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!

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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!

Why Are Middle Schoolers Hard to Parent?

“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.

 

For Best Results, Walk Away

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We knew we were in trouble when our 3 1/2-year-old son Matt would sit at the table for up to 2 hours, refusing to finish his dinner. We’d fly the airplane into the hangar, tell him “3 more bites”, race with Daddy, take a bite ourselves, display the scrumptious dessert reward – nothing would work. That kid would sit there refusing to to eat until we gave up and sent him to bed.

It was apparent that he had inherited his mother’s obstinacy and his father’s stubbornness. We called him “strong-willed” or “just plain difficult,” and he would have been a terror as a teenager had I not stumbled upon what I call the “Walk-Away” policy.

Accompanying his need for control was Matt’s strong desire to do what was right. We learned that if we laid out our expectations and then walked away, he would feel the pressure of those expectations and eventually do what he was supposed to, albeit in his own time. However, if we stood over him and insisted he do it now, on our time, he would accept whatever consequence he had to–but he would not do what was asked.

When you have teenagers in the house, you expect them to do their chores, get their homework done, and clean up after themselves.  When you say, “Please do those dishes now,” sometimes it’ll work like a charm.  Sometimes it’ll cause an argument: “Why do I have to do everything around here?” “It’s not my turn; I did them last time!” “I can’t–I have too much homework.”

Instead of getting sucked into an argument designed to distract you, or being manipulated into giving an ultimatum (which may backfire on you), state your expectation but leave room for some control:  “Please get started on your homework before 7:30.”  Then walk away and resist the urge to nag.

This won’t work with all personalities. For some kids, when you walk away they’ll forget what you just said, or maybe choose to ignore you. But if you have an”I’ll-do-it-because-I-want-to-not-because-you-told-me-to” teen, it’s a survival technique. It can keep you from getting sucked into a power struggle where you have to up the consequences (and then follow through with them). More importantly, it keeps your relationship with your teen on a positive footing instead of it deteriorating into resentment and hostility.

Matt is grown and out on his own now. His stubbornness and desire to do what’s right have helped him to become a young man of integrity and perseverance.  Best of all, we have a great relationship–his favorite line, spoken with a shrug and a grin: “What can I say?  You know how I am!”

Don’t Be Helpless (Part 2)

In my last blog we discussed how to avoid being helpless when dealing with teens and their cell phonesOn her phone or talking back. (See Don’t Be a Helpless Parent.)  This time we’ll tackle two more issues that cause parents to throw their hands up in despair: social media and chores.

1. Beyond Twitter and Snapchat Be aware: most teens do not use Facebook as their primary contact with friends.  They use Instagram to keep up with friends’ activities (fewer words, more pictures), and Snapchat for conversations.  They also use apps like Kik, or Yik Yak to chat with friends–or strangers.  Apps such as Kiwi and Whisper go even further and allow users to communicate anonymously.  Think of the power that gives middle schoolers to hurt–and be hurt by–one another.

If your teen owns a smartphone, tablet, or iPod (which connects via wi-fi), you need to keep on top of how they’re using it (also see When Is a Calculator Not a Calculator?).  Ask your teen to open the apps and show you how they work, and require that they give you passwords (you can open most accounts from you computer).  Tell them you won’t be checking all the time, but they should expect you to look in once in awhile. You need to weigh the awkwardness of invading your teen’s privacy against the possibility of them falling victim to–or being tempted to start–cyberbullying, or striking up a relationship with a (possibly dangerous) stranger.

2. Doing Their Share  While it’s nice to have your kids help around the house, the benefits go beyond having clean dishes.  Children who do chores at home do better in school and grow up to be more successful adults (check out Why Children Need Chores in the Wall Street Journal).  You would think that by adolescence, chores would have become a habit, but most parents find themselves in a daily battle to get their kids to do even the most basic of tasks.  

After years of being frustrated with my children and tired of hearing myself nagging and complaining, I called a family meeting with my sons (then 10, 12, and 14).  I laid out which chores needed to be done daily and let them decide on a fair division.  They determined each job would be done for a week, switching on Saturdays.  We discussed consequences for not doing chores, and they agreed that being grounded from all screens (computer, TV, video games) for three days was appropriate.  For a second or recurring offense, they came up with the Chore Slave, who would be at the parents’ beck and call for an entire Saturday.  The key was to involve them in coming up with a plan.

I in turn agreed that if chore didn’t get done in a timely manner, I would do it myself and calmly issue the consequence.  This resulted in me sometimes preparing to load the dishwasher, only to be nudged aside by a desperate boy.  I never refused his offer, nor did I make a snarky comment like, “About time you showed up.” My goal was for them to do chores without being yelled at, so I graciously left the kitchen without a word.

