Yellow highlighter circling the words Middle school is a time of incredible exposure. Young people between the ages of 10-14 undergo seismic shifts in their relationships and self-concept all under the watchful eyes of their equally vulnerable peers. For the first time in their lives, middle schoolers may feel their confidence and self-worth slip away.

It is natural for your tween to go through periods of self-doubt. As a result, their instinct may be to push you away. However, there are some steps you can take to help middle schoolers build (back) their sense of self and to foster a climate of self-acceptance in your home and beyond. The following strategies help young people realize that they are worthy and they are loved, no matter how much they change, or how many mistakes they make along the way:

Focus on emotion, not achievement

In her book Middle School Matters, Phyllis Fagell suggests that one way to move your child away from a perfectionist mindset is to focus on how a specific activity makes them feel, rather than what they gain from it. Instead of praising your child for winning first in a swim meet, you might say, “You worked so hard for this – and it seems like you had so much fun doing it!” Instead of praising your child for getting an A on a math test, say, “My favorite thing about this is that you really enjoyed learning these concepts. I think you might be a future mathematician.” In short, focus on the process, not the product.

Mother playing soccer with a group of middle school age childrenAsk your child to teach you a game, a skill, or something else they know.

It is important for children to know that in their home, you are the expert who is in control, and steering the (metaphorical) ship. But it’s also important for your child to recognize that as they grow, you can learn from them. Ask them to teach you something they know and reinforce how proud you are of the work it took to get to the point where they are the expert.

Critique all types of media

In The Opposite of Spoiled, Ron Lieber suggests teaching children media literacy by talking back to advertisements. Although he does this in the service of financial literacy, it can also be used to help young people identify unfair expectations. How, for example, does media convey flawed ideas about femininity and masculinity? Why are people of color absent from certain types of stories, and present in others? Helping your child articulate these subconscious messages will not only foster their critical thinking, it will also help them recognize when their expectations for themselves are based on their own values and desires, rather than the dictates of society.

Compliment them using description

In How to Talk So Teens Will Listen and Listen So Teens Will Talk, Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish dedicate an entire chapter to complimenting teenagers. In it, they recommend prioritizing detailed descriptions over generalizations. For example, instead of saying, “You’re such a good dancer!” You might say, “I really appreciated how your body has become so much more powerful and flexible. You really excelled on those leaps!” Descriptions feel more genuine, and therefore easier for people of all ages to both accept, and to believe.

Do the work you need to accept your child

Today’s generation of young people have access to vocabulary and theoretical frameworks that many of us lacked growing up. For example, there are words for various types of sexualities beyond straight and queer, and more than two genders. We, as parents, may have mental blocks surrounding these words and concepts – sometimes to the point that we don’t even believe what our child says. It is important to remember that it is our responsibility to meet our children where they are, and to educate ourselves about the issues that face them. Read a book, see a therapist, seek out fellow parents as allies – in short, do the work you need to do to understand where your child is coming from, and to support them unconditionally.


Mathangi Subramanian, Ed.D., believes stories have the power to change the world. Her middle grades book, Dear Mrs. Naidu, won the South Asia Book Award, and her picture book A Butterfly Smile was inducted into the Nobel Museum by Laureate Dr. Esther Duflo. Her novel A People’s History of Heaven was longlisted for the PEN/Faulkner award, a finalist for the LAMBDA literary award, and named a Skipping Stones Honors Book. A former public school teacher, senior policy analyst at the New York City Council, and Fulbright Scholar, she currently consults for Sesame Workshop. She holds a doctorate in education from Columbia Teachers College.