all of the physical changes, puberty brings changes to emotions, mental abilities, and spiritual growth. A middle schooler can be so absorbed in studying her new physical appearance, or so lost in her questions about her own existence, that she forgets to connect with the outside world. I call it “The Bubble,” and the good news is that you can poke your head inside and make contact. The bad news is that it’s only single occupancy–you can’t stay. Keep gently reminding your middle schooler that there are other people in the room; sometimes she’ll be surprised to see you standing in front of her!

5. Communication Struggles. Where you used to get a seven-minute description of the dream he had last night, now you may get grunts and shrugs. Or he gives you that disconcerting stare that looks like he’s imagining your demise. He seems to suffer from selective deafness: he can’t hear you ask him to do a chore, but he can hear his brother playing his video game from two floors up. Your affectionate comments are met with eyerolls; your queries about his day are answered with “Fine” or “Okay.” An easy way to get inside info? Drive the carpool to school or activities. Listen to what’s being said behind you and don’t react or comment. This is when the Bubble works in your favor; they’ll forget you’re there and spill a secret or two.

If you’re thinking that because you have a 10-year-old, you have three easy years left, think again.  You may wake up tomorrow and find you’ve stepped through the looking glass into a world of growth spurts, new smells, and squeaky voices. Hang on and enjoy the ride: middle schoolers are by turns hilarious, exasperating, and confusing. But I promise you’ll never find them boring!

Don’t Be a Helpless Parent

Daughter looking a phone and ignoring her motherFor some reason, parents who have survived the skirmishes of toilet training, toddler tantrums, and bedtime battles lose their backbone when faced with a sulky or defiant teen. Parents of middle schoolers express helplessness when it comes to dealing with cell phones, sassiness, social media, and chores. The authoritarian parenting days are gone  (think Mr. Banks in Mary Poppins), but parents should still be bosses in some critical areas, even if it means being on the receiving end of angry outbursts.  I’ll tackle the first two topics in this blog and continue with the others in the next.

1. Cell Phones  Teens with smartphones have access to the whole world, yet many parents have no idea of what they’re seeing or whom they’re chatting with.  Parents say, “She’s always on that thing, and I don’t even know how it works” or “I can’t get him to put it down long enough to have a conversation.”  They worry about invading their child’s privacy, and they don’t feel they have the right to insist on a No Phone Zone.  I like to ask parents if they would let their teens entertain strangers behind closed bedroom doors, then I point out that allowing them unmonitored access on their phones is no different.  Too much privacy for teenagers is not a good thing.

Setting ground rules before handing over a phone is a must–some parents even use a contract (click here for a sample).  At the very least, let your teen know that you will randomly pick up the phone and look through it.  That knowledge alone will prevent some bad choices.  And don’t be afraid to take away the phone for a few days when you’re not happy with how it’s being used, or for other disciplinary reasons.  As I’ve said before, no teen has actually died from being grounded from phone use, and being kept away from their friends and social media is a consequence they’d rather avoid.

2. Backtalk  If you’ve ever said, “I wasn’t allowed to talk to my parents the way my kids talk to me,” it’s time to make some changes.  You deserve to be respected, but respect isn’t something you can demand.  Begin by checking your tone of voice when talking to your kids.  If phrases like “Who do you think you are?” or “You’d just better watch yourself,” spoken in harsh or sarcastic tones, are part of your repertoire, you aren’t modeling the respect you expect to receive.  Lower your voice, add please and thank you to your requests, and keep your tone as neutral as possible. Then expect the same.

When your teen is being hostile, don’t engage in a battle of words and defensiveness.  If I’m facing a disrespectful student, I hold up one finger and say, “Not feeling very respected right now.  Care to try again?”  When my sons had snarky attitudes, I would gaze patiently–but silently–at them until their tone changed.  If it didn’t, I’d tell them we’d talk later. If it did, I didn’t shoot myself in the foot by mentioning it (as in, “Oh, I see you can be nice when you want something”), I just let the conversation continue in civil tones.

Teens are masters at the art of deflection.  A  question: “Why do have to do all the chores?” or complaint: “You never let me do what I want to do!” can derail a parent from the original request and set up a scenario of defensiveness and arguing that quickly escalates into anger and hurt feelings on both sides.  It’s better if you don’t engage in the battle.  In fact, if you can smile, shrug, and say something infuriatingly calm like, “It’s my job to drive you crazy” or “You’re right,” your teen may just huff off in frustration and do whatever was asked.  Complaints and questions aren’t always genuine; often they’re just a way of expressing displeasure.  Ignore the huffing and do some deflecting of your own, and there will be far fewer battles.

