QuaranTEENed

 

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Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

As we hunker down to prevent the spread of COVID-19, parents and teens are going to struggle with spending so much time together in the same space. Earlier I posted the No-No List for Parents, which is a guide for parents on improving communication. In the spirit of fairness, here’s a guide for teens and tweens to help life together go a little more smoothly.

  1. Be Tidy

To you it may be just a plate on a table or a shirt on the couch, but to the people you live with, it’s a mess. Take it with you when you leave the room and deposit it in the sink or on your bed. Speaking of bed, at least toss the covers back over the mattress in the morning—sort of an “almost-made” look. Don’t be a slob! A bonus: taking care of the little things can cut down on nagging by the parents.

  1. Use Your Manners

The people in your house are not your servants. Sprinkle “Please” and “Thank you” everywhere you can. It’s much more pleasant than “Sure,” “I guess,” or “Whatever.” Or worse—making demands. Replace “Hand me the remote!” with “Remote, please” and “Move!” with “I need some space, please.” And when someone offers you a choice—“Pizza or a chicken bake?”—answer with “Chicken bake, PLEASE.” It’s amazing how manners can cut down on conflicts.

  1. Keep the Noise Down

Use your headphones or close the door if your music is loud. When you want to talk to someone, go into the same room with them. There might be people working in your house, so don’t bang the cupboards or the microwave door. If you’re on a video chat, be mindful of what others in the room might be watching or listening to and turn your volume down (or use earbuds).

  1. Share

Reconsider letting your younger sibling borrow your phone to play games. Set a time limit of half an hour if that helps. You are not the most import person in your house, so beware of behaving as if you are. Share, take turns, be considerate of others’ needs—all those things you learned in kindergarten are even more important at home, especially now.

  1. Stay Out of It

Just like you don’t want everyone up in your business, neither do they want you poking into theirs. You don’t have to know what every conversation is about, especially if you weren’t invited to be part of it. Let others have the same privacy that you want to have.

  1. Give Your Phone a Break

You don’t want to miss anything, but it’s rude to be looking at your phone when someone is talking to you. I know it’s hard to drag your eyes away from the screen but do it anyway. Stuff your phone in your pocket or toss it on the table or couch for 10 minutes—or an hour—and give people your undivided attention. Nothing says “You matter” more than eye contact and appropriate responses. Words are always better than grunts, shrugs, or the non-committal “Huh.”

  1. Communicate More

For most of us, “We all we got” is more than just a phrase used by the team to get pumped up; it’s our current reality. Your parents are concerned about you, so when they ask how you’re doing or how things are going, sum it up in a few honest sentences and skip the “Okay” or “Fine.” Try a bad and a good—“I really miss my friends, but I’m getting used to doing school online.” And don’t forget to return the favor; your parents might be missing their work buddies or at least time with other adults. Check in with them once in a while.

  1. Keep Your Emotions in Check

Your frustration does not give you the right to dump your bad feelings on the people you live with. Go back and read that again. You can express your feelings in the first person—“I hate being cooped up here!” But you should not be attacking those around you, especially since options for getting away from each other are so limited. Can’t take it anymore? Go for a walk or a run. Unload to a friend. You’ve got to live with these people for a few more weeks; do your part to keep the peace.

  1. Resist Whining

Commiserating means feeling bad together: “Man, this stinks.” “Right?” But whining is self-centered: “Why do I have to stay hoooome?? I want to see my frieeeeends!” “It’s so unfair that I had to give up my sports seasooonnn!” It is unfair and nobody’s happy about it. Commiserate with your friends or family, but don’t make the mistake of thinking it’s worse for you than for somebody else. Cancelled weddings, vacations, performances, sports—everybody is in the same boat. If you need to wallow in self-pity, you’re certainly entitled to do so, but you don’t need to pour it on anybody else. And don’t let it last too long—find something that makes you feel better.

  1. Step It Up

Whether it’s schoolwork or housework, it has to be done. Make yourself some kind of schedule, even if it’s a loose one: one hour of studying and one chore completed in the morning before playing any games. Another hour of studying and some exercise after dinner. Or get it all done first thing and be done with it. Find a routine that works for you and stick to it. Don’t get to the end of the day only to discover you’ve done nothing productive; eventually it will take a toll on your emotional health.

We don’t know when these restrictions will end, but they WILL end sometime. Until then, do what you can to live in peace and harmony in your house. Better yet—be the one to create the peace and harmony!

That Naughty Laugh

Photo by mentatdgt on Pexels.com

From across the lunchroom, above all the other hubbub, a suspicious sound catches my ear. My middle school teacher radar goes to DefCon 5, and I make my way to a certain table of boys. One of them looks up, a twinkle in his eye, “Mrs. Acuña, you did not just hear our naughty laugh.” “Oh yes,” I say. “I definitely heard it, and guess what? I’m going to hang out with you for the rest of lunch.”

Because this is a regular occurrence, the boys rarely protest my presence. They may ask, with mock seriousness, “Mrs. Acuña! Don’t you trust us?” And I will just look at them, one eyebrow raised.

I don’t waste time asking them what made them laugh. Chances are they’ll deny everything and possibly even head down the road of disrespect. They’ll also just continue the discussion when they’re out of earshot. All I want at this moment is for them to realize I’m onto them, and for them to stop whatever it is they’re doing.

This is a choice I have to make every day: to deal with a situation or to just make it stop. My response depends on who’s involved and what I either know or suspect is happening. I will always get right in the middle if I see or hear meanness directed at another student, or if I hear inappropriate language, or when I sense someone’s about to escalate into rage.

On the other hand, I’ll let it go if it doesn’t seem too serious, if it’s between two close friends, or if there isn’t time to deal with it. How do I know when to wade in and when to turn the other ear? Instinct and experience.

Over the years I’ve learned that getting to the bottom of a situation isn’t always necessary. Sometimes it’s enough just to stop the behavior and move on. They already know they’re being naughty, and they know they’re caught. No consequence needed.

But there are times when the behavior is so bad that there must be consequences. Bullying, cheating, showing disrespect to authority or peers, vandalism–all of these are serious and need to be pursued.

If you are a parent or leader of middle schoolers, don’t be too quick to react when you suspect improper behavior. Take a moment to listen and even ask a question or two, and then choose how to proceed. Maybe laughing and staying close is all that’s needed. Or maybe something tougher.

And here’s a veteran tip: instead of yelling when you confront misbehavior, lower your voice. It’s much scarier–just ask any of my students.

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.

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.

 

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!