Mother and Daughter
Surviving Middle School and Middle Schoolers
August 7, 2023

I was recently talking to a group of parents and I asked the question; “What comes to mind when you think about parenting young adolescents/middle schoolers?”   Survival!  That was the answer.  For many families, this is true.  The middle school years can be one of the most difficult phases of parenting.  What is it about those middle school years that make them so challenging?  The simple answer is Development.  The developmental tasks of these children are challenging for parents and the for the child alike.  Understanding what is going on in the child during the middle school years might help all involved to “Survive.”

The middle school years are approximately 11-14 years of age.  This is a time of significant physical and psychosocial development.

The main event during this time is puberty.  The onset of puberty can occur at any time during those years, and for some children, even earlier.  This results in significant differences in children among those ages.  Some 11 year olds are more like 14 year olds, and some 14 year olds more like 11 year olds.  This variation is one of the more challenging aspects of the adolescent years.

Puberty and adolescence are not the same.

Adolescence is an approximately 10-year period during which a process occurs that transforms a dependent child into an independent adult.  Puberty is a 1 ½ – 3 year chemical and biological process that develops a child into sexual maturity.  Puberty occurs in early adolescence and is completed long before the child is a physical and psychological adult.  This reality accounts for a large part of the challenges of the middle school years.

There is a wide variation in the age of onset of puberty.  Girls can begin puberty between the ages of 8-13 (average age of 11), and boys begin puberty between the ages of 9-14 (average age of 12).  Puberty is triggered by hormonal changes in the developing child; increased estrogen in females and increased testosterone in males.  When exactly puberty begins is influenced by a number of factors, including genetics, environment, diet, and one’s body type/weight.  Children are considered early bloomers or late bloomers if they are younger or older when puberty begins. 

Being an early or late bloomer can be a source of stress to the child and the parent alike.

Children (to a greater extent than adults) compare themselves to their peers.  Being different can be a source of insecurity.  To begin developing before your peers, can leave you feeling awkward and insecure. The same is true for developing later than your peers.  Additionally, those who develop later are often smaller and can experience feelings of inadequacy as they may not be able to keep up with or compete with more developed peers in physical and athletic activities.

As was said earlier, during the adolescent years there is significant psychosocial development occurring.  Children in this stage are developing psychologically in terms of their awareness of who they are as a person (sense of self).  They are figuring out what they are capable of, what they think and what they feel.  Additionally, they are developing in terms of social awareness.  They are figuring out who they are in comparison to others, do they measure up in some way.  They are also learning more about being in and getting along in relationships with others.

In the middle school years, children are moving out of a stage where the focus was on developing a sense of competency as well as pride in their abilities and accomplishments.

Middle schoolers are moving into a developmental stage where the major focus is on identity development.  They are asking questions such as: “Who am I?”  “Do I have what it takes?”  “Am I good enough?”  “Will others accept me?”  The problem is that their focus has shifted from what parents say and think to what peer say and think.  So who are they asking these crucial questions to?  Peers who are just as confused about who they are.  This single dynamic itself may account for the majority of difficulties that middle school children have.

While each child is different, there are some fairly common difficulties that middle school children experience.  The first of these is a feeling of awkwardness.  With rapid changes in their bodies and hormones they feel out of control.  They wonder what is normal and do they measure up.  Hormonal changes lead to new experiences of sexual arousal and the desire to form romantic and sexualized relationships with others.  As the changes in their bodies become more visible, they are often treated differently by others.  Those who mature early, may experience an increase in popularity, while those who mature more slowly may experience rejection and a decrease in popularity. 

Another complication of the physical maturing process is that as they look more like adults, others may expect more adult like behavior of them.

The adults in their lives are often disappointed by the immaturity that remains in these adult looking children and respond with criticism.  Additionally, as they look more like adults they may receive unwanted sexual attention that leaves them confused as to how to deal with it.  This is happening at the same time they are trying to figure out their own sexuality.

Because this physical maturing process leaves them feeling insecure and uncertain, middle schoolers look to their peers for acceptance.  This lead to the forming of groups where what is expected of them to be accepted is more easily discerned.  Not being accepted by a group can leave one with an unbearable loneliness.  This leads many young teens to adopt ideas, values, preferences, and actions that will get them accepted by the group.  Being accepted by a group leaves them less vulnerable to the various forms of social cruelty so prevalent at this age.  These include teasing, exclusion, rumoring, and in extreme cases, bullying.  So, in this regard, groups provide a form of protection. 

