There is nothing unique about middle school humiliation. We watch with trepidation as our kids transition from the safe cocoon of elementary school to the mouth of the dragon, middle school. What do parents and kids need to know in order to make this necessarily insecure time a bit more bearable, and even help the kids thrive?
For middle schoolers, embarrassment is the operative word. Everything embarrasses them at this age, and everyone is desperately trying to be like everyone else. When Jonah, my then 11 year old, was getting his hair cut before entering middle school, I instructed the hairstylist to “cut it like all the other 11-year-old boys.” Which, that year anyway, seemed to be an almost Beatle-like mop-top.
But even with cool hair, it’s not easy going from being “top dog” at your elementary school to the youngest in the middle school, many kids report. Not only are new middle schoolers suddenly the youngest, they are most likely in a much bigger school with lots of kids they’ve never met before.
The Perils of Puberty
Stacy Nockowitz, who has taught middle school language arts over the past 10 years in New York, Massachusetts, and now Columbus, Ohio, says the one constant is that the transition to middle school seems to be harder on girls. “Girls are extremely self-conscious,” she says. “What others feel about them matters more than what they feel about themselves, and this comes through in everything they do. Boys seem to let things roll off them more easily.”
And it goes without saying that boys and girls start to look at each other differently in middle school. Puberty and changing hormones begin having an effect, and this is the time when “couples” start forming. That term is to be used loosely because, as Nockowitz puts it, “the boyfriend-girlfriend situation changes every couple of weeks.”
Puberty also brings emotional changes that you need to be ready for. For example, your easygoing son may begin to have moods that change like the wind; your daughter, who had been happy to hang out with the family after school may start to retreat to her room with the door closed. This is all to be expected, provided it is not taken to extremes.
It’s All About Change
New middle schoolers are walking contradictions: They are still children, but they are starting to look more like adults. They like the comfort of their families, but also crave independence and privacy. They are trying to find out who they are, but at the same time are desperate to be like everyone else. “It’s such a tough transition,” says Nockowitz. “Size, achievement, looks, all matter so much more in middle school than they did in elementary school.”
As we parents helplessly watch our rapid descent on the cool-o-meter, we see a correlating rise in the importance of peers. Or, as Arlene Erlbach puts it in The Middle School Survival Guide, “If you’re like most kids, people your own age are key to your existence.” Kids start to spend more time on the phone, and IMing is hugely popular. Just as with any other aspect of technology (computers, video games, TV), you need to set time limits for these activities and stick to them. “Make sure your child knows what to expect ahead of time,” advises Weitzman. “If you try to create rules in the midst of a situation, they’ll be ineffective.”