Thursday, February 18, 2016

The Stresses of Parenting a Middle School Student

At Bosque, we don’t ascribe to the notion that middle school has to feel like an endless three years of angst and turmoil.  In fact, this time in a child’s life can be exciting and invigorating if it is approached in a good way.  For educators, this means that we don’t view middle school as merely “pre-high school”; rather, it’s a time to meet children where they are as they question themselves, their world, and the things they previously took for granted.  This is one of the
reasons that at Bosque we have separate divisions for middle and high school students—we value these different phases in the lives of adolescents equally, and we don’t want to rush either the middle or the high school experience.  

Similarly, the job of parenting a child in middle school is very different than it was when our children were in elementary school, or it will be when they enter high school.  For this reason, it can be very stressful as our children seem to change overnight.  A Bosque parent recently sent me a CNN article, “Middle School: The New High School for Moms.”  (I am not sure why Dads were left out of the article, but that’s a discussion for another day.) As this piece states, for some parents, the most intense years of parenting are when a child is in middle school; that is when she navigates an entirely new world of social pressures and also experiences the contradictory feelings of independence from parents while still wanting Mom and Dad in her life.  

At times, our children will push us away as they desire to individuate and develop their own sense of self, and this is developmentally appropriate. However, at other times they will also give us signals that they do want us in their lives; but those signs may be subtle, and if we’re not careful, we may miss them in our confusion. As the article states, we cannot throw our hands up in frustration and surrender; our children do want our guidance, but this is not easy for them to say. We should create the conditions where they can let us know that they still need their parents, but in a manner that doesn’t make them feel weak or subservient.  Striking this balance can be tricky indeed. We also need to reassure them that what feels like a potentially permanent crisis may be a situation that is temporary—but we need to say this in a way that doesn’t feel  condescending or paternalistic.  This means not minimizing what they’re experiencing today by saying that it is nothing compared to what they will encounter down the road.  Early in my teaching career when I used the term “real world” to explain to a student what she would have to face later, she reminded me that “this is our real world.” I have tried to avoid that phrase ever since.  

Perhaps one of the ways to decrease the tension for us as parents is to enter this phase of our lives with a different mindset than the one the popular media continually gives us. If we go into parenting an adolescent as something tantamount to the television show “Survivor,” we will view every situation as a potential conflict and, in our steeling ourselves emotionally, we will send the wrong message to our teen that we are expecting a battle. If we see these years as a time of growth for our children and as a time of change for us, we may be able to breathe deeply and have a sense of inner calm as our children do what they are supposed to do—figure out who they are in relation to their peers and to us. We need to realize that the mixed signals we receive are perfectly normal and, in fact, are a healthy sign of our children’s growth and maturation process.   It’s not necessarily fun all the time, but it can be more enjoyable than we’ve been led to believe if we allow ourselves to travel this road alongside our children.