So why are middle schoolers so mean to each other?

The most simple answer is that all people find those who are different threatening in some way.  The answer to this is understanding.  As we try to understand those who are different, we are less threatened.  To truly get outside of yourself, outside of your thinking and your values in order to understand others, requires some level of security in who you are.  Middle schoolers lack this security because they are not sure who they are.  In fact, figuring out who I am and developing an identity is the major psychosocial task of adolescence.  Adolescence is a time of fear, characterized by questions such as: “Who am I?”; Do I have what it takes?”; “Will I be successful in the world?”  Fear leaves a person feeling vulnerable.  Exercising power can relieve fear.  This dynamic is often at the root of social cruelty and bullying.

All of these issues can make school a difficult place for middle schooler.  All of these difficulties are a distraction from learning, for some to a significant degree.  School is where most of the relationships with peers is taking place.  It is the place where peer groups are formed and peer interaction occurs.  It used to be that this was limited to school.  Now with social media, the problems of comparison and social cruelty occur 24 hours a day.

The middle school years are difficult for parent and teens alike as they renegotiate their relationship.  These young teens are beginning to want more independence while still wanting the security and support parents have to offer.  They want to make more decisions on their own while still having the maturity and reasoning skills of a child.  They want to make more decisions yet have immature decision making skills.  They still want their parents help and guidance, but they want it on their own terms. 

What parents and teens alike fail to realize is that they have the same goal.  They just differ on how to get there.  Parents and teens alike want the teen to grow up into an independent and full functioning adult.  The question is how this shift from dependent to independent should occur.  They differ on how quick, how much responsibility is required for increased privileges, when a teen should be able to do certain things, how many decisions should be shifted to the teen and when.  When parents and teens are able to talk about this, the process can be helped significantly. 

So is it hopeless?  Is the only goal for the middle school years to survive?  Or, is there a way for middle schoolers and their parents to thrive during these years?  Every family will be different, but there are things that the parents and other adults can do to help Middle Schoolers during this challenging time.

Most important is communication.

There are a number of things that parents can communicate with their middle schoolers about.

  1. It is very important for parents to communicate to their children about the hormonal and physical changes that will occur during puberty.  This needs to occur before puberty begins and it needs to continue to occur after its onset.  Children may feel awkward about the conversations; nevertheless they will benefit from them and be glad that you talked to them. 
  2. Communicate about the process of adolescence itself.  Talk about having the same goal of of increasing independence.  Talk about specific responsibilities that you are looking for and be open to giving more privileges and autonomy in decision making. 
  3. Remember that the main developmental task of adolescence is to Identity development.  Talk to your children about who they are, their gifts, abilities, personality characteristics.  Affirm their strengths and be patient with their weaknesses.  Provide activities that allow them to have experiences that create success and reinforce their strengths. 
  4. Have specific discussions about social cruelty and bullying.  Children are often hesitant to initiate conversations about these topics with parents.  Talk to them about how to deal with it if they are experiencing it.  Also talk about values and respect to deter them from perpetrating it.
  5. Teach your children about sex, as well as romantic and sexual relationships.  Again, do this before puberty and continue the discussion on throughout the adolescent years. They will be exposed to and find information about these issues somewhere.  It is all around us.  Be the first ones to talk to them about it and continue to be the voice of health and sound judgment during the adolescent years.

It is very important for parents to stay relationally engaged with their middle schoolers.  In addition to communication, continue meaningful activity.  This includes family activities, hobbies, and recreational activities.  Engaging in service as a family is another way to get kids out of themselves for a moment. 

Along these lines require that to use social media, you have to have access to all of it.  Social media is a tool.  Like all tools, we train kids in how to use it, monitor them using it, and eventually we let them loose to use it on their own.  Don’t be afraid as a parent of a middle schooler using social media to monitor and have access to their accounts.

Remember that as the child moves through adolescence, you are still the parent.  It is ok to act like the parent.  At the same time you get to remain in charge setting appropriate boundaries all the while maintaining a relationship bond and engaging in meaningful and fun activity. 

One last suggestion:  Take the LONG VIEW.  The difficulties of today will be the memories of tomorrow.  You don’t have to settle with survive. You can strive to thrive!

This article originally appeared on Columbia Metropolitan Magazine.

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