You are the parent, and your job description includes times where you have to make your teen unhappy.  Be calm, be respectful, be firm–but whatver you do, don’t be helpless!




“Hey! Why’d You Punch Me?”


While working with a student one afternoon, I heard a voice behind me exclaim, “Hey!  Why’d you punch me?”  This is what I refer to as a “tattle voice,” designed to alert the nearest adult that trouble is afoot (or a-punch, as the case may be).  This time,  knowing the tattler probably had punched first, I chose to pretend I hadn’t heard.

There’s something inside of middle schoolers that compels them to punch, poke, and smack (boys), or hug, link elbows, and walk with their arms around each other (girls).  This is partly because their needs for physical affection haven’t diminished, but their means of meeting those needs have changed.  When they’re 5, their parents will still pick them up, kiss them good-night, and hold their hands as they cross the street.  When they’re 10, changes start to happen, some of them initiated by themselves.

When they’re 13, they may still crave parental hugs, but they’re not sure if that’s okay with their peers.  At an age where affection from parents may or may not be welcomed,  punching and hugging meet basic needs for affection in a socially acceptable manner.  I’ve had students decide punching me might be a good way to connect, and I’ve had to suggest we switch to fist bumps instead.

Parents who aren’t allowed to hug (at least in public) can meet physical needs in subtle, more middle-school-approved ways, like a friendly shoulder bump when walking, or a high five.  Side-arm hugs are tolerated more than full-on body hugs, and developing a “secret handshake” can be a fun way to connect.  Just don’t do it if they’re afraid their friends will see it and laugh!

There will be those days when your middle schooler may seek you out for a big hug.  Don’t ruin it by saying, “Oh, so you DO still need me.”  Just open your arms and enjoy the moment.

And in between those times, keep practicing your secret handshake.


Blame It on the Brain

dcmntosYour 12-year-old jumps off the roof and onto the trampoline, heedless of the danger of broken bones.  Your 14-year-old experiments with dumping six rolls of Mentos into a gallon of Diet Coke – inside your kitchen.  For years I have explained to parents that this kind of behavior is due to unbalanced brain development.

The back part of the teen brain, the part that says, “You know what would be cool/fun/exciting?” is much more active than the front part, which says “Not a good idea – you could get hurt/paralyzed/dead.”  Asking your teen “What were you thinking?” after the fact will get you the same results as asking your dog why he chewed up the couch:  a blank stare and shoulders hunched in guilt.

I read an article this week on the website of one of my favorite magazines, Mental Floss, which gave brain-related explanations for other teen behavior, including giving in to peer pressure (it actually activates the reward center of their brains), being overly emotional (they have a hard time reading faces and may mistake your look of confusion for one of disgust), and spaciness (their brains are rearranging themselves, much as they did when they were toddlers).

Knowing that much of what they do is caused by their goofy brains, can make their annoying behavior a little more tolerable.  It doesn’t give them an excuse to be lazy or disrespectful or irresponsible, but it may help the adults who deal with them to be a little more patient and understanding.

At least – every other day or so.

You can read the entire article by clicking here: 5 Reasons Teenagers Act the Way They Do

Two’s Company; Three’s a Gang

FeetI’m not referring to gun-wielding, colors-wearing gang members.  I’m talking about three or more middle schoolers hanging out together and uttering those fateful words: “You know what would be funny?”

It’s not an outright dare, but the challenge is implied.  And where one teen would never be brave enough, and two might talk each other out of mischief, three will egg each other on until they’ve convinced themselves to go through with it. Not only is there safety in numbers – “They can’t catch all of us!” – but there’s also bravado, which is scary at an age when good judgment is outshouted by the desire for fun.

Brain researchers will tell you that the part of the brain that says, “Let’s try that – it sounds awesome!” is overdeveloped compared to the part that says, “Don’t do it – it’s dangerous!”  I see the bigger problem as the parents who overestimate their teens’ ability to do the right thing when surrounded by friends, so they drop them off unsupervised at the mall or the movies or the skating rink.  “She’s a good kid; I can trust her,” they think.  And she probably is trustworthy – until she’s with a group of friends and peer pressure takes over.

Smart parents will realize that independence needs to be granted in small increments as teens mature.  Instead of dropping off a group of middle schoolers, go with them.  You don’t have to tag along behind, but they should know you’ll be keeping tabs on them.

And that could mean the difference between “You did WHAT?” and “You did well.”

