How to Survive Middle School: A Parents Guide
If you're wondering how to survive middle school and you're a parent, well you're not alone. The middle school years are tantamount to 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.
Lunch-time 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.
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 his or her 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 wouldn’t have 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, nor will your kid. You can, no doubt read him or her 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 him or her 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. Lunch time 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.