Just as it was worth your while to teach your preschooler how to tie a shoe or ride a bicycle (both struggles I remember well), it is also critical that you hold your ground on major issues in adolescence.  Parents of 13-year-olds have about five years before they graduate from high school.  That may seem like a long time to fight the good fight, but you will be preparing them for decades of responsible adulthood.

Hang in there.

Sometimes You Get It Right

youwin

A friend with sons ages 12 and 15 recently told me this story:

I had a good parenting moment this morning.  My son lied to me and tried to brush it off,  so I told him I was disappointed with him.  I pointed out that he wants respect and trust from me, but then he lies to me.  I said, “That’s not how it works,” and I walked away without delivering a lecture. 

After he’d showered, we were in the kitchen together when he actually said, “Sorry I lied to you, Mom.”  I said, “Thanks, Bud,” and went on with my morning routine.  I am always shocked when it turns out like that.

Three things this mom did right:

  1. Delivering an “I” message (“I’m disappointed”) instead of making an accusation;
  2. Making her point in only a few words and then walking away;
  3. Accepting his apology with grace and ending it there.

She also managed to avoid some of the pitfalls of parenting teens, such as yelling or belittling, which only lead to more issues like disrespect or defensive attitudes.

Sometimes parents feel that there’s no avoiding hostility and anger when confronting teens, but it doesn’t have to be that way.  If you can take a deep breath and keep calm, you’re more likely to get the results you want–and avoid those that you don’t want!

 

Middle School? Challenge Accepted! 5 Helpful Tips for Parents

clsrmOn the first day of 7th grade my English teacher declared, “I hate 7th graders. They’re whiny, immature, and just generally unpleasant.”  As I listened to scary Mrs. Gunderson lay down her classroom rules in a no-nonsense, don’t-you-dare-interrupt voice, I was terrified.

The first weeks of middle school can be harrowing both for students and for their parents.  Here are five things parents can do to ease the transition.

1. Use the Technology

Most middle schools offer parents the opportunity to check schedules, view the school calendar, and look at homework assignments online.   The office and the teachers will probably send regular emails. Familiarize yourself with how these work, and learn to use them regularly.  Don’t rely on your middle schooler to be your main source of info.

2. Keep Calm and Don’t Overreact

When I ranted about my Truly Awful Teacher, my mom advised me to wait and see.  Today’s parents might complain to the principal or fire off an email to Mrs. Gunderson, but it’s better to wait.  Middle schoolers experience many new things in those early weeks, some scary and some awesome, but their first impressions aren’t always correct.  Listen with empathy, keeping comments to, “Wow, that does sound tough,” or “Bet that made you happy.”  Their emotions are going to be all over the place, and they’ll need you to be the stabilizer in their lives.

3. Expect Exhaustion

No matter how well it’s going, adjusting to new schedules, teachers, classmates, and buildings is going to wear out your middle schooler.  Sports, music, honors or remedial classes, and getting up earlier will also take a toll.  Consider lightening up on chores and be prepared to attribute moodiness to fatigue.  Insisting that phones be parked outside of the bedroom can head off late-night texting which would cut into sleeping hours.

4. Take a Step Back

Teach your middle schooler to stop in the doorway every morning and think, “Do I have everything?”  Middle schoolers are notorious for forgetting obvious items like homework, lunches—and even backpacks.  Rather than doing their thinking for them, give them the chance to check themselves.  After school, instead of saying, “Better get your homework done,” ask, “What’s your homework plan for tonight?”  Again, this allows self-monitoring rather than parental ruling.  If the answer is, “Not doing it,” just laugh and wait.  If the plan is unrealistic, calmly offer better options:  “Really?  Starting at 10 o’clock might not work, since you have band at 7:00 tomorrow morning.  Maybe you want to do some now and some later?”  Remember, middle schoolers still need helpful suggestions but they’ll resist being told what to do.

5. Ask the Right Questions

If your first words to your middle schooler are, “How was school?”  you’ll probably just hear “Fine.”  Wait a while and allow some processing time, then ask more specific questions:  “What was the best thing that happened at school?”  “Whose class do you like best?” “See anything strange or funny in the hallway?”  Beware of asking too many questions, though, because middle schoolers don’t like to be interrogated any more than you do.  Extroverts will want to tell their story in their own way, but introverts will want to tell you in their own time.  Watch for openings and don’t commit the sin of interrupting before they finish.

By the end of the first month, Scary Mrs. Gunderson was one of my favorite teachers.  She wasn’t really a tyrant; in fact, she had a great sense of humor and made learning interesting.  Many middle schoolers will experience similar turnarounds in their thinking, so ride out their changeable feelings and be the source of calm and comfort.  Even if the beginning is rocky, things will soon smooth out as your middle schooler settles into the new routine.

Just in time for progress reports.