For many adults, the mere mention of middle school is enough to twist their stomach into knots. Thanks to a combination of pop culture and collective memory, many of us associate the tween years with bullying, moodiness, betrayal, and the (at times) horrifying awkwardness of puberty. Likewise, children who are in the middle school years are often portrayed as the least redeemable members of our society.
While it is true that middle school is a time of rapid mental and physical change, it is not true that the middle school years – or that middle schoolers themselves – have to be unbearable. In reality, adolescence can be an exciting opportunity not only for your children to grow as human beings, but also for your relationship with them to flourish.
The following are a few ways to reframe how we think about the tween years:
Myth #1: Middle schoolers are out of control. In his book Brainstorm: The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain, Daniel J. Siegel claims that adolescence marks a period of incredible intellectual growth. One way to think about this time is to compare it to your child between the ages of 0-5, which was most likely their last period of explosive development. According to Siegel, this growth makes children of this age hungry for new experiences. Unfortunately, at this age, middle schoolers’ judgement and maturity is not yet sharp enough to support this need. Again, it is useful to compare this time to toddlerhood: when your child first started walking, you had to balance giving them freedom and keeping them safe. Unchecked, this curiosity can lead to dangerous activities like experimentation with addictive substances. However, this attitude can also be channeled in a positive direction by feeding this need for new experiences in a constructive way. Help your child sign up for clubs or afterschool activities, take them on trips, and open their eyes to new cultures and ways of being. With some guidance, your child’s curiosity can be seen as an asset, not a liability.
Myth #2: Middle schoolers lose their moral compass. When your child reaches middle school, you may find that their attitude towards you changes significantly. Whereas in elementary school, they have listened intently to your opinions on the world, in middle school, they may start disagreeing with them. While it is never alright to be disrespectful, it is okay for your children to challenge authority. At this age, a key part of identity development is creating a set of values that children will use later in life. Instead of lecturing your child, come at conversations about values from a place of curiosity. Why are they asking these questions? Why do they disagree with you? Not only will this openness foster critical thinking skills, it will also communicate that your kids can trust you – something that will come in handy when they inevitably make mistakes.
Myth #3: Middle schoolers are ruled by hormones / obsessed with popularity. Although puberty certainly alters middle schoolers’ hormonal balance, its not the only thing that accounts for tweens’ changing approaches to relationships. According to Phyllis Fagell, author of Middle School Matters, during adolescence, friendships shift to those determined by proximity to those determined by shared interests and values. This means that during this developmental period relationships – romantic and otherwise – are foremost on children’s minds. An obsession with climbing the social ladder may not be about gaining social capital so much as finding a place in a new emotional landscape. Experimentation with sex may be less about pleasure and more about determining boundaries around intimacy. While it’s important to talk to middle schoolers about the physical and health aspects of sex, it is equally important to explicitly discuss the attributes of healthy relationships, platonic and otherwise.
Myth #4: Middle schoolers no longer want to be around their parents. Although it may seem like your children are pushing you away, in reality, during adolescence, they need you more than ever. However, as they start to assert their independence, their relationship with parents and caregivers – just like all their other relationships – needs to be renegotiated. Do your best to be there for your child, even when it may seem like they don’t want you there. Forgive them when they make a mistake, help them recover from slip ups, and tell them, repeatedly, that you love them.