What to expect when expecting a middle schooler

Parents preparing to send a student to middle school can expect a lot of things and it's worth enduring some eye rolls and attitude to see the positive growth in the middle grades.

Janet S. Carter/The Free Press/AP
Jacinta Frank, a sixth-grade science teacher at Rochelle Middle School, teaches chromatography at the Coley Little S.T.E.M camp at J.H. Sampson School Community Life Center in Kinston, N.C. on Thursday, July 10.

So, you’re expecting a middle schooler? Congratulations! I’m sure you, your friends, and family are all thrilled with the anticipation of what’s to come.

Hello? (Crickets.)

If your kid’s transition to middle school elicits more dread than delight, you’re not alone. Most parents I know tell me they wouldn’t go back to middle school for any amount of money in the world. The thought of sending their kids into the middle school social jungle feels about as daunting as walking into the cafeteria with your lunch tray, only to find no seats available.

There is a lot to worry about during the middle school years. Changes in bodies, minds, and behaviors can be absolutely baffling. But there are a lot of wonderful things that are about to happen too. Let’s peek behind the mysterious middle school curtain at just some of the things you should expect:

Expect Reinvention

Every kid in middle school wants the same thing: independence. In fact, developmentally, it is every kid’s job in middle school to develop an identity apart from his or her parents. I think of middle school as the buffet of life, at which every kid is compelled to try new things. Your prepster may become goth for a week. Your jock may audition for a play. Your tomboy may experiment with makeup. Try it all, I say!

Unless adolescents begin experimenting with identity roles, they can’t figure out how to be independently thinking adults. Encourage this kind of social risk-taking and begin talking with your tween now about expecting friends to change – their appearance, their interests and even their groups of friends. It may be uncomfortable for you to watch your kid go through so many sudden and bizarre changes. It will certainly be painful for your kid if (read when) their friends change without them. But in the end, change is necessary to growing up and middle school provides lots of important opportunities to explore this.

Expect a Demotion

Guess what? Reinvention isn’t just for kids. Expect to reinvent yourself beginning with a shift in your parenting style. Many parents of those super-sweet elementary schoolers assume the role of “manager.” They schedule, organize, solve and think for their kids. But by the time your kid starts middle school, he needs to learn these critical thinking skills for himself, which means you’re getting demoted to “assistant manager.” Hooray – this is great news for you! It will get messy, but let your kid practice making plans, decisions and solutions on his own. Your job will be to listen without judgment while he figures this stuff out.

Getting demoted and reinvention really go hand-in-hand. With your new-found extra time, you’ll want to think about spending more time on the things you love (outside of your family). Your kid is going to start spending less and less time with you, which means you’ll find time to exercise, work, paint, write the great American novel! In all seriousness, get a hobby. Your kid is no longer your pet project. You will thank yourself – and your kids will thank you too– one day. Hey, while you’re at it, reintroduce yourself to your partner and enjoy some hard-earned free time together.

Expect Bad Lawyering

Quite a few important shifts will happen in your middle schooler’s head, one of which can be incredibly frustrating: the introduction of hypothetical thinking. Little kids think about things exclusively in a concrete manner. They even process abstract ideas, like God, in a concrete manner. But by middle school, kids begin to understand abstract concepts. "Hey, X can represent a number in this equation." 

While it’s cool that your kid can now understand abstract concepts, like algebra, hypothetical thinking doesn’t always work so formulaically. Middle schoolers are like very bad lawyers. They often begin with a conclusion and then retroactively cram in a bunch of evidence to support their assumption. "But, I have to get the new Ray-Bans because of that thing where your eyes get too much sun exposure and also cheaper sunglasses get lost more." It’s annoying, but they’re trying to learn something new.

Expect Overreactions

Here is another “fun thing that happens in the middle school mind: critical thinking takes a back seat to emotions. There is good reason for this. If your kid operated from a place of total impulse control and critical thinking, your kid would not begin to take the risks necessary to become an independent adult. Thinking about forming relationships outside of your family, going to college, getting a job, and other aspects of pending adulthood require taking major risks. Critical thinking and impulse control tend to squelch risk-taking. So while it may be messy, again, it’s necessary for the end result you both want. 

Expect to be Judged

You probably already know to expect that your sweet baby, who used to think you were so funny and awesome, will begin to find you dull, annoying, embarrassing, dumb, and old. Fair enough. We knew that one was coming. We did it to our parents after all. You may be surprised, though, by how much other parents will judge you too.

Kids change at such different rates during middle school. Physically, emotionally, behaviorally, they’re all over the board. That means every parent faces unique challenges with all sorts of unknown bumps in the road, and that means parents must make very different choices for their families. You just can’t know what motivates a parent to let her kid get a smart phone early, or go to boarding school, or have a boyfriend. And frankly, it shouldn’t matter. I propose we give each other a little more grace here and remember ‘this too shall pass.’

Expect to be Amazed

As much as you possibly can, enjoy the ride! Your middle schooler will start on a path toward independence and it will be a crazy, bumpy, twisty road. To ease the anxiety this can cause both parent and child, it helps if you can reframe the way you think about weird middle school behavior. When your kid started to toddle, it was scary at times, like when she would tumble onto concrete or bang her head on a corner, but it was also exciting. You cheered her on through every tumble because that is how she learned to be bigger, stronger and more self-reliant. You didn’t want to carry her on your hip forever.

With developments in thinking, the tumbles aren’t as easy to spot, or as adorable. But if you can adopt the same attitude toward learning to use an adult mind that you did toward learning to walk, it’s easier to have empathy and be supportive through this unsteady time. You wouldn’t yell at a toddler for having weak leg muscles and falling down. (But you might restrict his access to dangerous steps.) Try to think of middle school this way, and you’ll be able to enjoy all the amazing changes about to come. 

The Christian Science Monitor has assembled a diverse group of the best family and parenting bloggers out there. Our contributing and guest bloggers are not employed or directed by the Monitor, and the views expressed are the bloggers' own, as is responsibility for the content of their blogs. Michelle Icard is the author of "Middle School Makeover: Improving the Way You and Your Child Experience the Middle School Years" (Bibliomotion, 2014). She is also the founder of Athena’s Path and Hero’s Pursuit and you can read her blog at www.michelleinthemiddle.com.

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