A Tale of Two (Moody) Middle Schoolers

It was a pretty chill Friday until the last two periods of the day, when I got to deal with two guys with attitude.

I heard student #1 (let’s call him Sam) yelling before I entered his classroom:  “What’s your friggin’ problem? I can’t believe you just did that! What’s wrong with you?!” I didn’t wait to find out what the issue was; I walked in and sent Sam to another room to cool down,  knowing he’d only get more worked up if I gave him a chance to speak. It turned out someone had backed a chair over Sam’s poster on the floor, and Sam unloaded on him without giving him a chance to apologize.

I went to Sam and let him tell his side. I then told him his response was inappropriate and said when he was calm, he could return to class. I also said he needed to apologize at some point. He was back in 5 minutes, not ready to apologize, but sulking quietly in his chair.  I ignored him for 20 minutes until he raised his hand, ready to participate, at which point I called on him like nothing had happened.

During the next class, I had a student (let’s call him Liam) get testy with me because he didn’t want to be in the front row in a dance number we were rehearsing for graduation.  When I pointed out that he’d already rehearsed with the front row and couldn’t change because the back row’s routine was different, he got sarcastic, “Oh, no! I would go this way instead of that way and mess everything up!” I calmly said he could drop out if he wasn’t happy, and he turned and left the gym. I let him go, knowing he was headed to another classroom to vent to a staff member.

Minutes later he was back with a sincere apology: “I’m sorry; that was stupid. I shouldn’t have said that.” I told him he was forgiven and said we could’ve worked out something, but when he chose sarcasm, I got defensive. He apologized again and held out his hand. We shook hands, he got back in line, and the rehearsal continued.

I’m often asked how I deal with “all that attitude” in middle school.  The reality is that I don’t face much of it, because if it appears I stay maddeningly calm and defuse the situation as quickly as possible. I first avoid an open confrontation and then I pretend it never happened, allowing students back into my good graces as soon as they stand down (regardless of my feelings at that point). I want us both to get back in the Blue (cool, peaceful) Zone and out of the Red (hot, angry) Zone as soon as possible so life can go on.

Middle schoolers are emotional creatures, often embarrassed by the lightning speed at which their tempers flare, tears flow, or uncontrollable giggles erupt. As the adult, it’s my job to ride out their feelings and give them every opportunity to save face. It’s how I keep good relationships with my students, and it’s more effective than a tirade or a lecture from me.

On Friday when school ended, both Sam and Liam wished me a good weekend as they went out the door. They knew I bore them no grudges, and we ended the week feeling pretty good about each other. After all, Monday is another day!

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“So I’m Never Supposed To Have Any Fun?”

CAParents like to call it attitude; I’ve dubbed it exaggerated sarcasm.  Call it what you will, it’s designed to push our buttons – and it’s usually successful!

Last week we instituted a seating chart for 7th and 8th graders in the lunchroom, which caused the expected whining and complaining.  One angry young man approached me and said,  “So we can’t sit by whoever we want?”   Such phrases don’t translate well in print, but anyone who’s heard them will be familiar with his tone of voice.

As my blood pressure rose, I was tempted to take the bait, replying defensively with, “Look, you brought this on yourself.  If you could just behave appropriately, you wouldn’t have to suffer.  I’m not the bad guy here.”  However, experience has taught me that my response would not be met with, “Oh, you’re right.  Thank you for explaining it to me.”  Instead, the door would be opened for arguing and proclaiming of innocence and accusations of picking on people for no reason.

So instead I just said, “Yep, pretty much,”  accompanied by a small, sad smile and a shrug.  The young man looked frustrated, shook his head in disgust, and walked away muttering.  I wisely did not ask him what he was muttering, as that would have started a fresh conflict, and my goal was to defuse this one.

In the 1983 movie War Games,  a young Matthew Broderick teaches a computer about the futility of thermonuclear war by having it play several games of tic-tac-toe.  In the end, the computer comes to an important conclusion – one every parent would be wise to adopt when faced with teenage attitude:

“The best move. . .is not to play.”

Christmas in Adolescence

grIt may sound like a Hallmark movie, but anyone who’s experienced Christmas in Adolescence with an adolescent knows the mushy, feel-good happy ending isn’t likely to happen.  For some, just having a non-UNhappy ending would be nice.

If you’ve got the teen who hugs herself and gushes, “I just love Christmas!” then you’re among the blessed.  But some teens are more like my son at 16 who complained about listening to Christmas music, refused to part with a penny of his own money for gifts, and on Christmas morning seemed uninterested in any of his presents (which had been carefully chosen by his loving mother).  How can you keep moody teens from ruining the holiday for everyone else?

First off, you can’t change the attitude.  If they’re choosing to be difficult, they’re going to hang on with all their might, leaving you two options: ignore the prickliness and pretend they’re happy, or excuse them from the festivities.  A direct confrontation would only make everyone tense.

Secondly, have a little compassion.  It’s a transitional time; middle school often marks a big change in how Christmas (often disguised as Winter) is celebrated at school.  The magic and wonder of childhood Christmases is waning, and they’re trying to figure out what’s considered too childish at their age and what’s still acceptable.

