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.

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

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.

Cared For and Supported

A couple of weeks ago I returned from a seminar and shared with my class at Concordia, Tacoma, the slides I’d used with students in Loveland, Colorado. When the image of Charlie Brown and Snoopy came up, the reaction was startling:
“Yes! YES!!”
“I wish my parents knew this!”
“Could you please tell this to my mom?”
“Can I take a picture of that and show it to my dad?”

While it is a parent’s instinct to rescue or cheer up or smooth the way, understanding becomes more important than problem-fixing once a child reaches 10 or 11 years old. Middle school is full of emotional ups and downs, and relationships are everything. When things go wrong with friends or classmates, the whole world crashes down on them. Empathy is actually appreciated more than interference, so instead of calling other parents or talking to teachers, a wise parent will be understanding but hands off.

School is also more stressful than parents remember. While teens don’t have to worry about mortgage payments or aging parents, they do have to face countless opportunities to feel dumb, along with perceived judgment from their peers, sitting still all day, and more work when they get home. Instead of convincing them that their lives aren’t so bad, parents will connect better if they express empathy for the trials and anxiety that accompany adolescence.

When things go wrong in your middle schooler’s life, pause before reacting. Don’t offer solutions or try to make things better. Resist the urge to ask questions starting with “Why. . .?” or “How. . .?”  Be available, but don’t push your way in. Offer food or a blanket but don’t insist. Ask if a hug would be okay, but don’t be surprised if the answer is no. Your understanding and patience will be appreciated, far more than your offer of help. And even if your don’t say the words, your middle schooler will hear “I love you” coming through loud and clear.

10 Truths Middle Schoolers Should Know (Shared Blog)

Kari Kampakis has written a wonderful article offering encouragement to middle school students during some of the toughest times in their lives. She addresses technology concerns, choosing friends wisely, identity issues, and more. I highly recommend reading the entire article, which you can do by clicking here: 10 Truths Middle Schoolers Should Know.

Briefly, her 10 truths are:

10. Today’s most awkward moments will be tomorrow’s funniest memories. Keep a sense of humor whenever possible.

9. You don’t want to peak in middle school (or high school or college, for that matter)

8. Technology makes it easier than ever to ruin relationships and reputations.

7. Surrounding yourself with good company is imperative.

6. What makes you different is what makes you great.

5. It’s OK not to have your life planned out. It’s OK if you haven’t discovered your “thing.”

4. Your uniform is not your identity.

3. Applause can be misleading. You can make a huge mistake and still get cheered on wildly.

2. There’s a difference between helpful advice and criticism that holds you back. Be careful who you listen to.

1. You’re AWESOME.

See her detailed explanations and insightful comments here: 10 Truths Every Middle Schooler Should Know.