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How to Survive Middle School: A Parent's Guide

I have a master's degree in social work with a specialization in mental health. I enjoy writing on a wide variety of topics.

If you're wondering how to survive middle school and you're a parent, well you're not alone. The middle school years are the recipe for a perfect storm. Take a sea full of hormonal bodies, immature brains, problems with self-esteem and identity, stuff them into overcrowded schools with hundreds of kids they don’t know, increase the scholastic demands two-fold from elementary school: shake, stir, mix and hope for the best. Some kids will come out just fine, no doubt, but others will find these years to be among the hardest of all. It’s obviously the latter I’m concerned about… my daughter being one of them.

My Own Experience...

Just a little background about my 7th grader… I recently discovered she’s been feigning illness to get out of going to school. She is a painfully shy girl, quite a lot like my introverted husband, and finds it difficult to talk to others. She has “friends”, but it seems they’re the out of convenience type, meaning they’re friends with her if it suits them or if they have nothing better to do. It seemed she had made strides with her friendships over the summer, but once school started they no longer talked to her.

Lunchtime is pure torture for her. The middle school has two lunch periods, separated into the “A” and “B” groups. She’s in the “B” group… where she only has one “friend”. She chose to go sit at the table with the girls she most recognized (she went to elementary school with a few of them), the very table with her one friend. They sit on these long picnic-style benches and there was barely any room left. But, she mustered up her courage to make herself a spot near her friend. No one scooted over for her, she was literally falling off the bench. In her shy manner, she tried to talk to them, but got nothing in return. Her friend didn’t even acknowledge her existence. She ended up taking her lunch into the bathroom and hiding in a stall. It was too painful to keep trying. She stopped eating lunch altogether and just sequestered herself away from it all… in the bathroom, with her feet up on the toilet so no one knew she was there.

I’m so thankful she finally told me what’s going on. I shudder to think what would have become of her if she kept it all a secret. She told me she feels like she’s invisible; she passes her friends in the halls and they won’t even look at her. She’s completely alone… There’s absolutely nothing out of the ordinary about her, either. We all know how superficial and judgmental kids are about appearance, right? She’s beautiful, bright and well-mannered… nothing that would make a child an outcast. But, she’s shy in large groups.

She’s fallen into a depression we are battling every day. To her credit she HAS reached out to a couple of her friends and shared her feelings. She asked her one lunch friend to sit with her, but the response wasn’t quite what she hoped for. The message was basically that she had other friends besides my daughter, too. Ouch, but true.

Being shy in large groups can mean isolation

Being shy in large groups can mean isolation

How to Survive Middle School When Your Child is Struggling

Here are some tips for what YOU as a parent can do.

