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.

 

Do This When She’s 1, Not When She’s 13

Last week I greeted one of my 8th grade girls with a question: “Did you see your mom’s new profile picture on Facebook?”

“No, is it bad?”

“It’s a picture of you, and let’s just say you look. . .joyful.”

“Can you show it to me?”

I pulled out my phone and she gasped in dismay. In the photo she was laughing hard, mouth wide open and eyes squeezed shut. It wasn’t an ugly picture, but it wasn’t very flattering, either.

The other girls clamored to see it, but she begged me not to show them. Even though I knew they’d be supportive, I honored her request to protect her dignity. After all, she’s 13, which is a huge year for self-consciousness, and I didn’t want to embarrass her. She talked to her mom that evening, and the picture changed to a 13-year-old holding a puppy and smiling serenely.

It may seem entertaining to embarrass a middle schooler, but the agony they experience is real. You could compare their pain to what adults feel when a significant other shares something that was meant to be kept secret. Add to that the feelings of inferiority experienced by most middle schoolers, and it’s no wonder they lash out at parents who fail to protect their reputation.

In this case, the mom was wise to quickly change the photo, regardless of how cute she thought it was. Parents who understand their middle schoolers’ discomfort and respect it have better relationships with their kids, because these are parents who can be trusted. And parents who can be trusted get to hear what’s on teenage minds and hearts.

Speaking of trust, I asked my student if I could use her picture in my post, and she said, “Oh, please, no!” Instead I used a picture of a friend’s joyful baby–because at the tender age of 18 months, she doesn’t mind at all! (And yes, her mom did give me permission on her behalf.)

Sue Acuña has taught middle school for over 20 years; she currently teaches at Concordia Lutheran in Tacoma, WA.

 

Screen Check!

My husband and I were on our Saturday breakfast date at IHOP when I spotted something unusual. “Look behind you!” I whispered. “See that table with the young couple and two little ones? The kids are coloring; the parents are chatting, and there are no electronics in sight!”

If you do a Google search on “how screens affect kids’ brains,” you’ll get disturbing results. There’s clear evidence that interacting with phones and tablets is affecting the way kids learn. But more frightening is the impact screens have on adolescents. A PBS article, “The Drug-like Effect of Screen Time on the Teen-age Brain,” says around half of all teens feel they are addicted to their devices, and many families argue about screens daily. The good news is that self-control and less time on devices can be taught, but first it has to be modeled.

If you feel your teen is addicted to screens, check your own usage first (and consider limiting yourself), and then have frank discussions with your kids regarding your family’s tablet or phone habits. You may want to set some new rules for all of you, but be sure to involve everyone in the process to increase chances for cooperation. Some good rules are:

  1. No screens at mealtimes, whether at home or in a restaurant.
  2. No screens in bedrooms at night.
  3. No eyes on phones during conversations.

Check in with each other weekly to see how everyone’s progressing, and encourage one another rather than nagging or berating. A code word or phrase might be a helpful reminder: “Screen check!”

As my husband and I left the restaurant, I stopped and complimented the young parents, telling them they were rocking this parenting thing. They were surprised but pleased. I’m pretty sure they won’t be in a hurry to buy their children phones–and those two cute kids will be better off for it!

Sue Acuña has taught middle school for over 20 years; she currently teaches at Concordia Lutheran in Tacoma, WA.

Cared For and Supported

A couple of weeks ago I returned from a seminar and shared with my class at Concordia, Tacoma, the slides I’d used with students in Loveland, Colorado. When the image of Charlie Brown and Snoopy came up, the reaction was startling:
“Yes! YES!!”
“I wish my parents knew this!”
“Could you please tell this to my mom?”
“Can I take a picture of that and show it to my dad?”

While it is a parent’s instinct to rescue or cheer up or smooth the way, understanding becomes more important than problem-fixing once a child reaches 10 or 11 years old. Middle school is full of emotional ups and downs, and relationships are everything. When things go wrong with friends or classmates, the whole world crashes down on them. Empathy is actually appreciated more than interference, so instead of calling other parents or talking to teachers, a wise parent will be understanding but hands off.

School is also more stressful than parents remember. While teens don’t have to worry about mortgage payments or aging parents, they do have to face countless opportunities to feel dumb, along with perceived judgment from their peers, sitting still all day, and more work when they get home. Instead of convincing them that their lives aren’t so bad, parents will connect better if they express empathy for the trials and anxiety that accompany adolescence.

When things go wrong in your middle schooler’s life, pause before reacting. Don’t offer solutions or try to make things better. Resist the urge to ask questions starting with “Why. . .?” or “How. . .?”  Be available, but don’t push your way in. Offer food or a blanket but don’t insist. Ask if a hug would be okay, but don’t be surprised if the answer is no. Your understanding and patience will be appreciated, far more than your offer of help. And even if your don’t say the words, your middle schooler will hear “I love you” coming through loud and clear.

10 Truths Middle Schoolers Should Know (Shared Blog)

Kari Kampakis has written a wonderful article offering encouragement to middle school students during some of the toughest times in their lives. She addresses technology concerns, choosing friends wisely, identity issues, and more. I highly recommend reading the entire article, which you can do by clicking here: 10 Truths Middle Schoolers Should Know.

