Helping Your Child Adjust to Middle School

When your child starts middle school, they're faced with all kinds of adjustments, from increased academic pressure, to finding their way to different classes all day long in a bigger building, to shifting relationships with peers. That means they have bigger problems to solve than they did in elementary school.

But they also need a different kind of help from you as their parent, to learn how to manage these challenges. Most of the time, you'll need to refrain from intervening on behalf of your child. This is the time for your child to learn more about how to navigate the world themselves, and about how to be their own advocate. They don't need you to be their snowplow, removing all obstacles. They need to develop the problem-solving skills and resilience to overcome the obstacles they'll face, with you as their advisor rather than their problem-solver.

That means that your child needs you to be their sounding board, so they can blow off steam and sort through options. They need you to ask good questions and help them consider what the results might be if they take various actions. And they need your support to feel comfortable asking for help and to figure out where to go for help for different kinds of problems.

In other words, parenting in the middle school years is more coaching and less direct advocacy. Here are some top tips to coach your child as they face the increased pressures and learning opportunities of this phase of life -- and to make the transition to middle school easier for both of you.

1. More academic pressure.

Middle schoolers have more school work than in earlier years. The work is harder, so it's imperative not to fall behind. And since the assignments are bigger, your student will often need to work on an assignment over time. That makes it harder to stay organized.

You'll want to teach your student these skills:

  • Review assignments after school but before leaving the school building, to be sure you have all the books you need for your work that evening.
  • Use a planner. You as the parent can be helpful in checking in with them for the first month to help them develop a routine to use a planner effectively.
  • Every evening when starting homework, review both short and longterm assignments to set priorities wisely.
  • Develop a relationship with your teachers, so you can see them during office hours or at some other time to ask questions.
  • Become an efficiency expert. Do your best and then let it go. There's no need to be perfect, and no need to obsess.

2. More social pressure

The teenage brain is very oriented toward peers and social standing. Your middle schooler's friend group will change as the kids grow and change. Unfortunately, this is often a time of social drama, since kids this age are developing their identities and part of that process involves looking at others and deciding what they don't want to be. ("I don't want to be like HER!")

Encourage your child to:

  • Take a deep breath and some time before responding to situations that appear to be social slights.
  • Give peers the benefit of the doubt. 
  • Express what they need without passing judgment on anyone else.
  • Before school starts, make an arrangement to travel to school with an old friend, and to eat lunch with an old friend, the first day, or throughout the first week.
  • Look for the opportunity to make new friends at your new school. Extracurricular activities are a great opportunity to get to know other students who share your interests. 
  • Invite classmates for pizza study dates, which gives a low-pressure opportunity to get to know each other while also solidifying learning.

3. More Logistical pressure.

For most kids as they start middle school, it's a new challenge to move from classroom to classroom throughout the day. Discuss with your child the importance of getting to class on time and prepared. Then ask them what might get in their way (chatting with friends, losing track of time, going to their locker for a book they forgot) and help them consider solutions.

Support your child to:

  • Practice opening their combination lock at home so it's easy for them to open their locker quickly.
  • Review their schedule using a map of the building to plan their route. Where is their locker? The closest bathroom? When will they have time to get to each?
  • Get to bed in time to get their essential nine hours of sleep, so they can wake up on time in the morning without an alarm or a parent (except as backup.) If they don't wake on their own, they aren't getting enough sleep.
  • Develop a mindfulness practice to manage stress, like listening to a guided meditation before bedtime to make it easier to fall asleep. 

All of these pressures are learning opportunities for your child, so resist the urge to solve them. Your job is to coach, not to play the game for your child.

Your most important parenting skill at this age is listening without over-reacting or trying to solve the problem for them. Preteens and teens who feel they can talk to their parents are happier and healthier on every measure. If your child can come to you and feel heard -- without you jumping in to tell them what to do -- they will share more with you about what's important to them and the challenges they're facing. That means that both of you will learn more from your ongoing conversations!


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