When your child shifts from an elementary age child to a pubescent middle schooler, it can catch you off guard.
The shoes you just bought him don’t fit three months later. A potent body odor takes over the house and no amount of bleach can kill. Simple instructions, such as, “Turn off your bedroom light” are answered with the kind of sigh and eye roll that make you question why you wanted children in the first place.
After polling my circle of influence, mothers who weathered the middle school years with minimal scarring agree that eighth grade, when their children were 13 and 14 years old, was the hardest. As someone who’s smack dab in the middle of that world, I raise my hand to testify, “Girl, yes.”
It isn’t all bad.
In between the eye rolls and arguments are glimmers of maturity that show me who my son is becoming. I enjoy the in-depth conversations he and I have, particularly when we get one-on-one time. I adore his budding sense of humor, with its impeccable timing and wit. I appreciate his effort to save money for a car and consider how some of the decisions he makes now will affect who he becomes in the future.
And yet, studies show that puberty and toddlerhood are strangely similar with their tantrums and crying fits, and inability to resist temptations. In a 2016 article in Psychology Today, it was reported that moms experience the least amount of parenting satisfaction during the middle school years. While the ups and downs run parallel, timeouts aren’t enough when it comes to parenting a middle schooler.
Here are five tools you need in your tool bag:
1. Support system of like-minded parents
If you and your baby co-slept, it’s likely you didn’t seek sleep advice from moms who believed in sleep training. The same is true for parenting middle schoolers. If you’re looking to set boundaries for your young teen, then you need to crowdsource advice from parents who have the same standards as you. Trust me when I say this is tricky because there is no shortage of areas over which you and your child will clash. From movies, music, and video games, to sleepovers, food, and finances, your child is looking for permission. Lots of permission. Where you draw a line in the sand isn’t where everyone else draws a line, so you need one or two moms from whom you can seek advice and trust you’re getting a point of view that aligns with your family’s values.
For several years, while his pre-teen friends were playing first-person shooter video games, our son wasn’t allowed. That did not prevent him from continually asking. It wasn’t until late last year, when he was 13 years old, that we relented and allowed him to play a Star Wars game that put him in the position of a Jedi, a Stormtrooper, or some other character. As far as realistic war games go, the answer to that is still no.
He continues to ask, and, to his chagrin, we continue to reiterate our family rules. Likewise, he doesn’t have free reign over internet searches and television channels. We’ve drawn a line in the sand with these matters and it will be a while longer until those boundaries ease.
Admittedly, it’s tempting to lift those sanctions, particularly when other parents accuse us of sheltering our kids. Yet, I know our boundaries are set for a reason, and at the end of the day, I know we’re doing what’s right for our family. Take courage that your family’s boundaries are best for you.
3. A good memory
If there are people who had a fabulous middle school experience with little to no emotional struggle, I haven’t met them. Instead, most middle school memories are fraught with friend drama, embarrassing school photos, and ongoing discomfort with their growing bodies. After long summers, students returned to discover that some hit puberty and some were still waiting. It was painful either way.
As parents, we know the awkwardness of middle school eventually subsides, but to the pre-teen and teen in the active throes of grappling with comparison, jealousy, and hormone-induced anger, it’s hard to see past the despair of the moment. The weight of being excluded from a friend group is earth-shattering. Being teased for your appearance is unbearable. Acne is a death sentence.
Instead of lecturing, “It’s not a big deal,” remember how big these matters felt when you were twelve, thirteen, and fourteen. Be compassionate, and be patient.
4. Raised expectations
While we know our middle schoolers are struggling through an era of changes, it doesn’t mean we let them off the hook. Not only should we still expect them to keep their rooms tidy, complete their school work, and mind their manners, we should raise the bar. After all, we’re raising adults, and that means putting more on their plate to help them prepare for life after they leave the nest. Their list of household chores should reflect their ability to contribute to the flow of daily life. Washing dishes, cleaning bathrooms, running the vacuum, mowing the lawn — the list goes on. Middle school is the ideal time to teach our kids how to do their own laundry and make a few simple meals without our help.
5. Mr. Clean’s Magic Eraser
You think I’m kidding.
There’s something about the mismatched lanky arms and legs of a growing middle schooler that increases the smudges and scrapes on the wall. They come by it honestly. They bump into things, break things, leave dirt everywhere, and I wholeheartedly believe they don’t see much of the mess they leave behind. While we must make an effort to help our young people be self-aware and (mostly) clean, the messes get bigger and the bathtubs get dirtier. You’re gonna need a Magic Eraser. Just teach them how to use it.