Advice on navigating middle school from a Chicago tween

The new school year always brings a unique combination of excitement and anxiousness. Those emotions are heightened for both parents and kids whenever it means starting a new level of school, be it kindergarten or middle school, or walking the halls of high school for the first time as a freshman.

My tween daughter started junior high last year. When I asked what advice she had for incoming middle schoolers, she said, “Worrying will only make things worse. Tell yourself that it will go well, and it will. Think of all the kids who have done it and been fine. You will be, too.”

I then asked her if she had any words of wisdom for parents who have kids setting sail on those hormonal seas.

Her response: “Don’t sweat it. Your kid will be fine.”

Out of the mouths of babes, or tweens.

I wish she had given me this good advice a year ago. I was very nervous for her last year and I’m certain she picked up on my anxiousness about starting a new chapter. Despite my less than stellar parental showing, she had a good year and is excited to return for seventh grade.

This year, we’re both far more relaxed and the back to school season has been much less stressful. Lesson learned. Apparently, though, I’m not alone in being a little apprehensive about my child’s middle school experience.

As educator Michelle Icard writes in her book “Middle School Makeover: Improving the Way You and Your Child Experience the Middle School Years,” many parents have a very negative view of middle school and junior high, often based on our traumatic experiences and baggage from the past.

“[W]e’ve created a self-fulfilling prophecy in which, for many kids and parents, middle school really does stink, in part because we fully expect that it should,” says Icard.

She suggests parents reframe the way they both see and talk about middle school, using a more positive lens and words like “opportunity” and “exciting.” Be enthusiastic and your child will pick up on your good vibes.

With the hormones on overdrive, middle school often means more drama than any other educational level. Here are two ways for parents to try to level out the emotional roller coaster:

1. Be the grown-up.

Remember that adolescence is a time to be overly emotional; adulthood is not. It can be so easy to get caught up in your children’s feelings, but you stepping back will serve them so much better. Adolescents think that every small slight and bump in the road is a big deal and if they get a parental reaction every single time, it only reinforces that view. Middle schoolers are old enough to understand that not everything goes their way, and life is sometimes unfair. Their parents are also old enough to accept that.

2. Use the school handbook to your full advantage.

The school handbook likely includes a dress code, behavior requirements and other clearly stated expectations that parents will agree with. Referring to the handbook teaches kids to follow rules for a much broader group, and makes parents seem less like the bad guys.

Remember that a little enthusiasm and positive energy on the part of a parent can make a big impact on how a child views his/her circumstances. Reframing middle school to be a good several years for both parents and students is the first step to making it so.

May you all have a fabulous academic year!

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