At our middle school orientation and tour, I asked my daughter to pose for a photo in front of her very first locker in the sixth grade hall. She's wearing a white and pink floral print sun dress and no makeup. Freckles cover her 11-year-old face and shoulders and her strawberry blonde hair is pulled to the side in a small lavender bow, a leftover from a matching toddler purse and bow set.
The hallway buzzes with big energy from little fifth graders and excited parents who help Tweens fill their lockers with books that will soon weigh them down.
"Point to your locker," I ask again, not wanting to miss this milestone photo. She listens and smiles a half-smile that is uncannily confident, hiding her braces, and points to a locker on the bottom, which is appropriate because that's where her fifth grade, top-of-the-school confidence will plunge.
While my daughter gradually slid from fifth grade swagger to somewhat of a sixth grade slouch, my friend Sal said middle school flipped a switch in Joey, his sixth grader, transforming a sweet, respectful boy into a defiant Tween who flat out rejected adult requests at home and at school. While Sal never worried about grades in elementary school he received an email from Joey's sixth grade teacher saying he was failing his English class. When confronted Sal was shocked by Joey's attitude.
"I'm not going to do homework," Joey announced to Sal "and you can't make me do my chores, I'm not your slave." Shocked by Joey's sudden, combative and naive language, Sal set up a meeting at the school. From the school counselors he learned that Joey's mood swing and balk at authority were not an isolated incident. Many kids shift in personality.
Carl E. Pickhardt, Ph.D., psychologist and author of Who Stole My Child says in an article in Psychology Today that "adolescence begins with insecurity from loss."
"Growing up requires giving up, and so some cherished old childish attachments to self and family must be let go. Now more painful distancing from parents begins. Where the first grader loved having parents show up at school, the sixth grader can find this public parental presence painfully embarrassing. “Mom, Dad! What are you doing here?” It’s a vulnerable time, the young person knowing that they can’t go back home again to that simpler, sheltered, more secure period of early life."
While not all parents experience the turbulent shift from elementary to middle school like Sal and I, here's some of what we did not see coming and how we handled it:
1. Getting the Middle Finger
After I repeatedly asked my daughter Linda, 11, to pick up after our dogs, a chore for which she receives weekly allowance, she angrily stepped outside and my husband saw her flip me off. Shocked, he immediately called her over and insisted she confess to me what happened and to apologize. I was surprised at this behavior and although she was remorseful, we took away her phone and grounded her for five days so she had time to reflect upon her attitude.
After helpful meetings with the middle school counselor and Principal, Sal's sixth grade son Joey, also 11, continued to feel manipulated by his parents and school. Sal explained that everyone in the family has a job to do. As a parent he works in an office, pays the bills and takes care of many tasks around the house to provide food, shelter and a safe home. Joey's job was to complete school work, homework and chores. Even after Sal removed all electronics and privileges and grounded Joey, he remained defiant. Only after Sal read The Collapse of Parenting by Leonard Sax, MD, PhD., he learned that one of the best ways to teach his son humility was through housework. He told Joey, "If you can't do your job then you're assigned housework. Scrub every pot in the kitchen even though they look clean!" Sal remained steadfast in his son's punishment of no devices, no privileges and housework and although it took a couple months, Joey started to show improvements at home and at school. Unfortunately, Joey tested the waters again in seventh grade with relapses in behavior but once again Sal removed all devices and privileges and Joey's attitude rebounded. Sal was consistent.
2. Finding New Friends
Middle school is not all doom and gloom. Friends Robert and Leslie saw their kids blossom with middle school and a big part of that was making new friends. "The next three years for both children (a boy and a girl) were about as successful as any parent could ask for," Robert explained. "The kids got good grades, played sports and made the right choices with friends, they even began to distance themselves from longtime friends who had not matured as quickly as they had and chose friends who better fit their maturity levels. Since their new friends were coming into their school from many other schools across the city, they began to make their own plans and we were quickly aware that they were becoming young adults."
