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Dazed and Distracted

Help your preteen cope with the enormous changes in her life so her schoolwork doesn't suffer.
 

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As your child starts middle school, you'll notice some big differences in your soon-to-be-teen. Not only has her appearance changed, but so has her attitude. Rather than sharing all the wonderful things she has learned in class like she used to, she answers your daily "How was school today?" query with a predictable "Fine" as she trudges past you to her room. And just what does she do in those hours spent alone in her inner sanctum?
 
Change itself is just about the only thing you can count on at this point in your child's development. Physical, emotional, and academic changes abound. All can be jarring and distracting as your middle schooler strives to settle into a routine. Here's a guide to common distractions and what you can do to ease them.

 

What's Happening to My Body?
Every preteen is going to go through physical changes, but remember that kids develop at different paces. So when you look at a list of common physical changes your preteen will face, it's not only daunting, but there's no indication of when these changes will occur:

  • Rocketing height
  • Starting menstruation
  • Cracking voices
  • Getting braces
  • Spurting limbs
  • Raging hormones
  • Wearing bras
  • Battling baby fat
  • Sweating palms
  • Developing acne

No wonder concentrating in class is an uphill battle. Imagine wondering whether your new deodorant is working when you raise your hand, or stressing about whether your voice will crack if you answer a question. What can you do to ease the constant worry? "Tell the truth early on about physical and emotional changes, using the correct vocabulary about body parts, and talk, talk, talk to your preteen!" advises a parent of three teenagers. "Keep communication open. Make him feel that he can come to you for anything." Also, be understanding of the widespread awkwardness and know that this is simply what kids go through.
 
Sometimes, of course, the physical changes can create a more serious situation than what the average preteen experiences, such as the development of addictions, severe behavioral problems, or eating disorders. For such critical issues, seek the help of a professional. Ask your physician or school guidance counselor for a referral.

 

Am I Losing My Mind?
Along with the physical changes, of course, come mood swings, peer conflicts, and a host of other emotionally charged scenarios:

  • Changing friends or cliques. Middle school can be a tension-filled environment. Bullies emerge. Fights with friends can affect schoolwork, and one-time allies may become enemies. Times may be tough. Know that peer groups can evolve, and keep an eye on new faces that may influence your child.
  • Dealing with peer pressure. On a daily basis, your middle schooler probably asks himself, What's cool? Doubts hatch, and he may abandon things he used to like because they aren't "in." All this adds up to a lot of time worrying about image and striving to fit in. This, in turn, can easily affect his concentration, especially if he faces pressure on a day-to-day basis during school hours. Reinforce the idea that he is a wonderful individual, and should do the things that make him happy, not the things that are popular and make him uncomfortable.
  • Forming beliefs. With so much information flying at your child, don't be surprised if she starts forming her own opinions, in every aspect from politics to the environment, from religion to vegetarianism. Have a solid foundation for communicating at home. Ask her to tell you why she feels the way she does when she's passionate about an issue. If you keep an open mind, you'll learn a lot!
  • Having boyfriends/girlfriends. Middle school begins the time-honored tradition of dating. Of course, this term is used quite loosely, as kids this age don't do much more than hang out and instant-message each other. Developing crushes and acting on them is an important part of socialization that will be more refined come high school. However, these flirtations certainly take time away from schoolwork, and if you notice that your preteen has a case of puppy love, take the time to talk about it and offer advice and support.

Why Is School So Different?
Be prepared for the effects that "graduating" to middle school may have on your child. Your preteen will have to adjust to her new school environment in the following ways:

  • Grasping the new class schedule. In middle school, the class schedule evolves. Punctuality becomes more important; if your child is late for class, his grades may suffer. The adjustment to core subjects taught by different teachers, moving from classroom to classroom, and shorter lunch breaks can be quite stressful at first. Go over the importance of being on time, and treat your child to a wristwatch that he can synchronize with the school bell.
  • Tackling "real" homework assignments. Homework now becomes more than completing a worksheet nightly or practicing spelling words. There is way more work, and the work is more difficult. Teachers stagger assignments, and your child will learn how to juggle daily, weekly, and monthly due dates. Help your preteen organize for this with tools like a homework calendar or planner. Being prepared for this particular change can positively affect the way she adapts and learns.
  • Delving deeper into subjects. All of a sudden, math becomes algebra and science morphs into biology. With all the new components to the core subjects, you may notice that where your child once excelled, he might now struggle. Explore tutoring options for subjects that he finds difficult, or ask if he has a buddy in class that he can call for help. Some kids prefer working with peers, while others benefit from a professional tutor.
  • Choosing extracurricular activities. There are so many options! Talk to your child about the activities he wants to do, as opposed to a hobby he may have lost interest in but continues because he's expected to participate. You may find that he's lost his passion for piano, and really wants to try out for the swim team. And with all of the schoolwork he'll be doing, make sure he doesn't load up on too many extracurriculars. Let him enjoy being a kid! Even more importantly, show support of the choices he makes. 

Yes, distractions are inevitable in middle school. But if you're armed with the knowledge to understand why these changes affect your preteen, you can help her learn to enjoy her middle school adventure.

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