Middle school heralds a new age of push-and-pull for kids, between wanting independence and wanting to stay close to the family. As parents, we watch these first tentative (or, in some cases, giant) steps toward freedom and are terrified that we're losing our hold on our kids forever.
Take a Deep Breath — and a Step Back
The feeling that middle school is our "last chance" to influence our kids is common, but the tough part is finding a way to balance their need to spread their new wings against our desire to have them make good choices. Walking this delicate line can seem a Herculean task for parents, who are used to calling the shots. But it is critical in order to maintain communication with your middle schooler.
Parents are tested on this concept of balance almost constantly during middle school, as social scenes pop up which are completely new to us and to our kids. How much intervention and oversight is appropriate? How much is too much? How do we know when to exert influence and when to back off and let the kids make their own decisions? The rule of thumb, according to our experts, is that — with the exception of any scenario where a child's safety is an issue — we should try to back off whenever possible and begin to let our children handle social situations themselves.
Building Skills for Life
Adolescents need to develop a "toolbox" of self-management skills, including self-control, delayed gratification, and frustration tolerance, and they need to develop these skills while they are still under your roof. "If you allow your kid to go through his own experiences and to try different responses, he'll develop working skills for relationships with others,” says Madeline Levine, Ph.D., clinical psychologist and author of The Price of Privilege.
This principle applies across a broad array of situations your child may face in middle school, and it also cuts both ways: it is as important to let your child lead when she doesn't want to do something as when she does. Let's say, for example, there's a 7th grade dance and you find out from the other parents "everyone" is attending. Your child insists she has no desire whatsoever to go. You remember your first school dance, and you push your child to participate. After all "everyone" is going, wouldn't it be weird for her not to? No. Do not force it, say experts. If you sense a high level of dread surrounding the dance, or violin practice has become akin to torture, or soccer has long ceased being any fun at all, allow your child to make her own choice, beginning a process of independent decision-making.
Friends become the center of a middle schooler's universe, and it is crucial for parents to stay in tune. In elementary school, parents are the ultimate gatekeepers: we set up the playdates. This becomes more difficult as our kids get older. To what degree can we — or do we want to — control their choices in friendships? Again, when do we back off and when do we insert ourselves?
There is no question that parents have less influence over friendships in middle school. And, our experts agree, this is normal and appropriate. But Levine notes that as kids' choices of friends are often evolving at this age, parents need to stay vigilant. "Kids can often make poor peer choices when there is stress at home, in their life, or at school," she says. "The point would be to try to maintain a warm relationship and reduce stress, and then out of that, hope for some discussion to keep them from making bad decisions."
Middle school is an incredibly hard, transitional time for kids, but it's also trying for parents. The challenge is to stay connected to our kids without being overly involved, to use our life experience to help our kids without inadvertently projecting our own needs or desires onto them.