One of the best things that happened to me in my early educational career was that I only had to go to Middle School (or Jr. High as it was known back then) for two years - not the typical three years. I spent a hellish 6th and 7th grade at the Middle School in my home town and then our 8th grade class became the first class to start the 8th grade year in the High School. Woo hoo!
If you were anything like the Middle School version of me, then 6th and 7th grade probably were awful for you too. You couldn't pay me enough money to relive those years: the constant physical, mental, social and emotional changes; teasing, bullying and general drama; boyfriend/girlfriend issues; and overall awkwardness. I'm fairly certain that 8th grade me flipped my Middle School the bird and yelled "Peace Out!" on my last day in that nightmarish period of my life. When they knocked the building down a few years ago, I felt no sadness. None at all.
Thank God we don't have to ever relive those years.
I have come to realize over the past few months that we never really do leave Middle School for good. For those of us that become parents and get to experience the super awesomeness of parenting tweens and teens, it's like going straight back to Middle School. It's like a time machine that sends you back to the worst period of your life. Totally cool.
Middle School is no different the second time around. Actually, I think it might be worse the second time around. Instead of ME being the target and the one going through all of the changes, drama and awkwardness, it's my child going through it and I feel it all. All of it. When he gets made fun of, I feel it. When he struggles with complex emotions and difficult decisions, I'm there with him. When his heart gets broken, so too does mine. (The psychotherapist in me wonders if maybe this means I'm too connected to him. Probably. But, I'm still standing on The Bridge. I need a little more time.)
So, aside from diving head first into a nice bottle of red and some Netflix bingeing, here are some tips to help you survive your second go round with Middle School:
1. Monitor screen time
Today's tweens and teens are growing up in a society where there is instant gratification and complete interconnectedness. While these technological advancements can be exciting and certainly quite useful, they also make it a bit of a challenge for social skill development. Monitor your children's use of social media. Read their texts, tweets and posts. Tweens and teens have become very skilled at bullying over social media and their parents often have no idea that it is happening. Spend some time researching secret apps that teens are using now. In this instance, Google is your friend.
2. Create space for honesty
It's fairly unlikely that your 12 year old is going to come home from school everyday and pour his heart out to you. But, you can consistently send your children the message that you are there for them. You want to hear them. You want to support them. Sometimes the end of the day/bedtime is a good place for these conversations to take place organically. Sometimes, though, it's places like the car where tweens and teens open up with their parents. Something about staring straight ahead at the road and not into their parent's eyes seems to make them more comfortable. So, make some time to just drive around and see what comes up in conversation.
3. Model appropriate behavior
Full disclosure here. Adults acting like Middle School students is one of my pet peeves. It's hard to explain how wrong bullying and teasing is to our children when so many adults in their lives have themselves become skilled at bullying others on social media. Think twice before posting that passive aggressive meme about a peer. Would you condone your child posting such a meme about his peer right now? How would you feel if someone posted it about your child? Watch how you talk about other parents and peers in front of your children. They pick up on way more than you think.
4. Think twice before getting involved
There are many times when I want to march myself into my children's school, bus or sports teams and give one of their peers a piece of my mind or sit them down and mediate a discussion for them. In the vast majority of those situations, getting involved would only be about me and wouldn't do anything to help my children or their peers learn how to successfully and responsibly handle conflict. Take a step back and let your tween and teen figure it out. Role play scenarios and conversations with them and support their efforts to problem solve on their own. And, of course, advocate when needed and consult with other parents when able to do so.
When all else fails and you find yourself cursing these Middle School experiences, take a deep breath and remember that this is temporary. Before we know it, they'll be out of Middle School (and we'll be out of Middle School again too!) and they'll be young women and men. Just as quickly as they went from being helpless babies and toddlers to tweens and teens with their own personalities and lives, they'll be out of our house. So, even though it just plain stinks at times (literally and figuratively if you have boys), lean into the discomfort of these times and be grateful that they let us come along for the ride.
P.S. In case you were wondering, we get to experience Middle School one more time in life - when we become residents in nursing homes and long term care settings. Oh boy. It's Middle School all over again. But, that's a whole other Oprah...
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