Human Hamster Ball

As an incentive for our school’s fundraising campaign, we had a “human hamster ball” for the assembly.  Once inside, you can move it all over the room, but you’re insulated from everything outside; voices are muffled, and things look blurry.  You become focused on the sound of your own breathing as you concentrate on just keeping the thing upright.

Teens grow their very own version of this when they hit adolescence.  The hamster ball – or “bubble,” as I call it – is a major source of frustration for parents, because it narrows the teens’ view to about two feet away from themselves.  In other words, they’re oblivious to anything that doesn’t directly concern them.

To parents, this looks like self-centeredness in the extreme, and many fear they’ve raised the World Champion of the Me Generation.  “It’s like he doesn’t even know the rest of the family exists!” they cry, as they stumble over his backpack in the middle of the room or face another accusation of, “You never told me that!”

The good news is that it’s a normal stage in development, and there’s a good reason for it.  The bad news is, it’s going to be around for awhile (we’re talking YEARS, not months).

Just as the hamster ball occupant concentrates on his immediate surroundings, so teen-agers focus on what’s going on inside themselves.  Between the ages of 11 and 16, they will grow several inches taller, their body shapes will change dramatically, they will sprout hair in places they don’t want to tell you about, and their faces will lose their childish roundness – and those are only the VISIBLE changes!

Mentally, they’re able to think in more abstract ways, and they can lie awake long into the night pondering things like infinity or “what would happen if the earth were turned inside out?”  Emotionally, they’re all over the place:  hyper and silly one moment, and raging in anger the next.  They’re as confused by it as you are!  Spiritually, they’re no longer accepting what they’ve been taught just because they’re told to.  They’re searching for answers that make sense to them.

Teens will spend hours looking in the bathroom mirror – not so much out of vanity, but out of fascination at how different they look from just a few weeks ago.  They’re also comparing themselves to their peers, and many times they’re not happy at how they measure up.  Meanwhile, they’ve forgotten there’s anyone outside the door, waiting for a turn in the bathroom.  Self-absorption has become a means of survival.

This is why one of my students wanted to pray for his mom this week because she’s traveling, but he couldn’t tell me where she’d gone.  Or when she’d be back.  He did know she’d be leaving again on another trip.  Soon.  To somewhere.

Most teens don’t mean to be inconsiderate; they’re just unaware that there are people outside their bubbles.  It takes a lot of reminding – and sticking your head inside their bubbles – to get them to look beyond themselves and see the dirty dishes in the sink, or the people waiting to walk through the doorway they’re blocking, or the annoyed looks on people’s faces because their voices are too loud.

The bubble isn’t an excuse for rude behavior, but adults who understand and acknowledge its presence may have a little more patience as they deal with its consequences.  Teens are often embarrassed to discover they’ve ignored someone else’s needs.  If they’re gently reminded, they’re likely to apologize and make things right.

For just a few minutes, the bubble will have thinned, letting light inside.  Just don’t get too used to it. . .



Pee-yew! What stinks?

Last week my biology classes conducted experiments in diffusion.  Before you yawn, you need to know that first they removed the shells from eggs by soaking them in vinegar (at home – I learned this the hard way), and then they brought them to school to immerse them in a new liquid.

As they opened their egg containers in the lab, the students began to plug their noses and complain about the smell:  “I think I might throw up – can we prop the door open?”  I’ll admit it was a little smelly; the combination of vinegar, that sulfuric egg smell, and all the liquids they’d brought in – think bleach, maple syrup, sesame oil, grape juice, soy sauce, and various juices and sodas – created quite an aromatic cocktail.

But here’s the point – it didn’t smell that bad to me.  Not because I like those kinds of odors, but because my sniffer doesn’t work as well as theirs do.  There is a physiological issue at work here that many parents don’t realize:  kids have more acute senses of smell and taste than adults do.

They actually have more taste buds on their tongues, which means strong-tasting foods can be sharp and unpleasant to them. Because taste and smell are so closely related, this is also why odors that we merely notice (fish, smoke, expensive cheese) cause them to exclaim – sometimes rudely, in our opinion – “What’s that smell?!?”  It’s why we might not like cottage cheese or black licorice (or lutefisk) when we’re young, but may learn to like it as adults.

Adults need to be aware that these complaints are usually genuine – it really is “that bad” for the kids!  If nothing can be done to change the situation, it might be a good opportunity to teach tolerance (with empathy) – “I know, it really does!  But hang in there; it’ll go away soon,” and courtesy – “When something smells bad, you shouldn’t make loud comments, because you might hurt someone’s feelings.  If you must say something, keep it neutral, like, ‘Wow, that’s strong!'”

(This is also a good phrase for parents to use with biology teachers.)