I dreaded it for years. The hormones. The backtalk. The eye rolls. Uncontrolled emotions. His awkwardness. My awkwardness answering certain “questions.” Seven class changes with seven different teachers. The increased workload. Bullies. Fights. Heartbreak. We have only begun the fifth month of his middle school career, and we’ve experienced all of these already. Many friends with older children said how different things are in middle school compared to elementary school, and a few personal experiences were shared with me. While we tried to prepare ourselves and our son for the next step up, some bridges cannot be crossed early and some lessons must be learned the hard way. A child’s hard-learned lesson is the most gut-wrenching, and my kiddo takes after his mom in this regard; it seems that is the only way for us. Here are a few of the hard lessons we’ve encountered in the first semester of sixth grade that we weren’t prepared to learn so early.
Teach them Executive Functioning skills.
I was never taught how to plan my work or work my plan as a student. Granted, the workload was much less in the ’80s, but when it became necessary as a college student for me to have strong executive functioning skills, I didn’t have them and really struggled. Expectations are way higher today for students, and middle school is no exception. The work is pushed out via virtual platforms, and there is little consistency amongst teachers in how they roll out daily assignments and weekly agendas. Our school utilizes two platforms for assignments, and he must check both frequently, cross-referencing the platforms to ensure nothing is missed. Parental involvement isn’t discouraged or encouraged, but there is a feeling from the school that it’s time to let the birds fly from the nest. I agree, middle school is the time to let our children learn accountability for assignments, but showing them how to plan their work is essential. Executive Functioning is a group of important mental skills that includes flexible thinking and teaching them how to organize assignments and execute their plan, all of which sets them up for success in school and in life.
Lean out, but still lean in.
While we are leaning out when it comes to knowing every detail of his schoolwork, we’re still leaning in when it comes to staying in tune with his emotional health. It seems the new attitude acquired on day one of middle school is one of indifference, in case you missed that invisible print in the handbook. Fortunately, my kiddo hasn’t fully adopted that new attitude (yet) and still shares about his day, as long as I time the inquiries correctly. It can’t be right when I see him after school, or even at dinner, if I want to get the best version. His sweet spot is bedtime, under the covers, relaxed, already replaying the day’s events in his mind. I lay down next to him, and sometimes I don’t even have to ask, he just starts talking. These moments have uncovered his concerns over friendships, insecurities about himself, questions about his body, things he hears on the bus, and much more. We do our best to explain the newest slang term or cuss word he heard from that eighth-grader, help him see another side of a situation that bothered him, rebuild his confidence that was torn down by the class a**hole, and assure him his body changes are normal and expected. So much of puberty encompasses hormonal changes in the brain, not just physical changes to their bodies, and we want him to know his overwhelming emotions are completely normal.
One of my wisest friends said that so many parents lean out in middle school when they should really lean in more. This is the time kids start to push parents away, rebel against being treated like a kid, and in turn, punish their parents the only way they can, by withholding information. Don’t let your kids get used to not sharing their day and their feelings with you because this gap in communication can dangerously evolve. Lean into being involved at the school, communicating with teachers, staying active on PTA, supporting your child’s school club or sport, and find their sweet spot moment where no barriers exist for them to talk to you.
Friends change, and that’s okay.
The friend dynamic will change. Sixth graders are desperately trying to fit in — somewhere, somehow, anywhere, any way — since they are now at the bottom rung of the ladder again. Couple this clawing for social status with different maturity levels and development rates, and friendships sometimes take an unexpected turn. When he first experienced a shift in his friendships, he didn’t understand why things were changing and tried his darndest to keep things the way they always had been. He now understands that just because friends aren’t as close as they once were, it doesn’t mean they won’t be again. Friendships have seasons, too, and this is the time to make new friends. Many friends will come and go throughout your life, so let them. Let them in, let them go, and let them come in again. Friends change. Friendships change. Sometimes they grow. Sometimes they don’t. That’s okay.
Even though we were dreading the start of middle school, he has handled much of it well. There were some bumps at the beginning, but after we tackled the steep learning curve, sixth grade has been a good experience for our family. While parenting a middle schooler has been challenging, it hasn’t sucked. I’m trying to remember that it’s not just my kid, it’s just middle school. It’s a time of change, in every sense of the word. Lean in, stay connected, validate their huge emotions, encourage new friendships and celebrate the small things.
How was your transition to middle school? What advice can you give us for seventh and eighth grade?