“I have a middle schooler now, and everything is just so hard. Every day it’s a new struggle!” This comment on my Facebook page was quickly liked by several parents. What is it about the 10-to-15-year-olds that makes parenting them so challenging? Hormones get the blame, but it’s more complicated than just changes in their glands.
Grown-up children. Childish grown-ups. They may be thoughtful one moment: “I can carry that for you,” and selfish the next: “I need my red shirt right now!” Or they can be affectionate: “I need a hug” and then standoffish: “Don’t touch me!” Students in my class will discuss world events and then turn around and throw trash at each other. I treat them like young adults but am not surprised when they behave like toddlers.
I have key phrases to let them know when their behavior is unacceptable. The words “In the adult world we. . .” gets their attention because they are at the threshold of adulthood and want to learn the rules. “More 8th grade behavior and less first grade, please” is a little more direct but gets the message across without a full-on attack.
Needing you less. Needing you more. It may seem like 7th graders should be able to get to school or to practices with everything they need and know the rules about chores, bathing, and homework. They may–but other things get in the way of them remembering.. Think back to when they were learning to walk: they’d toddle off a few steps on their own, fall with a plop, and look back at you to help them up. Middle schoolers need the same room to strike out on their own with confidence that you will be there when things fall apart.
It’s a balancing act, finding the line between not being helpful enough and helping too much. Just as you wouldn’t carry your toddlers everywhere, neither should you rescue your middle schoolers so they have no responsibilities or consequences. They won’t learn to take a lunch every day if you take it to school each time it’s forgotten, nor will they learn to clean up after themselves if you do it for them.
Your middle schooler still needs you, just differently than before. It’s not your job to make all decisions and fix all boo-boos. It is your job to provide chances to practice being grown up. Nag less; encourage more. Say less; listen more. Laugh at them less; take them seriously more. When they have complaints and questions, they want serious answers. Don’t assume every “Why?” is talking back; sometimes they really want to know the reason behind your request.
New Bodies. New Thoughts. New Feelings. The physical growth and changes between the end of 5th grade and the end of 8th grade are enormous. They can grow several inches and sprout hair in new places; their bodies change shape (more curves for girls, broader shoulders for guys), and so do their faces (less round, more angular). Those are the changes we can see.
Inside their heads, they’re thinking more abstract thoughts about topics like eternity or good vs. evil. They’re also worrying about parents dying or getting divorced or smoking too much. Such thoughts interrupt their sleep or cause them to zone out in the middle of a meal.
Their emotions are more intense and can be influenced by hormones, sleep changes, social media, and peer interactions. They may be enraged about what’s for dinner and then quickly switch to glee because of a picture on Snapchat. Such intense feelings come and go in a flash, leaving parents’ heads spinning as they try to deal with what just happened. Ride it out, respond with empathy, and brace for the next angry or joyful outburst.
Short-term Aggravation. Long-term Benefits. Last Friday morning when my 8th graders played games with their younger buddies, they were patient as 1st graders chattered away and sometimes climbed on their backs. Later that same day, we played a rowdy game of 9-square. The same kids shouted and jumped around, cheered for each other and stomped off when they were out. It was a typical day in middle school: they were silly, mature, kind, impatient, quiet, and loud–all in the space of 6 hours.
Despite how it feels at the time, these years pass quickly. Keep the big picture in sight and don’t let the emotions of the moment (yours or theirs) cloud the goal, which is to raise responsible, successful, happy adults.
And when they march off in a huff, just watch them go and remember that you were the one who taught them how–and it didn’t happen overnight.