  • If your middle schooler is having social and/or adjustment issues, immediately talk to their counselor. Do not pass go! The longer the problem goes on, the worse it often gets. Even if you think it’s just temporary, utilize the resources the school has to offer.
  • Listen, listen, listen and then listen some more to your child. Don’t judge. Don’t immediately offer solutions, really HEAR what he or she is saying. If I hadn't listened to my daughter, I would have missed a lot of crucial information.
  • Ask questions and be specific. My daughter would make lots of general statements, like “I just hate that school” or “I don’t ever want to go back there!” Ask questions with the goal of drilling down the reasons and causes in order to identify the problem(s). It took me a while to get to the heart of the problem. I had to ask if anything specific happened, if she could give me examples, etc… This will help both of you identify exactly what the problem is.
  • Choose the times you talk to your child wisely. Just as you don’t feel like getting into what’s bothering you at certain times of the day, neither will your kid. You can, no doubt read them better than anyone, too. As much as you want to know every little detail and nuance about the school day right when the bus pulls up, resist the urge to bombard them with questions.
  • Attempt to come up with solutions together, again this entails asking specific questions like “what would have made X situation better for you?” or “what do you think you could do differently next time that would help?” Obviously, what you ask depends upon your specific situation, but the purpose is to attempt to help your child problem solve. You might be surprised by their intuitive nature.
  • Don’t go into problem-solving overload, think baby steps here. My daughter decided a simple “hi” to a stranger at the lunch table might be all she could muster. I can’t turn her into a social butterfly overnight, after all. But, having her do something small, simple and easy to remember was the best method. Over time you can tag on more challenging behavioral changes. If possible, set them up for success.
  • Come up with creative solutions in the meantime. Lunchtime was just too traumatic for my daughter, so with the help of the school she’s now working in the office during that period. They’re having her deliver packages to classrooms, so she’s getting to know her way around the school better and is “visible”. She enjoys it and feels like she has a place and a function in the school.
  • My daughter didn’t like the idea of going into the counselor’s office during prime-time school hours. She felt embarrassed about needing guidance and extra support. This is normal, of course. Tell the counselor your child needs assistance, but ask that the meetings occur either before school starts or at the end of the day. My daughter wouldn’t accept help any other way.
  • Get help outside the school environment, if necessary. When our children are unhappy, so are we as parents. It affects the entire family unit. In order to best support our daughter, we needed to get help ourselves. Now we are working with the school and with a therapist outside the school. It’s very hard to get perspective on issues involving our beloved children. I don’t know about you, but there’s nothing that affects me more than when my children are hurt. It injures me to my very core so much that I found myself absolutely paralyzed. We all needed an outside, unbiased and professional opinion to make proper choices.
  • Use your “village”. I am lucky to have a very supportive network of friends who know my children (I have three). My friends have offered to become involved in my middle schooler’s life and it’s made a difference. We don’t have family in town, so they are much like an Aunt would be to her. She talks to them, takes advice from them that she wouldn’t from us. Plus, she has other go-to adults when she needs them.
  • Keep the open communication open even after things appear to be better. Embarrassment and shame can keep your child from talking to you. Make sure to continually check in with him or her, even if you’re convinced the problem is solved.
  • Get your child involved in activities outside the school. Allowing her to avoid having all her eggs in one “social” basket is extremely helpful. Friendships often develop naturally through team sports, for example.
  • Also get your child involved in extracurricular school activities. Being part of the yearbook committee, for example is a great way to help her feel like a part of a team and a member of the school community. It’s also an opportunity for her to meet new friends.
  • Get involved in the school yourself! This is huge, parents. Not only does it set a great example for your children, but it also shows them you’re interested in the happenings of their school. And, as a huge perk, it allows you to get to know the members of the school community; the parents, teachers and students alike. It will likely get them involved as well and provide opportunities for them to meet students they normally wouldn’t.

Hang in There!

It all seems so overwhelming, doesn’t it? In fact, I’ve been known to say “I just wasn’t ready to go through middle school again!” I wish I could magically give her the knowledge I’ve gained over these past 44 years of my life and convince her other kid’s opinions really don’t matter, but alas I cannot. Because for now, her peer group is the most influential one in her life… God forbid, but it’s true. In the meantime, I can only be there for her, literally drag her body to school every day, reach out for help and keep my ears open and my mind non-judgmental. I know that keeping the lines of communication open now will make all the difference later, in high school when the stakes are even higher.


lhale from Georgia on September 29, 2011:

I was a media specialist in a middle school for awhile. It is the worst possible age. Those kids go through so much, and put each other through so much. One question. Does your daughter go to a church that has an active youth group. My experience teaching Sunday Bible study for young people, is that they are a more accepting group than actual school can be. If she could be active in a group where helping others and reaching out were more acceptable?? Maybe that would help? Good luck!

PeanutButterWine from North Vancouver, B.C. Canada on September 29, 2011:

heartbreaking! Children are so vicious without even realizing it sometimes. I also had a terrible time in junior high, how can you not? Suddenly you are in a school three times the size of your last and you are all small fish in a big pond now, sharks are circling.. its too easy to get left behind! I want to just give your daughter a big hug... sounds like you are doing all the right things, she is lucky to have such a wonderful parent!

TinaAtHome from California on September 28, 2011:

My children never had problems like this. I homschooled them through elementary and middle school. They had adult supervision all the time and good self esteem.

It is not socializing children to throw them into an environment where they are not accepted to the point of them having problems with depression.

I only wish I'd homeschooled through high school too.

Elsie Nelson (author) from Pacific Northwest, USA on September 20, 2011:

Thanks so much, Talia. It sounds like you're off to a great start with instilling the right values in your children. That's all you can do, really. Good for your son, by the way!

Kids can be so cruel, I am sometimes just appalled by their behavior. But, unfortunately the middle school years are just an unfortunate rite of passage.

Thanks again for reading and commenting!

Talia J from Australia on September 20, 2011:

Wow I read every single word of that, and it broke my heart. I feel for your daughter so, so much. My boy starts school next year (well, kindy, he will be 4) and I think often about how I will cope if he is in the same situation.

