Middle school, maybe some parents have the same feeling, yesterday your child was still clinched and relying on you, but today they have become indifferent and cool; your son/daughter even keeps a distance and refuses a hug with you.
A while ago, John and I had a weekly “movie night” on weekends. Each of us took turns to choose the movie we wanted to watch and it was the tradition between my son and me that we accompanied each other and enjoyed the same movie. We sat on the floor together. Sometimes I did some baking during our movie time, so we could watch the movie enjoy some fresh-baked snacks or cookies. I still can remember that scene in my memory.
I watched all the “Harry Potters” and lots of “Marvel Studio’s” movies such as Iron man2, Captain America, the Avengers, Infinity War, Endgame, etc as those were John’s choices.
On the other side, John watched lots of classic good movies with me such as Homeless to Harvard, Pursuit of Happiness, The Social Network, Steve Jobs, Lee Chong Wei, Dangal, as those were my choices to watch.
But suddenly our movie night paused there; John did not want to continue the movie night anymore. Until one day I realized maybe it was because John had entered the “teenage” era so it’s not a cool way to spend weekends watching a movie with mom. He’d rather watch a movie by himself.
I imagined if I could draw a cartoon, the cartoon picture would be like this: my son is wearing headphones, sitting in front of his computer and focusing on the game during the weekend. I as the mom, peeking at him, ask him whether he wants to watch a movie with me together as I have a list of movies that I want to watch with him, but John says no. Then I silently walk away in sadness.
I know, John is not that small boy who is waiting for me coming home from work every day. John used to run to me and in a sweet voice call “Mama”. It made me feel glad. Now, he is a teenager, who always wears his headphones, and sets an invisible shield between us. Congratulations, I have a teenage son; lots of things will change.
According to the book “Middle School Matters“, lots of parents will moan when talking about their teenagers. I had some preparation for becoming mom of a teenager, but the time arrived sooner than I expected.
John’s voice had changed during puberty; his voice is low and thicker now. John’s height changed a lot as well; he used to look up to me and my husband. Now he is taller than me and almost reaches his father’s height. Despite the appearance change, the biggest change is his behavior.
He used to be naughty and sticky and was around us; we played Monopoly, cards or chess during weekends at home; now he seems independent. He seems even not to need our presence most times and rather wants to be left alone.
That’s it, teenager, as middle schoolers. I found lots of answers in the book and now I want to unpack them through my blog:
1. What is the big deal about middle school?
Firstly, they are in their second incredible growth phase, other than the rapid growth between birth and age two. They have changed physically, intellectually, morally, socially and emotionally. “Their brain development is at a heightened pace, their ability to experience emotions is very high and they begin to imagine themselves an independent being.” (chapter 1)
No matter how much they seem to grow in appearance, they still are in the age of early adolescence and the brain’s handling and processing of decisions is still developing.
As they are undergoing puberty, hormones change a lot so they easily get moody, have self-doubt, are more sensitive and less self-assured; Sometimes John felt I always talked about him with my friends because he became very sensitive and felt be judged.
In this period, parents can see two versions of their children in the same teenager. One seems to be excited, wide-opened, motivated and curious. Another version is moody, unstable. The book mentioned that “on different days, the same kid may present as thirteen or thirty”.
Secondly, there are a few key skills which need to be developed in middle school which include: Make good friend choices; handle conflict, take ownership of homework and grades and create homework and organization systems, consider other’s perspective, self-advocate and self regulate emotions, as well as make responsible, healthy and ethical choices.
As parents, we need to realize the gap between our expectations and who the kids are to reduce struggles; it’s not an age when parents can control a lot, but parents still need to set the expectations and boundaries.
2. Make responsible, healthy, and ethical choices
The current middle -schooler’s are called i-generation, as they are born with access to the internet. They are the first generation who has been exposed to lots of contents including dark information without age restriction. This generation has a higher skill to hack those monitoring tools to anti monitoring. They simply type in Google “how to get out of parents’ control on screentime” and there are lots of easy tutorials to teach them how to unlock parent’s monitoring. John had unlocked it even before becoming a teen. Parents, unless they are software or hardware engineers who are skilled at fixing settings for their children, can hardly control the technology.
It is the first generation to live in an era with, on the one hand, the internet content which has free speech and, on the other hand, the government hasn’t had a chance to work on revising the regulations, especially for teens. Lots of kids fall into the trap of being addicted to online things such as online games.
This i-generation has a higher mental illness rate and suicide rate which is attributed to unregulated online and unfiltered contents, which is beyond their comprehension.
They are still in the process of developing, and the judgmental area of the brain is far from being developed until age 25. We don’t assume they can problem-solve like adults. Lots of smart kids can do stupid things because they have limited life experience but mood swings. And in fact, they still need parents more than ever with safety nets and guidance, although they pretend they don’t need adults.
They don’t know online there are lots of dangerous traps such as predators and stalkers. There are suicide games, which just target the teenagers, who like to take risks but lack life experience. To the bad guys, this group is a group easy to be trapped.
On the other side, enough sleep hours will guarantee the decision making, problem-solving and emotion controlling abilities; Kids will tend to suffer from depression if they lack sleep. Teens need 8 to 10 hours of sleep every night. Some teens tend to stay up late at night as more parents sleep late.
Trust and freedom are earned, they need to learn to make good choices. We need to tell kids that trust and freedom are earned, but not given. Parents need to be consistent and give them a sense of purpose.
Teens are often frustrated that sometimes parents don’t trust them. I have told John that young people need to earn credibility and trust.
Lying is about short-term gratification. If a child is lying, parents need to dig deeper. Is he trying to please you and avoid making you mad? Is it because your child will be afraid of punishment if they tell the truth?