Linda, my sixth grader, had a harder time with the new group dynamics of middle school and complained of being literally left behind the group when walking the track after lunch. As much as I encouraged her to make new friends she focused on feeling left out. This could be because, unlike Leslie and Robert’s kids, she's an only child. "I put other people first but no one puts me first," she cried. "I'm always the third or fifth wheel." Her spirits got so low that I eventually called one of the moms in our elementary group to ask her if her daughter could remember to include Linda. Although I had the best intentions, I actually made everything worse because Tweens don't want to feign being nice to anyone.
I continued to encourage Linda to look around and find another friendly face and eventually she found another friendship group.
3. Surviving the Group Text and Social Conflict
Getting left behind or excluded by friends in middle school is hard enough but getting ousted online may be even worse. Although kids may not overtly talk bad about you in a group text, if they remove you then that's exactly what’s taking place. When my daughter was in middle school, there weren't a lot of resources online to support parents navigating mobile phone use. The great thing about giving her a phone was I was able to reach her whenever I needed to. She could also speak directly to her Dad, to whom I am divorced, and I opened her up to getting information and connections at her fingertips. While we implemented a phone curfew and discussed how to guard against online predators, we were not equipped to handle the callousness and cruelty that sometimes exists in group texting. While hurt feelings and social conflict are a natural part of middle school evolution, I was cautious about jumping right to the "bully" label.
"When our child suffers a social injury, it’s easy to conclude that he or she has been bullied," Lisa Damour, author and psychologist explains. "While this may be the case, experts suggest that the term bullying is best reserved for repeated, one-way aggression against someone who cannot defend him or herself effectively. The remaining, more prevalent type of social friction — the give and take of interpersonal strife — should be considered to be conflict, not bullying."
For more information about navigating the digital world with Tweens, please see the following:
How to Help Teens and Tweens Manage Social Conflict by Lisa Damour, NY Times.
4. Focus on Relationships
"Our son made friends with a girl in his class in fifth grade elementary school," my friend Robert explained. "It was innocent, they hung out, went to movies with a parent, etc. As they neared the end of the school year, that friendship broke off. We asked him about it and he didn't have much to say or didn't want to talk about it. We believe it became awkward that they got along so well and maybe one of their friends pointed it out or teased them about it."
I was caught off guard by the sudden hyper-focus on who likes whom. While I know my daughter Linda maintained healthy friendships with boys, there were times when she felt boys wanted to be her friend to get close to another one of her friends. Middle school is the ideal time to start talking about healthy relationships between boys and girls and coach your kids on how to navigate their platonic friendships. I especially liked the videos created for Teens from Jennifer Elledge (Barber), MPH, CHES at the South Bay Families Connected Resource Page on Healthy Relationships.
5. Foot Odor
Attitudes are not the only stinky thing about middle school. Although I'd been warned by a former work colleague when my daughter was still in elementary school, I kind of laughed it off. While I planned ahead on how to handle the deodorant and bra conversation, foot odor sneaked up on me and stalked my car and closets.
"While feet do not have the sweat glands that produce oily sweat, socks and shoes hold in moisture allowing bacteria and yeast to grow on feet causing a different type of bad smell," Becky Mather, an Outreach Specialist for the University of Wisconsin Cooperative Extension at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, explained. In her article The Real Stink on Adolescent Body Odor, Mather suggests Tweens wear cotton socks and consider applying deodorant/anti-antiperspirant to the bottom of their dry feet before putting socks on. If possible alternate shoes and let them completely dry before putting them on again. I've also used the washing machine and sneaker balls, as well.
When I asked Robert, who has a daughter and a son, his best advice for new middle school parents he said he'd recommend allowing Tweens to make choices for themselves and let them learn from the consequences. "The best lessons in life are learned from our own mistakes. Also let your kids know that while a diverse group of friends is important, just because they're hanging out with a new group of friends, their old friends should still remain important to them," he continued.
"Encourage your middle schooler to be involved in at least one sport and to tryout for extracurricular teams or clubs, even if he or she is not the best at it," Diamond stressed. Regarding class work, he added, "let them know that some teachers are going to be difficult and they're going to have to adapt to that particular teaching style."
By, Stephanie J. Smith
Related parenting resources on the Families Connected website