Harvard Health: Middle school is tough to navigate: How parents can help

Harvard Health: Middle school is tough to navigate: How parents can help

Middle school can be challenging for many students. It is more academically difficult than elementary school, with more work and higher expectations. Even just changing classes — which for most students begins in middle school — can be daunting. It can be socially challenging, as students try to find friends and community amidst what can be very difficult peer pressure. This is also when some students begin to experiment with sexuality and substance use, which can be overwhelming — even if you see the second through the experiences of friends.

So what can parents do? Here are some suggestions for helping your middle schooler navigate these new waters.

Support school work and socializing

Help them stay organized and on task. Keeping assignments and tests straight across multiple classes is a change. Encourage your child to use a daily or weekly planner (paper or online). Help them create a schedule that ensures they finish their homework while still having time for exercise and other activities. Resist the urge to micromanage; the idea is to help your child acquire skills — and any real acquisition of skills involves making some mistakes.

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Consider the effects of screen time — and social media. Screen time has a way of eating into things like homework, sleep, and other important uses of time. And social media is not only a distraction but a source of anxiety for middle schoolers. Everyone and everything looks perfect on social media, whether they are or not. It’s easy to feel low or left out. Have basic rules about device use, such as not using during meals or homework, and charging the phone outside the room at night.

Get to know their teachers and school culture. Go to the fall open house. Sign up for any conferences or other resources offered to parents. Join the PTO or find volunteer opportunities, as much as you can with your own responsibilities. This will give you useful context and connect you with other parents.

Support healthy habits

Keep healthy habits in mind. A healthy diet, regular exercise, and a good night’s sleep are essential. If life is too busy, consider making some healthy snacks, lunches, or dinners ahead of the weekend. Exercise can be as simple as a walk — maybe even to school or with the dog.

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Encourage your child to participate — but not overschedule. Joining a club, sport, or other school-sponsored activity is a great way to make friends and grow as a person. At the same time, we all need downtime. Make sure downtime is scheduled with any extracurricular activities. Some of that downtime should be fun family time, like a game or movie night, or going out for ice cream, or whatever your child enjoys.

Strengthen bonds — yours and theirs

Keep the lines of communication open. Eat meals together, make sure to spend time together and talk — or rather, listen. It’s always a good idea to listen to more than one speech, and this is especially true in middle school. Ask open-ended questions. Make it clear that you are not judging. Be supportive and positive. Try to validate strong emotions, which can help control them.

Remember that the point is not to give advice but to help them feel comfortable talking to you, something that won’t be true in the long run if the conversation turns to your opinions. Sometimes it’s easier to talk when it’s less serious, like watching a movie or sitting in the car — using media can also be a useful way to start conversations about difficult things like relationships.

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Keep your expectations reasonable and fair. Your child doesn’t need to get straight As in middle school to get into a good college. They also don’t have to be the leader in the school play or the best in their sports team. Have some ground rules about homework, healthy habits, and keeping commitments (and agreed-upon tasks), but continue to emphasize quality of life over achievement. This is the time to find their way; let them do that.

Ask for help if you need it. If your child is struggling in some way, someone can always help — like a teacher, guidance counselor, a friend or family member, or your pediatrician. Adolescence is difficult for both the child and the parent; we are all better off when we go through difficult things together than alone.