Middle school should be a breeze, right? That’s what I thought when my first daughter was still a baby. After all, in middle school she’d be able to feed herself―even fix her own sandwich! I didn’t realize then that far from being a time to slack off, middle school is when parents should step up their game.
With wacky hormones and wobbly self-identities, middle schoolers still need massive doses of guidance. After all, they face decisions with power to shape their destinies even though they’re equipped with limited supplies of judgment and self-restraint.
Middle school parenting is a holy calling requiring gentleness, firmness, and huge doses of grace. It’s not a job for cowards, but neither is it a time for callousness. No matter how trying or surprising the season, we can call on the Lord to “teach [His ways] to your children, talking of them when you are sitting in your house, and when you are walking by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise” (Deuteronomy 11:19).
While guiding my own three daughters through the preadolescent world of middle school, I made a few massive mistakes, but―by God’s grace―I got some things right. As a result, my daughters grew into teenagers who were, for the most part, happy, respectful, and a delight to be with. So, from a parent who successfully made it to the other side, here are some tips for navigating middle school.
UNDERSTAND THE UNIQUE STRUGGLES OF A MIDDLE SCHOOLER
Hormones | Middle school is a season of hormonal upheaval. From sweat stains and out-of-control acne to new sexual impulses and romantic feelings, middle schoolers deal with issues they neither invited nor have control over. The unpredictable feelings, emotions, and moods springing from unbalanced hormones can leave them―and their parents― secretly horrified.
Peer pressure | In the world of middle schoolers, peer pressure becomes a force to be reckoned with. Suddenly nothing in their lives is more important than what their friends say and do. Questions once directed to parents―“Who am I? Am I good enough? Do you like me?”―are now directed toward their friends.
Immature decision-making | Middle schoolers are presented with adult choices at a time when their own decision-making skills are immature and self-centered. To put it lightly, not all their judgments will be sound.
PREPARE YOUR MIND AND HEART
Be prepared to question yourself. Nearly every good parent of a middle schooler will be accused of being too strict. Others will be viewed by family members or other parents as being overly permissive. It’s natural to question yourself which is why it’s important to “let your eyes look directly forward, and your gaze be straight before you” (Proverbs 4:25).
Follow your gut. By this time in your parenting journey, you know your middle schooler so don’t second guess yourself. When you detect a rebellious attitude or suspect a friend isn’t a good choice, follow through on your instincts. There’s too much at stake to bury your head in the sand.
Be nosy. As a parent, you’re charged with making decisions based on what’s best for your family. To do that, you need all the information you can gather. So, be nosy. Talk to other parents, coaches, and teachers. Investigate everything. Who’s invited to the sleepover? What’s the most popular social app for her age group? Don’t hold back. If your middle schooler isn’t forthcoming about details, be your own sleuth.
Be there. You can’t always predict when your child will be willing to open up. Middle schoolers tend to sprinkle tiny pieces of themselves, sometimes at the most inopportune times. That’s why it’s important to be present and engaged. Talk on the way to school and ask meaningful questions on the way home. Make conversation at the dinner table. Pop into their rooms before bedtime. Break away from your phone and to-do list so you can be intentionally present and catch those sprinkles.
Remember what middle school was like. Close your eyes and recall the sounds and smells of the school hallways, the daunting expectations of parents and teachers, and the pressure to be liked. Remind yourself of the difficult world your middle schooler is navigating, and extend grace as freely as you can.
Don’t over-identify. Although it’s helpful to remember what your middle school experience was like, don’t over-identify. Your middle schooler is dealing with their stuff, not yours. Don’t let your buttons get pushed because you’re feeling something from your own past. If you find yourself overreacting, step back and remove your emotions from the situation.
Circle your wagons. Make sure you share enjoyable times as a family so your middle schooler won’t automatically seek entertainment outside your home. Laugh together. Invite friends to join you. Consider giving up some of your own commitments for a while if that’s what it takes to have time for fun.
