For many kids, the transition to middle school couldn’t come at a worse time. Just as your child is wrestling with their own roller coaster emotions, just as they are struggling to understand and accept the physical changes in their body — all of which make them alternately distracted, forgetful, anxious, self-conscious, and argumentative — everything about the school day is changing too.
While most children look forward to these years and don’t spiral into emotional turmoil, that doesn’t mean it’s always smooth sailing. By staying involved in your child’s life, you can anticipate difficulties and be better equipped to help them roll with the punches. Here, three common challenges middle schoolers face, plus ways you can help your child meet them:
1. They have a different teacher for each subject.
Instead of the supportive setting of elementary school where they had just one teacher who challenged their strengths and understood their weaknesses, they now have several teachers, each with his or her own teaching style and expectations.
What you can do now:
- Most schools offer tours for prospective students in the late spring. Take advantage of that time to visit with your child so they can meet some of the teachers, hear how the day is structured, and learn the layout of the school so that they at least know how to find their locker, homeroom, and the cafeteria.
- Meet your child’s advisor. Many middle schools assign an advisor, or counselor, to every student (or one for the entire grade). That person, who should be steeped in the developmental needs of early adolescence, acts as mentor, troubleshooter, and advocate.
2. Friendships shift.
At the same time that your child is going through puberty and wrestling with changes in their body and swirling moods, they are trying to figure out who’s in, who’s out, and where they stand on the social ladder. If they are attending a new school, they may be sharing a lunch table with youngsters from one or more elementary schools — kids they may not know and who don’t know them.
What you can do now:
- Help your child manage his stress by making sure they eat right, exercises regularly, and gets enough sleep. Show them how deep breathing, visualization, or yoga can help relax.
- Remain approachable. Encourage your child to open up about what’s going on in school — but don’t interrogate, and give advice only when asked. Your goal is to keep them talking so they realize they can count on you.
- Bolster social skills. If your child says they have no friends, help them find new ways to get to know classmates better. Replace “No one likes me” with “I’ll be a better listener” or “I’ll invite someone to the basketball game this weekend.” Some children miss social cues and could benefit from professional counseling to become more aware of the way their words and behavior affect others.
3. They are hard on themselves.
Perhaps they are distracted, irritable, and don’t even try — and their grades show it. Perhaps they are confused by the subject matter or, on the other hand, not challenged enough. Or perhaps they are stuck in a rut of low self-esteem.
What you can do now:
- Don’t overreact. Remind yourself that your child’s behavior is not unusual. Empathize with their frustrations (remind them of some of your own school difficulties). Of course, chronic lateness or forgetfulness or consistently low grades may also be a sign of a deeper learning or motivational issue. If your child continues to struggle, schedule a conference with the teacher so you can figure out what steps to take.
- Help silence their inner critic — the little voice that tells negative things. The child who doesn’t feel good about their self will have a hard time doing well academically. To oust negative thoughts that keep them stuck, role-play how to substitute positive messages. If they say, “I can’t do anything right,” suggest that they say: “Mistakes are a chance to learn. I’ll ask the teacher for help and do my best.”
- Maintain family traditions and rituals — especially family dinners. Your tween may sit silently, but these little events will add to their sense of security and remind them of how much they are loved. Middle schoolers take a lot of hard knocks and need to know their parents are on their side when they get home. That alone can help keep your child on course.