New parents get all the sympathy. Everyone is ready to commiserate over the sleepless nights, dirty diapers and crush of responsibility that come with the birth of a child. Our babies, after all, need our 24/7 attention and care.
Parents of middle schoolers, on the other hand, don’t get much more than a grimace from those of us who have survived that stage in our kids’ lives. We roll our eyes and exclaim, “Ugh, what an age!” Yet children in middle school need us every bit as much as they did when they were babies. Academics are suddenly tougher, hormones are kicking in and social media connects them with up-to-the-minute peer pressure and broadcasts their every flaw.
What’s Going On
The middle-school transformation starts in the brain. “The primary thing we see is the shift from thinking concretely to being able to think abstractly and being able to use logical reasoning,” says Sheri Atwater, Ph.D., who directs the school counseling program in the School of Education at Loyola Marymount University.
These changes, part of what experts call “executive functioning,” help us plan, problem solve and think about abstract concepts such as justice, love or fear. “But these skills are just beginning,” says Atwater, explaining that they won’t be fully developed until around age 25. “They’re able to use those skills, but not always.”
Physical and emotional changes are also taking place. “The hormone machine really gets turned on during puberty,” says sexual and reproductive health educator Tracy Wallace, MPH. “It’s really the beginning of their experience of seeing the world through a more sexual lens.” That means kids start to experience first crushes, first kisses and first touches – most fairly innocent – at this time.
Social media adds to this mix by connecting kids in middle school, who are just beginning to use these tools, with peers and the world at large, giving them a new level of digital independence. “It usually starts in sixth or seventh grade,” says Yalda T. Uhls, child psychologist and author of “Media Moms and Digital Dads.” This is about the age where everyone’s friends start getting smartphones and setting up Facebook, Musi.cally, Twitter, SnapChat and Instagram accounts. “They’re into the phase of individuating and caring a lot about their peers,” Uhls says.
If these changes are jarring and scary for you, imagine how they must feel to your child. Your first step in supporting them through this time should be to open the lines of communication.
The toughest piece of this for many parents is the sex part. “I think parents didn’t have somebody making this a natural conversation to have during their upbringing,” Wallace says, adding that many of today’s parents experienced all their sex education at school, where boys and girls were led into separate rooms to watch a filmstrip.
“There was this dread and fear and shame around it.”
And while parenting books and websites offer lots of information about good nutrition, fitness, child development and safety, “there’s just not a great emphasis on how to talk to your kids about their sexual development,” says Wallace, who founded “Can We Talk Health Ed” (www.canwetalkhealthed.com) to help parents and kids discuss these subjects.
Another topic of conversation should be social media and device rules, which Uhls suggests putting into a family contract. It should cover:
- where the device will be charged,
- device-free time and
- rules for downloading new apps and setting up new social media accounts.
If your child hasn’t started middle school yet, preparing them for the shift in academics is also a good idea. “It is harder to study for six different teachers and match their expectations,” says Atwater. “It’s harder to plan and organize.” Explain that a big change is coming and that it’s normal to need some time to adjust. Then, carve out time each week to check in with your child about school.
Birds and Bees
Not all of these conversations have to be pre-planned. Start to talk about your child’s sexual development by finding teachable moments in television shows, movies, advertising and news events. “Use that as your way in,” says Wallace. If a character on a show has a crush on someone or a date rape case is in the news, bring that up and discuss.
Don’t beat yourself up if this is a topic you’ve neglected. Just present it as one more thing – like dental hygiene, good nutrition or how to tie their shoes – that you need to teach your child. If you’re uncomfortable, admit it. “Be straight up about saying, ‘This is weird for me, too,’” urges Wallace. Your main message is that these physical changes and new feelings are normal, that you and all the other adults they know have been through them, and that you’re available if they have questions.
Wallace warns against getting too “clinical,” and against over-sharing details about your own sexual experiences. “The conversation should really be less about us,” she says. One topic she says should come up early on is consent. It’s important to start teaching our kids to say “no” and to “master that ownership over their bodies,” says Wallace. “If we start now and the conversations continue through high school, we are sending them out into the real world more capable and more prepared to be safe.”