As parents, we need to make sure family is the safest place for them to communicate and parents need to be fair, nonjudgmental, nonreactive and stay calm if we hear something unexpected; Parents don’t need to catch them telling a lie but give them a runway to tell the truth instead. The family should be a place for kids to talk about anything and expect mistakes. Let them know the truth will come out in their way. Reliable people will get rewarded.
3. Encourage kindness and empathy
Encourage kids to be kind and empathetic. Don’t be mean and don’t bully. Ask them to step into other shoes if they try to bully another kid.
Kind kids receive more friendship and more support and they are usually happier and mentally healthier.
Of course, kids don’t need to be friends with everyone, but they at least need to be polite and nonjudgmental with all people.
If they are the ones who have been bullied, tell them that life has lots of changes and this chapter will be over and it’s just a small chapter in their whole life. Encourage them to open up and again, make the family as a safe place for them to talk about anything.
I used to watch a TV series “13 Reasons Why”. it’s about a story of a middle schooler who committed suicide after she experienced peer bullies. She did not tell her parents or ask for any help. Her parents were shocked to see that their daughter died at home and even more shocked to know about the 13 bullying incidents which happened to their daughter.
If teens feel stressed, they can try a mindful program, which is to only focus on the one thing that bothers them and unpack it, and repack it until they are brave enough to get through it. Meditation is also a way to be conscious of their actions. As parents, we shall encourage them to be their personal best. Parents can also share personal stories when they were in similar situations.
4. Mirrors and windows
Role models play an important part for kids to see themselves in their current situation and future situations.
People cannot be rational all the time; even celebrities made mistakes or some of them had failures in the past. Help kids to realize that success is not a jump but based on lots of experiments and failures.
Sports in a team environment, volunteering, creative writing, or any kind of activities help and guide them with the sense of purpose in their life. If they encounter difficulties, ask them what their role model would do at this time.
5. High-quality friends & backup adults
Needless to say, friends play a more important role as kids become more social. They want to be accepted, liked and they fear missing out. Kids are more likely to stick to a project if their friends are doing the same.
John is not a basketball fan as he played badminton for years, but he asked to enroll in a basketball winter camp one day simply because his best friend invited him to.
According to the book, friendship does shift a lot during middle school. A very small percentage remain as good friends from grade 9 to grade 10. It is said that kids make friends based on their proximity but when they grow up, they will make friends based on similarity.
6. Rough moments with parents
Everyone knows there are rough moments to raise a middle schooler. It is suggested to tap extra support such as backup aunts, older cousins, or close friends. The kids may be more receptive to life lessons from people who are not their parents.
My mentor used to joke with me that one day her son came back and said the neighbor told him not to cross the road due to safety issues. My mentor replied that this was the same thing she had repeated almost 10 times. Her son did not take it seriously from her but their neighbor’s suggestion.
7. Pros and cons of technology
The I-generation, those who were born after 1995, are exposed to social media as teens. Parents need to guide them to stay safe by using technology. Don’t follow friends that they don’t know, don’t make online comments that make people uncomfortable.
The book mentioned several large surveys on teen’s usage of smartphones. It is mentioned that those who spend 5-7 hours online are more likely to have a suicide risk factor; those who spent 10 or more hours a week on social media are 56% more likely to be unhappy; kids who spent an above average amount of time with peers in person are 20% less likely to say they are unhappy; a study by the National Institute Health Researchers found that seven hours a day of screen time changes how adolescents’ brains develop.
It is recommended to limit technology use to less than 2 hours a day; encourage them to engage with people, whether it is playing a sport, playing a board game, joining a club, or being a volunteer.
8. Setting reasonable expectations
Praise your child for something specific such as problem-solving, or critical thinking by fighting their own battles instead of praising them to get a grade 97.
Success is measured over a lifetime, not by a semester. The ability to be independent thinking, problem-solving, self –advocating or handle conflicts are more important than test results. Don’t only celebrate their A’s and expect them to always have A. Tell them parents love is unconditional even if they didn’t get an A. Tell them to do their own best is the highest achievement they can make.
Tell them that making mistakes is ok but do it differently next time.
9. Connecting with them to help them connect with others
According to the book, teens, especially boys have powerful feelings. Parents may feel they prefer to be disengaged; in fact, boys have richer inner lives; they care about loyalty, friendship and protect people they love.
Some boys don’t know how to express themselves or how to communicate; parents need to guide them to express their feelings. When boys are silent, that means parents need to communicate with them differently as teenagers.
Leverage some quality time such as during car rides, dinnertime, to talk about things. Parents can be creative such as putting a pad on the kitchen to communicate with their teen. I use text to communicate with John
10. Handling risks, a world of unknowns and manage stress
The world has lots of unknowns and risks as well as excitement in teenagers’ eyes. Parents need to tell them the safety rules and set clear boundaries regarding safety and morality. Parents can set a unique code if the kid wants to leave a party but doesn’t want the peers to know it.
Middle school can be kind of a mess. Everyone seems to know what they’re doing, but no one does. Parents also need to expect a fair amount of moodiness from kids at this age.
Middle schoolers are sensitive, experience self-doubt and have a stew of mixed emotions. Parents need to make it clear that whatever happens, parents are there for them.
Parents can teach them lots of stress management strategies, such as exercise, listening to music, reading a book, writing, singing or watching a movie, etc
Mindfulness and meditation are also very useful to take a break from the current situation. There are some other ways such as blowing their anger into a bubble or kneading pizza dough.
Let them release their feelings in any way they want. Kids at this age cannot articulate their pain as they are less mature and don’t know how to recognize the signs.