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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It’s An E-Ticket Ride

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“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.

 

All That Attitude

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When I mention that I teach middle school, two things happen:  1) I get blessed, as in, “Oh, bless you – that’s not an easy job.” and 2) I get asked how I  handle all that attitude.

But the reality is, I don’t get much attitude from students.  The eye rolling, shrugging, hair flipping, steely-eyed glaring – I see very little of it.  Correction:  I see very little of it directed at me. However, I do see it directed at other adults.  So why not at me in my classroom?

It’s not because I terrify them.  Spend an hour in my classroom and you’ll pick up on that, as the teasing goes both ways.  But I do demand respect, and that, too, goes both ways.  And that may be part of the answer:  I treat my students with respect.  Teens match their tone of voice to the tone being used with them, so I try to keep mine calm.  I can’t do it all the time – sometimes I’m too frustrated – but more often than not, I keep my cool.

The other part of the answer is a little trick I call “intentional ignorance.”  For example, if I’ve had to tell a student that she can’t play in a basketball game because of low grades, and she throws herself into her seat and glares at me, I will pretend not to see her little tantrum.  Unless she gets so loud that she’s disrupting the class, I will turn a blind eye to her antics until she settles down.  If she does get disruptive, I’ll (calmly) ask her to visit another classroom until she has herself under control.

Why don’t I have to deal with “all that attitude?” Probably because I choose to ignore it – and not to return it.

 

 

We’re Just Not Friends Anymore

Girlfriends

Every year I counsel parents  and middle schoolers about the ebb and flow of friendships in this age group.

In lower grades, it seemed easier:  everyone who liked to play soccer would get together on the field at recess.  Those who preferred the Big Toy would hang out there.

Everything is different in middle school.  Because kids mature at different rates, friendships change – often without warning.  Friendships are based on common interests, because “If you like what I like, that validates my choice.”  And boys who aren’t interested in sports or girls – or girls who aren’t interested in make-up or boys – will find themselves adjusting their friendship circles.

Middle school is also when the whole class is no longer invited to birthday parties.  Some middle schoolers are allowed to have their first boy/girl parties, which creates all kinds of social calamities as feelings get hurt when one’s not invited.

It helps to remind middle schoolers  that this is a difficult time everyone goes through, but things usually get better in high school, where there are more clubs and teams to join.  Most teens find their niche (or their “group”) by the time they’re 15 or 16.

My advice to parents is to step out of “Problem Solver” mode and work more on “Good Listener” mode.  Give lots of empathy – “It’s hard when things change, isn’t it?” – but don’t feel like it’s your job to make the bad feelings go away.  Middle schoolers need to feel they’ve been heard and understood, and then they can move forward in dealing with feelings and social issues on their own.

Friendships change like the tides – it’s a parent’s job to be the anchor.

Faking Nice

Be Nice

I’ve always said that civilizing students is part of my job.

While discussing how to improve classroom relationships, one of the girls said she didn’t feel the need to be friendly to girls she didn’t like.  “That would be like faking nice,” was her argument.  I explained that the world revolved around people “faking nice” to each other.  In the adult world, “faking nice” is another term for courtesy, tact, and manners.

For instance, when a senior citizen meanders down the supermarket aisle ahead of me, I wait for an opportunity to smile and go around.  It wouldn’t do either of us any good if I yelled at her to move faster.  And when someone greets me with a cheery “Good morning!” before 10 a.m., I refrain from biting his head off and instead reply with a terse “Morning.”

Learning to be genuine without hurting others’ feelings is an important social skill, despite what teens may see on reality TV.  But “faking nice” doesn’t come naturally; parents have to teach – and model – appropriate social behavior.  It’s helpful to point out to your teen when you’ve said something contrary to what you were thinking, and then have a discussion about why tactful responses are kinder than hurtful ones.

(By the way, if you run into those judges from American Idol, please tell them I’d like to talk to them.  Thanks!)