I was teased at school because I was so different, I guess I was one of the first emo's 15 years ago! Anyway, it is so true, what they say means nothing in the grand scheme of things, but you can't be told that at the time. I am glad it happened the way it did for me because it gave me a sense of humour to deal with the humour-less people in life.

I would HATE lunchtime too, just trying to find somewhere to fit in. I was never teased by the girls, just the boys. The girls wouldn't dare haha. But girls can be AWFUL!!!

I am trying to raise my children with compassion and understanding. A few weeks ago my son chased a bully who pushed a kid over at a party. My son is tiny and this bully was huge...then my son went over and hugged the boy who was pushed. I was so proud. I hope school doesn't change him too much.

I wish you and your daughter the best. Great hub, voted UP, useful, beautiful and interesting :)

Elsie Nelson (author) from Pacific Northwest, USA on September 15, 2011:

Oh my... Scarlett and Chris, thanks to you both for your suggestions and kindness. It has been a rough year, no doubt. Scarlett it sounds like you know just how she feels... lunch is the worst part of the day for her. But, she's now found a place delivering packages to classrooms for the office and it's been really good for her self-esteem. I totally agree about being really involved with kids and their schools.

Chris, you have a unique perspective, no doubt. I like your suggestion about having her help others. Fortunately, she's kind by nature. I'll make that suggestion to her. For now, she's definitely not involved in any drama, and for that I'm grateful. I will bear in mind your offer to be a sounding board, I really appreciate that. I knew it would be tough, just not THIS tough.

Thanks again to you both!

ChrisLincoln from Orange (or Lemon...) County, California on September 15, 2011:


As a (former) middle school principal I commend you for your excellent response and careful approach to such a delicate issue. Thank goodness that your daughter spoke to you - what a huge thing for the both of you.

I have one piece of advice, or rather a strategy that might help your daughter.

First, she may feel invisible, but the truth is that everyone observes everyone else, they really are noticing, and the good news is their reactions are not actively negative. No reaction is actually better!

Second, knowing that the seventh grade are very tuned into each other, she can use that knowledge. Being shy can be a terrible handicap, but perhaps she can muster enough courage to help someone? Look for an opportunity, no matter how small, and offer a kindness. Open or hold a door for a heavily laden colleague, or anything like that. No words need to be used, a simple smile and a nod will do just as well. It shows you care and that you are a nice person. It will be noticed.

Sounds simple - but I have seen this work many, many times. The small steps matter. If your daughter can do this she goes from "the shy girl" to "the shy girl who seems nice".

The kicker is, in seventh grade no one ever feels confident about how others feel about them, and later on, as the dramas swirl around, everyone starts to seek out the "nice girls" because they are low pressure/low drama to be around. Shy or not, others will want to be around her.

I wish your daughter luck and strength, and do not hesitate to email me if I can be of help or a sounding board.


Scarlett My Dear from Missouri on September 15, 2011:

Great suggestions, WordScribe! Well said!

7th grade was the beginning of a very painful school experience for me as well. I entered into middle school with a history of poor self-esteem that went unnoticed, due mainly to the shy smile I wore on my face to cover my insecurities. The lunchroom was *the* place I avoided by skipping lunch every day and sneaking a sandwich into the library to read.

My grades suffered as I suffered. My social life suffered as I suffered. I felt utterly alone and invisible.

I am now the mother of three children, 17, 15 and 13. Somewhere in my early twenties, I found *me* again.

I recognized the struggles my kids would face throughout their school careers and made their happiness my priority. Simply put ~ I Showed Up.

I volunteered in their class parties and school events as often as I could in elementary school. I made every effort to know their friends and who they were hanging out with over the summer and on the school playground. I encouraged them to choose friends who treated them with respect, always. I knew if they were to be well-rounded, fulfilled, happy kids they would need to learn and develop their own self-respect.

The more involved your children are in their school career the happier they and their entire family will be. It's a busy life ~ raising kids. I know. Finding and maintaining balance as we run from baseball, soccer, football and track to attending the school play our kids worked on, or the Science Olympiad competition they took part in, or the numerous before and after school meetings they attend or volunteer for, such as Student Council, Drug Awareness, Special Olympics, Drama Club, Varsity Club, Art Club, Photography Club, Outdoor Club...

The list never ends! But, there are kids and their parents in many of those groups who are looking for the same thing ~ Developing lifelong friendships with people who want to make a difference.

I wish we could always protect our children's, often precarious, if not delicate self-esteem. Growing up is difficult and necessary, but it shouldn't be torture.

So good to see your daughter has you on her side.