Media – especially social media – can have a big impact on how kids view themselves during this age, especially their body image. “I don’t feel like it comes into play in a very positive way,” says Wallace, explaining that the approval kids receive through social media is all visual, causing their body image and sense of self-worth to become “tied into this visual representation of who they are.” Social-media platforms are also rife with bullying and negativity.
But because peers are so important to kids at this age, and because social media helps them connect, Uhls says it is important for parents to allow their middle schoolers to use social media and to help them use it safely. “It’s a developmental task. At that age, one of the major things they’re figuring out is how to get along with other kids,” she says.
They are also prone to risk-taking, and this is another area where social media can create problems. At an age when they’re vulnerable to peers’ suggestions and dares, kids now have Facebook Live and Instagram to create a permanent record of their hijinks. “Their social brain is fully developed, but their thinking brain isn’t,” says Uhls, meaning kids at this age aren’t great at weighing the possible consequences of their actions (or their posts).
It is better to introduce your child to these tools at home, so that you can guide them. Let them know that you’ll be following them on social media so that you can help them learn to post appropriately and safely. And research any apps your child wants to download before giving permission. “Don’t just say yes. Really look it up,” says Uhls, who also works with Common Sense Media and recommends the nonprofit’s reviews as a reliable source of information about apps.
But don’t just talk. Be a good role model. “Think about your own phone behavior,” says Uhls. “Think about what you’re modeling for your child. Your child will learn most of their media behavior from you.”
Another important reason for middle schoolers to master use of social media and other technologies is that they’ll need them in school – and eventually in the working world. Technology can even help with one of the biggest middle-school challenges: time management.
Our student days (middle school and beyond) are the only time when we have to go to multiple classes with multiple teachers assigning multiple projects for us to juggle. “That’s a very huge task, and we’re giving that task to someone who’s very early on with this new thinking pattern,” says Atwater, who recommends apps such as Cozi and myHomework to help families get a handle on school assignments and activities.
Find out whether the school provides tools – from planners to online school learning management systems such as Summit Learning, Schoolology or Canvas – then see what you need to add. Be hands-on at first, then encourage your child to take over and be more independent, eventually using their own calendar and sharing it with you.
Organizationally challenged? “This is an excellent chance to learn something alongside your child,” Atwater says. “Seize the day for this to be your year of getting organized.” You don’t have to use the same tools your child is using. Just find a system that works for you.
Technology can also help you assist your child with homework, which Atwater says doesn’t mean getting too far into the weeds. “You don’t have to teach yourself algebra to help your child,” she says. Instead, ask about the strategies your child is learning in school and figure out which ones are helping them succeed. If your child is a whiz at math but struggling with English, ask about how she approaches her math work. Does she tackle math projects first? Allow extra time? Work with a study buddy? Can she apply any of these tactics to her English homework?
Contact your child’s teacher for additional advice and to connect with online resources and homework assistance.
Another thing you’ll need to connect your middle schooler with is cause and effect. “Connecting the present to the future is not a skill that they necessarily have,” says Atwater. So it might not be obvious to your child that if they spend the evening at the mall, they won’t have time to study for tomorrow’s test.
Teaching your child to use a simple to-do list is a good start, as is a regular weekend check-in about the coming week’s work. “How might you find out what’s coming up at school next week?” is a good question to ask. This will get students looking at their planner or online portal and thinking about how they should prepare.
You also want your middle schooler to start thinking about long-term goals. “‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ is such a common question, yet the awareness of what they need to do to get there is often murky at best,” Atwater says. So get your child dreaming, then work backwards from that long-term goal, so that they understand the short-term goals and steps involved.
“We need to connect them with the future in a very concrete way,” says Atwater. And by having those conversations and making those connections, you’ll make the turmoil that is middle school feel a little bit smoother.
Christina Elston is Editor of L.A. Parent.