Transition to middle school can be traumatic – but doesn’t have to be

One moment she’s the cuddly kid you’ve always known, the next she is a surly face you barely recognize at the dinner table. The biggest issue at school is no longer getting a yellow card for not raising her hand before talking. It’s mean girls, wobbly grades, new friends you’ve never met and teachers you don’t know.

No matter how prepared we think we are, the changes that occur in middle school still catch us a bit off balance.

“In sixth grade, the biggest transition was that struggle between how much do you let them go on their own and kind of feel their way and how much do you step in,” says mom of three, Patti Minglin of Aurora. “I don’t think I ever did figure that out, quite frankly.”

While it’s difficult to deal with all the changes-don’t even mention the hormones-it’s worse when you feel powerless to help your child make this important transition from the small pond of elementary school to the big pond of middle school.

So we reached out to an expert for some down-to-earth advice and tips for helping our kids through these changes. Not only is Jeffrey Gersten a dad in the trenches with us, he’s a licensed clinical psychologist who specializes in working with children and adolescents at the Gersten Center for Behavioral Health located on Loyola’s Gottlieb Memorial Hospital campus in Melrose Park.

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Jeffrey Gersten

The issues he says he sees in the middle school years stem from kids trying to figure out who they are, where they fit in and how they are changing.

“I think overall the issues with middle school are always going to be related to the overall struggle for independence and dependency,” he writes.

His top tips for parents:

  • Give your child more independence and responsibility. “The child is becoming his own person and should not be coerced into becoming a shadow of parents’ unfulfilled dreams and expectations. That means that while the parent may value music or sports, the child may not show the talent or interest and should be allowed to develop in other areas,” he writes.

  • Be there for emotional support and encouragement. A parent cannot make a child’s struggle with how he sees himself regarding his peers and academic abilities go away, Gersten says, but parents can be there to help their children see how they can handle some of the situations on their own. “Never forget the value of praising your child’s accomplishments on any level, and when they have a disappointment in regards to grades or sports, etc., don’t feel the need to sugarcoat everything. Let them talk about how it felt and validate those feelings, and help the child develop a plan towards achieving whatever goal they have,” he writes.

  • Minglin says the best advice she ever received when her daughter was in middle school was to keep in mind that everything her daughter said was really important to her really was important to her.

    “When she came to me with things that were a big issue, I let her say they were a big issue and kind of let her get through that and we could talk about it. The minute I started to say, ‘oh come on,’ then she shut down.”

  • We’ve heard it a million times, but it’s true: Keep talking with your kids. Gersten suggests starting conversations about peer issues, such as peer pressure, gossiping and backstabbing, and teaching your kids to stand up for themselves. “Children will inevitably make mistakes in this area, and parents can help them figure out how to rectify mistakes, such as by apologizing.”

    Role play problems that can arise with teachers and peers and practice ways to solve them, he suggests. And as hard as it might be, he says “parents need to be mindful not to ‘pester’ their children to tell them everything, while at the same time letting them know that they are there for them if needed.”

  • Talk about changes your child will be experiencing. Keep it positive. And remember, emotional changes cannot be seen so give your child “a bit of slack” if they appear moody or irritable at times, he says.

  • Help increase organization skills. Set routines for morning, after school and evening. Write out easy-to-follow tasks and help them succeed with them, including shadowing them in the beginning.

Chicago parents say…

Asked about the kookiest things their middle schoolers do,
parents listed these:

  • Wearing Silly Bandz, those colorful animal-shaped rubber
  • Texting each other while sitting right next to each other
  • Talking on their cell phone constantly
  • Living on Facebook
  • Tattooing each other with permanent markers
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