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.

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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

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!

Three Things Parents Shouldn’t Do

I heard on the radio that parents of successful kids have three things in common:

  1. They have high expectations;
  2. They teach their kids social skills;
  3. They require their kids to do chores.

It made me ponder what families without these three things might look like. . .

Low Expectations  Parents who’d say, “It’s no surprise he can’t do math; I was horrible at it,” would not only communicate low expectations, but they’d also give their kids permission to put forth little effort. The same would be true for parents who didn’t ask about homework, especially if they knew there was a problem with getting assignments turned in on time.  Parents with low expectations might also blame each other or the teacher for their child’s lack of responsibility instead of holding their child accountable.

No Social Skills Parents who don’t teach manners and etiquette would allow their children to interrupt and get their own way by whining. Their children would have a lack of consideration for others’ feelings or needs, and they’d isolate themselves at social gatherings by wearing headphones or spending time on their phones.  Such children would not express gratitude, nor do they offer to help with cleaning up or carrying items.

No Chores  These parents would find it easier to do it themselves than to fight chore battles. Kids have many ways of dodging responsibility: they deflect “Why am I the only one does all the work!”; they delay “In a minute!”; they deny “I never heard you ask!” Parents who back down rob their children not only of the satisfaction that comes with a job well done, but also of some important life skills.

Want successful kids? Keep your expectations high enough that your child has to rise to the challenge. Teach and model proper behavior and common courtesy. Develop a list of chores and insist they get done. Never forget that you aren’t raising a child–you’re raising an adult!

In Their Shoes

It was 2:30 on Thursday afternoon, and I could barely stay awake. I needed to use the restroom, but I tried to focus on the class discussion and think of something intelligent to contribute.

I wasn’t the teacher; I was a student in Phoenix, learning a new method for teaching science. Our class ran from 8:30 to 3:30 every day, giving me a fresh appreciation for what my students endure.

Three insights I gained:

Groups are challenging. Though the curriculum included many hands-on activities, it was hard being with the same people every day and having little control. We worked in groups which changed every few days, and by Monday of the second week I had definite ideas about which group members I preferred. As an adult, I could tolerate annoying behavior and keep my mouth shut (it helped that this was short-term), but imagine being a moody middle schooler, knowing you were stuck with these people for a school year. While learning to work in groups is an important skill, group work can be stressful for everyone.

My vow: I will make sure I have a good balance of individual and group projects, and I will listen with empathy when students complain, rather than dismissing them with, “We all need to learn how to work together!”

School means too much sitting. My students have office chairs, but it’s still hard on one’s legs and tailbone to sit for so many hours. In Phoenix we had frequent breaks (and an hour for lunch), but I dreaded plopping into that chair every morning. Because of growing limbs and muscles, adolescents can be in agony if denied movement for too long, so I shouldn’t be surprised when they whine and ask to take another break. As a teacher in constant motion around the classroom, it’s easy for me to forget how long they’ve been sitting.

Mvow:  I will offer plenty of opportunities for movement throughout the day and will be more sensitive to the amount of time they spend in their seats. While they may look like they’re listening, odds are good they’re wishing they could get up and move.

Cell phones are both a blessing and a pain. I loved being able to check my email constantly, because our teacher trusted that we would be smart about our smartphones. When I got bored or irritated by the discussion, I could take a quick look at Facebook or Instagram to pass the time.  However, some of the teachers were on their phones too often, even hiding them behind display boards during group presentations. My students are used to being connected all day long, and while it’s good for them to unplug, it’s also important to teach them phone etiquette.

My vow: Though I will continue to ban phone usage in my classroom, I may – may – consider allowing small “phone check” periods at lunch, if they prove to me they can handle it. I still find it important to limit screen time, but I also appreciate the desire to check in with the “outside world.”

I consider myself a student-centered teacher, but it’s still easy to forget how things look and feel from their side. It’s my goal this year to keep putting myself in their shoes so they, their feet – and even their seats – are more comfortable!

Why I Like Middle School

As a middle school teacher, I am frequently blessed–literally! When I mention what I do for a living, invariably the reply will be, “Oh, bless you!” I usually smile in agreement but can’t resist adding, “I actually love middle schoolers!”

Here are six things to like about middle schoolers.

  1. Energy level   Oh, they can be slugs, especially when there are chores to be done, but when they’re excited about something, they are crazy energetic. The day I assigned skits to teach the Beatitudes, the volume of their voices (and laughter) reached a fever pitch. When I give them a choice of which movie to watch, the discussion can get pretty heated. I took my 8th graders on a bowling field trip, and they couldn’t sit down between their turns because they were so wound up.
  2. Inquisitiveness  I was trying to teach a lesson on the Bill of Rights but kept getting sidetracked by their questions. Some were thoughtful–“What kind of crime deserves the death penalty?”–and other showed their limited life experiences–”So is it legal for someone’s army dad to stay in their house, or is that considered ‘quartering a soldier?'” Though they often seem self-centered, their awareness of a bigger world out there is growing exponentially, and they want to know how it works.
  3. Playfulness   Though they’re on the brink of full-blown adolescence with adulthood just around the corner, they’re still happy to behave like little kids. Their selfies are full of silly faces and goofy poses. When faced with a large open space, they’ll take off running or doing cartwheels. And they’ll do almost anything for a donut!
  4. Sense of humor   They still love a clever knock-knock joke, but their humor is also becoming more sophisticated. While it may take them a moment to get a funny anecdote (again, because of limited life experience), they’re flattered that you’d tell it to them. Bathroom humor is prevalent in middle school, but they love to experiment with sarcasm and puns.
  5. So Much Growth   The young man in the photo grew at least a foot between the beginning of 6th grade and the beginning of 8th, and his voice went from squeaky to deep (with the predictable cracks). But it’s more than physical growth: mentally, they’re making the abstract leap. “Last night I couldn’t sleep because I kept thinking about how long eternity is!” Emotionally, they’re all over the place, but they’re developing feelings like compassion and empathy on a more adult level. Spiritually, they’re questioning what they believe and why.
  6. Passion to Love–and to Not Love   Nowhere is this more evident than in relationships with parents and other family members. On the one hand they still crave approval, but on the other they can be extremely critical. “My parents really care about me” can happen in the same sentence as “I wish my parents would get off my case!” They hate getting up early for school but love being able to hang out with their friends all day. “Are you serious!?!” can express both excitement and frustration–sometimes together, like when I tell my class we’re playing dodgeball in P.E.

Middle schoolers present a unique set of challenges to the adults in their lives, but for those who love and appreciate them, the joy of watching them unfold like blossoms in spring far outweighs the struggles!