My second time enduring middle school, this time as a parent, I thought I was prepared. What I wasn’t prepared for was the time machine that transported me back to 1985 to feel the exact same emotions and insecurities I had from that time, coupled with trying to guide my son on how to work through and overcome his when situations arose. Navigating this emotional dichotomy was new for me, and the last three years have marked me with a few lessons I still had to learn the hard way, no surprise. Here are my top tips for parenting your middle schooler.
When it comes to friends, stay out of it. I don’t mean when your kid and friends are trying to plan mall meetups, I mean when they have conflicts. In elementary school, moms would just help the kids get over a kerfuffle with a call or text, but there is an invisible portal kids move through on day one of middle school, and things are handled differently inside the new vortex. No matter how much they ask you to talk to the other mom — DON’T. Unless it is a serious issue or the mom reaches out to you first, this is the time they must learn conflict resolution within their friend group on their own. I made this error in 6th grade after months of him asking me to intervene, and when I finally did, I regret it. It took over a year for him to reconnect with those friends and while things are “all good” now, I’m sad there was a long period of potential missed experiences for them together. Although a tough lesson for us both to learn, it did prompt great discussion about friendship dynamics. Middle school begins a time of self-discovery for most, and letting friends go temporarily so you can welcome each other back later can enhance the friendship overall since both of you have grown as individuals.
Encourage them to take risks. And by encourage, I mean push. Kids are introduced to a new world of sports, clubs, music, academics, and more, and many are scared to try something new because they are already on sensory overload inside the new vortex. Middle school is a brief window in time where you can still push before their mental fortitude disallows any parental encouragement or suggestion, an inevitability in high school. These healthy risks are the ones we want them to take.
My push was simply for him to attend the first informational meeting — then he could decide on his own if he wanted to try it. He ended up participating in athletics, clubs, and band to which he initially said, “No.” Getting him to the first meeting made all the difference as he enjoyed every extracurricular activity, enriched his overall middle school experience, and learned a great deal about himself.
Broken record alert — I’ve said it before — help them develop executive function skills. I learned the executive function skills necessary at the end of middle school are different from the beginning. So much goes into developing these soft skills and while he focused on planning, organization, and communicating with his teachers early on, emphasis was placed on regulating his emotions later. The emotional regulation piece is the hardest of these skills (I’m STILL working on this!), and they need to know each year will bring more difficult challenges. It’s HOW they deal with the stressful assignment, bad grade, friend conflict, and first crush heartbreak that is important.
Let them suffer.
Have they really succeeded if they haven’t failed first? They forgot to study and failed the quiz? They forgot their cleats and were benched for the game? They forgot their ID card and can’t eat in the lunchroom? In all likelihood, your middle schooler won’t forget again, and the consequences of their forgetfulness will teach them accountability better than anything you preach to them from your car’s driver’s seat pulpit after you’ve already rescued them.
We’re deep into summer mode after finishing middle school weeks ago, and I dare say he not only survived but thrived. Maybe I thrived, too, since I learned more about parenting him in the last three years than in the previous eleven. While he thrived in middle school with wonderful experiences and great achievements, it was a road paved with conflict, risks, failure, heartbreak, and suffering — and I wouldn’t have it any other way.