Briefly, her 10 truths are:

10. Today’s most awkward moments will be tomorrow’s funniest memories. Keep a sense of humor whenever possible.

9. You don’t want to peak in middle school (or high school or college, for that matter)

8. Technology makes it easier than ever to ruin relationships and reputations.

7. Surrounding yourself with good company is imperative.

6. What makes you different is what makes you great.

5. It’s OK not to have your life planned out. It’s OK if you haven’t discovered your “thing.”

4. Your uniform is not your identity.

3. Applause can be misleading. You can make a huge mistake and still get cheered on wildly.

2. There’s a difference between helpful advice and criticism that holds you back. Be careful who you listen to.

1. You’re AWESOME.

See her detailed explanations and insightful comments here: 10 Truths Every Middle Schooler Should Know.

 

What Middle Schoolers Do–and Don’t–Need for School

It’s a rare parent who can find the school supplies list at the end of summer, let alone remember to take it along to the store.

And some strange items have shown up on lists recently; I’ve heard of potting soil, gluten-free paint, and Q-tips, to name a few. You may be the parent who follows the list to the letter, even confirming with the teacher which brand of pencils is preferred. Or you may be the “close enough” parent who says, “What does it matter which kind of calculator you buy?” You may wonder how much on the list is essential and how much is fluff. Here are what I consider necessities for a successful start to the year, along with what you can leave out, including items you won’t find on any supply list.

Needed: New Supplies. My husband and I argued every year about buying new pens and pencils. “There’s still a drawer full of them downstairs!” he’d complain. Having shiny new writing utensils and a binder picked out by the student can be inspiring at the beginning of a new year. Opening packages of pens or sharpening new pencils helps build anticipation, and getting everything ready to take to school is satisfying. Don’t wait until the last minute so that your child has to open things at school; the mess can be embarrassing, and it takes time away from socializing.

Not Needed: Expensive, Fancy Supplies. They’ll either be lost or stolen, which will create conflict at home. Or they’ll be borrowed constantly, which can be distracting or annoying to the owner. Buying one expensive item (fancy pens, cool binder, snazzy lunch bag) isn’t a bad idea, but don’t go overboard on everything.

Needed: A Form of Organization. Whether it’s a planner, a calendar, an electronic system, or several pads of Post-Its, every student needs to develop a system that works and then stick with it. It’s not just the teacher’s job to make sure it gets used; be sure you’re asking to see the method at home. “Show me where you wrote your assignments, please” is a valid request.

Not Needed: Your Preferred Planning Method. In our book, we tell a story about a mom who set up a beautiful notebook for her son with color-coded dividers for every subject. When asked why he wasn’t using it, he admitted he’d lost it. Your method does no good if they aren’t invested in it, and not all kids are planner people. Maybe Post-Its with page numbers stuck right in the math book work better, or writing everything on a whiteboard calendar. The point is that they find a method that matches their learning style, and they acquire the discipline to stick with it. Be ready for a trial and error period!

Needed: Accountability. Getting to school on time, completing homework, respecting authority–these are examples of non-negotiables that develop into important life skills. Don’t be too quick to blame the teacher or anybody else when your child struggles in these areas, but do be ready to make a fresh start with a new plan every time it becomes an issue. Use incentives if it helps: “What’s it worth to you to have no tardies for a week?” and consequences when necessary: “I’m sorry, but this F due to missing assignments means you’ll have to miss that party this weekend and catch up.”

Not Needed: Overparenting. When middle schoolers complain about unfairness in the classroom or low grades on tests, they should be the ones talking to the teacher. Resist the urge to shoot off an email or make an angry phone call. Ask your middle schooler, “How are you going to handle this?” and encourage a before- or after-school meeting between teacher and student. If a report card surprises you with less-than-desirable grades, begin by asking your child what happened instead of ringing up the teacher. If your middle schooler is having social issues (“Olivia won’t sit with me at lunch”), hold off a bit and encourage her to work it out with her friends. Involve the teacher only when there’s bullying involved or it’s causing serious depression or anxiety or at home. The key word is “serious,” as in lasting for more than one day or causing eating disorders or other health issues.

Needed: Support. Because of growth spurts and body changes, hormones and social upheavals, these are tough years for all kids. Speak encouragement when you can, share stories of your own middle school years when appropriate, use empathy as often as possible, and give hugs when you’re allowed. Middle schoolers are tough on themselves, often feeling like they don’t measure up to their peers, and they need to hear from you that they’re okay and everything will get better.

Not Needed: Discouragement. Be judicious with your criticism, saving it for important moral and safety issues. Don’t like the way his hair sticks up? If it gives him confidence at school, let it go. Wish she’d clean up after herself more? Keep asking politely and realize it’s more lack of awareness than laziness or defiance. Frustrated by school behavior or grades? Put the responsibility for change back on your middle schooler and work with him to improve. Middle schoolers crave control over their own lives, so give it where you can (negotiable bedtime) and you’ll find it’s easier to hang onto it where you need to (no riding in cars with teenage drivers).

As you stock up on gel pens, ear buds, Kleenex, EOS lip balm, and Sharpies, take some time to think about what you can’t buy at Target, like accountability, encouragement, and empathy. Those may be back-to-school items your middle schooler needs the most!