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What's Up Magazine

Stuck In The Middle With You

Jan 24, 2012 07:12PM ● By Anonymous

Middle schoolers—those eye rolling, sassy-mouthed, text messaging, hormonally insane students enrolled in sixth through eighth grades—are no longer kids nor are they adults. They are muddling through the turbulent middle. These are challenging years for both adolescents and their “embarrassing” parents. I know. I’m a middle schooler’s embarrassing parent. I can tell you that it’s also a time when your child blossoms—discovering passions, self-awareness, and self-reliance.

This new need for independence may be unsettling for parents, especially for worrywarts like myself. We want our children to be responsible self-starters.

We are also concerned for their happiness and safety. So how do you know when to keep quiet and when to advocate for your child? It can be tricky. “Changing your perception of what constitutes a crisis is one of the many adjustments required for understanding your child’s frequent emotional shifts,” writes Joe Bruzzese, author of A Parents’ Guide to the Middle School Years. “Although bullying and drug abuse call for strong parent support and presence, occasional spats between friends or a challenging homework assignment rarely do. Instead, you should view many of these situations as valuable opportunities for your child to figure things out on his own—and grow in the process.”

My Best Friend for the Next Hour
Friendship is an area where parents may need to back off. Middle school friendships change daily, the status careening from best friend to enemy to best friend again in less than an hour. Parents should keep their sanity and stay away from the minute-to-minute drama. In your child’s attempt to discover his or her identity and find a like-minded social group, he or she may encounter a clique. The clique (most parents will remember this from their own adolescence) often refuses to let new kids join in.

Peers mean everything to middle schoolers and the rejection stings. Encourage your child to avoid the cliques and make friends with kids who offer positive support. This may take time and can be tough on parents. One sixth grade mother confided to me, “My heart breaks when I watch my child try to find a place to belong, but I know I have to let her find her own way. I have to believe that she will.”

The Scary Stuff
Bullying is another matter. Like everything else, bullying has moved into the digital age. Cyberbullying is on the rise among both boys and girls because it allows the bully to be anonymous. If your child is being bullied or is the bully, this is a time to get involved. The bully’s intention is to embarrass, harass, intimidate, or threaten another child using electronics. The bullying occurs via email, text messaging, and posts to blogs and websites. Research indicates that the longer the bullying continues, the more difficult it is to stop. Schools can help parents with cyberbullying situations, and more schools now educate students on cyberethics.

Most middle schoolers are not using their cell phones to bully, but most are sending countless text messages. Talk with your child about appropriate cell phone use. Parents will want to monitor responsible behavior for text messages and computer use. There are numerous websites coaching parents on cell phone and Internet safety. If you are like me and your texting vocabulary consists of LOL and BFF, you may want to visit, a free resource to decode text-speak. This is the place to learn that POTS translates to “parents over the shoulder. ”

Monitoring, without becoming an overbearing snoop, is key. I’ve found this risky balancing to be akin to a high-wire act. It’s a slow and careful learning process and you won’t always get it right. “Get to know your child’s friends,” says Debbie Lawrence, a Prince George’s County public school educator and middle school parent living in Annapolis. “If your child is spending time with a friend, a phone call to the friend’s parent is a necessity; it will confirm that another responsible adult will be present.” Psychologists have found that when parents monitor their child’s whereabouts and activities, the adolescent feels accountable and is at a lower risk for a range of bad experiences including drug and alcohol abuse, sexual behavior and delinquency.

Learning to Talk Again
Your former chatterbox may not be talking much now, but parents will want to keep communication going. Bruzzese suggests asking questions with “How” rather than “Why” or “What.” “How did you do so well on your test?” will get better results than questions with yes-or-no answers. Family dinners, shared activities and car rides can create good opportunities to talk.

Middle schoolers do like to be involved in family plans such as vacations or discussions that directly affect them, like allowances and future education plans. “Sometimes your child may prefer to talk with another trusted adult rather than a parent,” says Debbie Lawrence. “A teacher, neighbor or family friend can be a good confidant.”

And don’t forget to talk with the teacher. It’s true, parents no longer have the cozy, one-on-one relationship they had with their child’s elementary school teachers. Still, Raymond Bibeault, Senior Manager for Middle School Improvement in Anne Arundel County, recommends that parents communicate with teachers. “Parents with any concern should e-mail the teacher,” he says. “We are there to serve the parents as well as the children.” Many schools have systems for parents to view grades and homework assignments. Anne Arundel County uses ParentCONNECTxp. This is an invaluable tool for parents who are overly familiar with the words “I forgot.”

Whether public or private, entering middle school is fraught with unfamiliar logistics. Moving between classrooms, managing multiple subject notebooks, finding a few seconds to visit the bathroom, and juggling increased homework with afterschool activities can cause alarm.

Bibeault says that there is one big thing a parent can do to relieve stress—visit the school. “One of the student’s biggest anxieties,” Bibeault notes, “is ‘Am I going to get lost?’ Many students are transitioning from a small school to a large school [middle schools in Anne Arundel County range from 400 students to almost 1,300]. This is an opportunity for both parent and child to walk the building before school starts and make some sense of the surroundings.” Bibeault also suggests visiting your guidance counselor as well as practicing your child’s locker combination (another source for BIG anxiety).

In addition, parents will want to reinforce a love of reading. “If students don’t learn to become strong readers now, they will become lost in high school,” says Patrick Beisell a Teach For America sixth grade language arts teacher. Beisell says that middle schoolers who are reluctant readers are not too old to be read aloud to by their parents. “Reading together is a great opportunity for a parent to create discussion around the material.”

Finding a Voice
To succeed academically, middle school students need to feel confident emotionally. Social development and building a distinct identity are as important as academics. “They want their own voice, separate from parents, teachers and siblings,” says Dr. Allison Druin, professor and associate dean for research at the University of Maryland’s iSchool. Druin’s group at the university’s Human-Computer Interaction Lab found that kids like to use storytelling to be independent. “We as people need storytelling as a way of expressing our hopes and fears, who we are, and what we are thinking and doing. Middle school kids are no different.” Researchers at the lab have designed the very cool StoryKit, a free iPhone, iPodtouch and iPad app. Kids of all ages can write, draw, use sound and photos to create their own books. This can be done anytime and anywhere and can be shared in-person or electronically with friends and family.

Creative expression is a life-long practice that is important for selfreflection, imaginative thinking and exploration, and I have found that this practice can help your child stay grounded through the many challenges of middle school. The talents of Chekhov or Renoir are not required to reap the benefits of inspiration and confidence.

An electronic or hand-written journal, art journal, doodle book, journal of thoughts and observations, collage, vision board, etc. are all great outlets for girls and yes, boys too. As with adults, these tools can act as a compass for where we are and point the way we hope to go.

They provide invaluable focus as your adolescent navigates his way through the confusing, but exciting, middle path.

Lynn Schwartz teaches fiction and life stories at St. John’s College, The Writer’s Center in Annapolis, and creative journaling to middle schoolers through