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.

 

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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!

Less Anxiety; More Success

 

In a recent radio interview I was asked how students were different from when I began teaching over 30 years ago. One major change I’ve observed is that students suffer more anxiety today. It impacts their learning if they miss school, and when they are in class they struggle to focus. For those with serious anxiety disorders, professional help is a must, but for many students some changes at home can make a big difference. Here are four strategies to help your teen or preteen reduce anxiety and increase learning this year.

More reading. We live in a visual world, where we turn to YouTube for instructions instead of reading the manual, and we video chat instead of writing letters. But there are still benefits to reading words on a page, whether in an ebook or on paper. As readers create images in their brains, imagination and visualization skills increase. Mentally visiting other worlds, both make-believe and real, can reduce anxiety by providing a distraction and a chance to forget one’s problems for a while. Reading also builds vocabulary and writing skills. Non-fiction increases knowledge and can make one an expert on a favorite topic (“Did you know. . .?”). In my classroom I turn on soft instrumental music and turn down the lights, and the atmosphere becomes calm and peaceful. Students actually sigh with pleasure as they settle in to read.

More sleep. Because they’re still growing, teens need 8-10 hours of sleep a night, which they rarely get. But sleep is important for more than just growth. According to the National Sleep Foundation, “Mental health is both impacted by and impacts how well a person sleeps.” Teens who don’t get enough sleep are more prone to anxiety and depression. Not surprisingly, the biggest robber of adequate sleep is technology. Teens who take their phones to bed with them can be up past midnight using Snapchat to text–or sext–their friends, or they’re watching videos and playing games. Phones should be handed over to parents or parked in a designated spot at bedtime. Getting enough sleep also helps with focus, learning, and appearance. The latter might be enough to convince self-conscious teens to go to bed earlier, as a lack of sleep affects skin and hair quality. Because of changes in their circadian rhythm, teens may not fall asleep until 11:00 or later, but bedtimes should still be earlier, as even resting in a dark room has benefits.

Less social media. There’s growing evidence that more time spent on social media means more unhappiness for teens (check out an article from Child Mind Institute), often caused by feelings of insecurity and inadequacy when comparing one’s life to others’. Young teens also absorb information from Tumblr or Reddit without the experience or maturity to filter fact from sensationalism. It’s an interesting paradox that while social media keeps them more connected to one another, it also increases feelings of rejection if their posts are ignored or don’t get as many likes as their friends’ posts. Stalking and trolling (leaving mean comments) can also lead to hurt feelings. All of these emotions and relationship issues carry over into the classroom, making focusing on classwork difficult.

Less conflict. What are your battles? Homework? Chores? Appropriate clothing? Arguing and anger produce stress, which causes physical changes, including a rise in cortisol. Among other things, too much cortisol can interfere with learning and memory. Yelling and threatening will never result in a teen saying, “You’re right. I’ll change.” Okay, nothing makes them reply that way, but staying calm while holding firm to your values will get you further. Refrain from sarcasm and statements like “What are you thinking? You’re hopeless! I’m done with you!” that only cause defensiveness. Making your point is more important than issuing consequences or angering your teen, and stiffer penalties can lead to rebellion rather than compliance. Begin with clear expectations and don’t overreact to their responses. Expect respect, but if your teen glares at you or walks away muttering, just let it go. Regardless of how it appears, assume you’ve been heard. When you have to ground him or take away her phone, do it calmly and with few words. As Cynthia Tobias says, “Issue more tickets and give fewer lectures.” Years ago I compiled a “No-No List” of common mistakes parents make in trying to communicate; you can find it here.

 

Anxiety affects students regardless of their capabilities. Anything we can do both at home and in the classroom to ease their way can have a lifelong impact. But if you’re going to make changes, be sure to do so with the cooperation of your teen or preteen. Instead of demanding they read more, go to bed earlier, and spend less time on their phones, involve them in a discussion and invite their input. Problem-solve together and come up with a plan. That way, you’ll also have less conflict–and more success!

Sue currently teaches middle school at Concordia Lutheran School in Tacoma, Washington; she and Cynthia Tobias are co-authors of  Middle School, the Inside Story: What Kids Tell Us But Don’t Tell You, available online and in bookstores.

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.