One way to encourage a little Christmas spirit is to steer their focus away from themselves.  Get them involved in baking, wrapping (messy packages are okay), addressing Christmas cards, or being helpful to someone in need.  Secret Santa deliveries to neighbors or relatives can give them warm feelings while teaching the virtue of generosity.

Like the Grinch, adolescents need to learn that Christmas isn’t about their own happiness.  Christmas – perhaps – means something more. . .

It’s An E-Ticket Ride

rc

“She’s so emotional!  When I started talking about her new school, she burst into tears, ran to her room, and locked the door!”

It’s a familiar story at the end of the year, whether or not there’s a new school involved.  Middle schoolers are such emotional creatures anyway, and all of the emotions that come with endings and new beginnings bubble up and overflow.  The adults in their lives find themselves riding a roller coaster with blind turns, breathtaking climbs, and alarming dips.

The best thing a parent can do is to hold their middle schooler’s hand during the scary parts, high five them during the exciting parts, and try not to be caught off guard by the next outburst.

At our school, the 8th graders graduate in June and go off to either 9th grade at a junior high, or freshman year in high school.  Doesn’t matter where they go, they’re leaving behind all that’s been familiar – for 10 years for some of them – and heading into foreign territory.  Their comments throughout the year swing from “I can’t wait!” to “I don’t want to go!”  I tell them they should be ready to leave but sad to go, and they appreciate that I understand how mixed up they are.

That’s the parents’ job, too – to show they understand.  A middle schooler will appreciate a parent who shows empathy far more than a parent who belittles – or worse, who tries to change – their feelings.

 

I’m Still Seeing Attitude

theone

I expected it:  some parents got defensive after the last post (All That Attitude).  “But,” they said, “what if I’m speaking in a calm and reasonable tone and I still get attitude?”

That’s when you use “The One,” which is simply your index finger pointed up, as in “Wait.”  Don’t comment on the attitude and don’t reply to what’s being said (it’s probably just to bait you anyway); instead, say, “Wow.  I don’t feel very respected by your tone (or words).  Could you try that again, but more respectfully, please?”  As lame as it may sound, I have almost 100 percent success with this.

If the comment is repeated in a nicer tone, then respond pleasantly or with empathy, depending on what is said.  For example, your reply to “Why do I have to do all the work around here?” might be, “It feels like it sometimes, doesn’t it?  I can totally relate.”

If it’s out of line no matter the tone, as in, “I said, ‘I hate my brother,'” don’t overreact.  You can deflect attitude by being neutral – try shrugging and saying, “Seems like everybody feels that way once in awhile.”  No need to lecture on using “hate” or other strong language; by middle school, they’ve heard it.  Again,  you’re being baited.

If the comment isn’t repeated because the speaker knows it’s over the line, or because not repeating it is a power ploy (“Just forget it”), then let it go.  End the conversation.  Change the subject.  Avoid getting sucked into a battle that isn’t related to anything else.

It takes patience and willpower to head off an Incident, and you may need to phone a friend to vent afterward, but stick with it and you’ll see the dreaded Attitude diminish.

(Just be sure you’re not the one who invites it back.)

Another Difficult Teen

Because I realize many people now read these on their phones, I’ve vowed to make them shorter.  Therefore, you’ll be getting one Difficult Teen at a time – in 250 words or fewer.

The Crab Pots
What they do
When I was young, my mom would ask, “Why are you such a crab pot today?”  This never failed to cheer me up.  Yeah, right –  it made me crabbier.  Cranky teens don’t want to be cheered up; they’d rather wallow in their crabbiness.  Because their fuses are short, you may not have any idea of what you did that set them off; all you know is, they’re snapping their claws at you again.

How to handle them
Stay out of their way when you can. You can’t make them happy, so don’t try.  Use empathy, but don’t let them manipulate you or anyone else with their moods.  Dealing with bad moods is a life skill, so teach them how to handle theirs.  Try something like, “Sounds like you’re having a rough day.  Is there something I can do, or do you  just need some time alone with your loud music?”  Encourage them to take a timeout until it passes.  Just let them know you still love them, no matter how crabby they are!

One day, they will return the favor when it’s your turn to be a Crab Pot.

Mirror, Mirror – Minus Two Tablespoons

This morning on the radio I heard that a successful salesman will mirror the temperament of his client.  What great advice for dealing with teens!  If your teen is excited about something, you should share that excitement.  And if she’s disappointed, your face and tone should reflect her mood.  Almost.

Have you ever used a recipe that called for “2 cups minus 2 tablespoons” of milk?  This always puzzles me; how did someone figure out that just that little bit less will make a difference?  However, when dealing with teens, just a little bit less of whatever emotion they’re exhibiting is definitely a wise option.

So when he slams the door behind him and shouts, “Guess what?!  I made the VARSITY TEAM!!” you don’t have to shout, “WAY TO GO!!”  You should, however, wear a big smile and congratulate him instead of shrugging and saying, “Oh.  How nice.”  Conversely, when she flings herself onto the couch and mutters, “My life sucks,” it’s not the time to clap your hands and suggest a Girls’ Night Out.   Lower your voice, look concerned, and ask casually, “Bad day?”

Mix up your metaphors – mirror what your teen is feeling, but hold back a little.  About 2 tablespoons should do.