ESTABLISH GRACIOUS RULES AND FIRM BOUNDARIES
Place safeguards around electronics. Don’t give middle schoolers more responsibility than they’re ready to handle. Maintain access to his social media accounts and monitor his usage. Let her know you plan to read text messages. Get on their apps and check them out for yourself. Don’t be afraid to limit how much and in what locations your middle schooler is allowed to use electronics. The stakes are high.
Don’t let middle schoolers retreat. Middle schoolers are constantly teetering between seeking affection and wanting privacy. Help them find a balance. Don’t let them retreat to their rooms for large chunks of time. Keep the family dynamic strong by insisting everyone participate in family activities.
Tell your middle schoolers often how much you enjoy being with them. It’s tempting to reward them only for good results, but middle schoolers need to know you like them no matter what they have or haven’t done.
Get them to talk about their day with open-ended questions. Instead of asking “How was school today?” ask “What was the hardest part of school today?” or “When did you feel most confident today?” These questions lead to answers that allow you to enter into a conversation.
Let them know they can tell you anything and you’ll never be shocked by what they say. Then practice long and hard to never drop your jaw. You want them to feel free to come back again and again.
Teach them what healthy relationships look like. Talk to your middle schooler about accepting others, creating healthy boundaries, and respecting diversity. Teach them to retreat from drama and help them recognize the power of peer pressure. Expose them to different types of people and help them to be socially aware, kind, and inclusive. And, as tempting as it may be to invalidate their crushes, don’t.
Delight in your child’s uniqueness. Middle schoolers have blossoming personalities, gifts, and drives. Cultivate them. Does he show compassion for the homeless population? Volunteer at a food kitchen together. Does she show an interest in music? Take her to a concert or introduce her to songs you listened to at her age. Let middle schoolers know you see and care about the things they care about.
Give them time to decelerate. By the end of each school day, middle schoolers have dealt with a roller coaster of intense emotions. Besides that, they’ve been micro-managed all day by parents, teachers, or both. Give them a minute. Respect their need to chill a little before asking anything of them.
Allow them to make mistakes and help them discover ways to learn from them. Don’t rush in to fix problems at school or with friends. Instead, help middle schoolers evaluate options and come up with solutions so they’ll learn to be problem solvers.
Don’t embarrass them. I made this a hard-and-fast rule in our home. If middle schoolers welcome you into their circle of friends, consider it a privilege you must work hard to keep. Remember, their friends are of utmost importance to them, so never―as much as it depends on you―embarrass them.
Encourage them to eat right and rest well. Like toddlers who miss naps, middle schoolers who don’t get enough sleep aren’t always at their best. Their changing bodies need plenty of rest and good food.
Let them know you remember what it was like to be a middle schooler. Identify with their fears, sadness, anxiety, and insecurities. Let them know their feelings are normal and reassure them life won’t always feel or look like it does now.
REMEMBER THE HEART OF YOUR MISSION
Rejoice in your opportunity to help form the character of a man or woman. Your middle schooler is on an adventure to adulthood. This is a season when they can safely assert independence, explore limits, and take risks with adults by their side. If your middle schooler is struggling, it’s normal. This is a season of change. But don’t be afraid to seek professional help if your middle schooler becomes overly moody, defiant, or confused.
Celebrate small steps. Pat your child on the back when he or she shows signs of maturity and godliness. Your middle schooler is pursuing independence and deserves to be rewarded for small steps of progress. At the same time, pat yourself on the back every now and then, too. By guiding your child through the precarious years of middle school, you’re on your way to enjoying an independent, mature teenager.
What principles mentioned in the article especially inspired or resonated with your experience parenting middle schoolers? Share with us in the comments.
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Great insight! I especially enjoyed your analogy of them sprinkling pieces of themselves about at inopportune times. I’ve found this to be true myself.
Sheila, yes! I found it a challenge to be “on” at those inopportune times, but the rewards were more than worth it. Not only did I discover who they were becoming, but as my daughters shared pieces of themselves with me, they were deciphering how they felt about themselves too.
I needed this because my daughter just started middle school this year. I looked forward to this age for the same reasons and am quickly learning this is a tough age, and I don’t feel prepared. Your words were exactly what I needeed. Thank you so much.