Parenting a Middle Schooler? Welcome to the Club.

So, you’re the parent or caregiver of a middle schooler. Welcome to the club! This can be one of the most challenging parenting tests you’ve faced so far. While your child is testing boundaries and limits, it may feel like what’s really being tested is your patience.

Understanding what’s going on with your middle schooler can go a long way toward fostering healthy relationships and creating some peace in your home.

While every child and family are different, here are some pointers to help you navigate the challenging middle-school years.

Normal emotional changes in middle schoolers

It’s normal to find that your middle schooler is more tearful, emotional, angry or short-tempered than ever before. She may also begin to spend more time alone in her room. Maybe your teen is quieter or more reserved. As hormonal changes occur, these are all normal behaviors for children at this age.

In middle school, children begin to connect more with their peers and a bit less with you, their parents or caregivers. This is a healthy part of children gaining a new sense of independence, seeing themselves as “separate” from their parents. While a child’s desire for alone time is normal, Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta Strong4Life licensed therapist Erin Harlow-Parker, APRN, warns, “Withdrawing from parents and focusing on peers is appropriate, but complete isolation and not having interactions with family may be cause for concern.” So, give your middle schooler space, but be aware when it becomes a consistent habit or when your middle schooler seems to consistently be withdrawn. If you are concerned about your child’s behavior, reach out to your pediatrician about getting additional help.

Prepare for changes in school routines and expectations

Now that they’ve finished elementary school, more responsibility is put on children in middle school to manage their own schedules and schoolwork. Think of middle school as preparation for high school. Becoming more independent, learning time management, and balancing school, social life and extracurricular activities are all key lessons to be learned in middle school.

And all of this is on top of hormonal changes that can make emotions and stress more intense. It’s no wonder kids this age can seem moody!

3 keys to connecting with your preteen

  1. Listen. When your child is ready to talk, be available. Listen actively. Be there with an open mind and hear what she is saying. It may be difficult, but try not to interject. Just listen.
  2. Don’t be afraid to have hard conversations. Parenting a middle schooler is a tough job. Not only are you dealing with changing emotions in a developing preteen, but you are also confronted with conversations that may make you uncomfortable. It’s important, however, to create a space where your child feels safe to report anything going on in her life. Let her open up; it will set a great precedent for the future.
  3. Don’t judge or overreact to things she tells you. This can be difficult, but if you react harshly or judgmentally in the moment, your child will be less likely to open up to you in the future.

If your child doesn’t feel like talking, don’t take it personally. It’s normal for children at this age to distance themselves from parents and caregivers. Give your child space, while also letting her know that you’re there for her.

Help your child be more responsible

Organization and time management do not come naturally for most of us. However, they’re very important skills to have to be successful in middle and high school (and life after school, too!), and some kids may need more help learning how to manage these new responsibilities.

Here are 4 things you can do to help your middle schooler succeed:

  1. Be OK with your child’s mistakes. “Let your child manage his own agenda and calendar,” says licensed therapist Jody Baumstein, LCSW. “It might be tempting to do it for him, but the only way he can learn is to try himself. It’s OK if he fails! Experiencing failure, and learning from it, is an important part of building resilience.”
  2. Help your child learn from his mistakes. Baumstein says, “Once failure occurs, have a sit-down and talk it through together: ‘What happened? What can we learn from this experience?’”
  3. Set firm limits and boundaries, and stick to them. It may not seem like it to your child, but children (even at this age) thrive with rules and limitations. The limits you set create a sense of predictability and comfort, and they can help reduce stress and anxiety.
  4. Enforce rules consistently. Although it can be uncomfortable at times, consistent enforcement of rules teaches kids to respect order and authority, and it gives them “ground rules” for how to behave as adults.

How to manage “power struggles”

In middle school, it’s common for children to test limits. This is a normal part of development as middle schoolers enter the teen years and young adulthood.

Your child will likely test you on virtually everything. If you can anticipate this behavior—knowing she will be “prickly” or distant at times—then you may be less likely to react emotionally. Prepare for it because, chances are, it’s coming. When it does happen, try not to react emotionally in the moment. Baumstein says, “That’s a time for you, as a parent, to walk away from the situation, and talk about it later. Pause, and try not to engage in the power struggle.” Of course, this is easier said than done. So, take a breath. You’ve got this!