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

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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!