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Caught in the middle
Tween years full of stressors for children and parents alike

By JOANN PETASCHNICK 

June 14, 2010

Outside influences, such as television and the Internet, can send middle-schoolers conflicting messages.


The leap from elementary to middle school is the beginning of the most stressful time of their young lives. A new school, new rules, new friends and trying to fit in; all of these are of paramount importance to tweens and young teens.

"The most important thing for parents to realize is the middle school years represent the transition from children being parent-centered to peer-centered. In third or fourth grade, they turn to their parents first. By the time theyíre in eighth grade, they are more involved with what is going on with their peers than their parents," according to Dr. Paul Norton, a developmental behavioral pediatrician at Greensquare Developmental Specialists/Childrenís Medical Group in Glendale.

It can often seem like parentsí and kidsí concerns are at odds during this critical time. "Parentsí main worry is their kidsí security, and kids are becoming infused with the idea of wanting freedom," Norton says. "They are entering into a culture where they donít have all the rules or donít understand the rules. So, itís a stressful time for kids and for parents who want to help."

School Stress

Some of the biggest worries at this time of life revolve around school. "When my son started the sixth grade, he was worried about the size of the school, about using a locker for the first time and about finding his classes," says Gayle Peach, mother of two middle-schoolers. She helped to banish those fears by signing him up for a summer activity at the school. "He took a summer band class so he could become familiar with the school before classes started in the fall."

Outwitting Bullies

Adding to stress levels, bullying tends to peak during these young teen years. "Research data shows that bullying crescendos in middle school; not just physical, but verbal and relational. Boys do more physical bullying, but girls tend to do more relational aggression, which can take the form of verbal slights or socially excluding a girl," says Kathleen Longeway, a clinical psychologist at Childrenís Hospital of Wisconsin.

Bullying has taken an ugly new turn in the form of online or cyberbullying, Longeway says. "Rumors can be started with the stroke of a key. And that kind of bullying is much harder to detect and control, especially when it occurs off school premises. It has opened up doors to insidious verbal and relational abuse, some of which has recently been reported in the media," she says.

Some researchers believe that pressure to gain peer acceptance and status may be related to the increase in teasing and bullying. "If kids are suddenly avoiding school, thatís a red flag that they may be victims of bullying. Parents should be advocates for their children, but donít take action themselves. Speak to school officials or the police," Longeway says.

The Hormonal Storm

As if there werenít enough problems, most middle school kids are experiencing the full force of puberty during this time, as well. "Thereís a hormonal storm brewing, and there are a lot of confusing messages coming from their bodies and environment. Unfortunately, the middle school child very likely will not come to mom and dad with their problems and momís and dadís imaginations may be running wild," Norton says.

Teens have always had pressure to experiment with sex, drugs and alcohol, but today the pressure extends to much younger children. "Some kids have more unsupervised time and certainly more exposure to these things," Longeway says, noting prescription drugs are readily available in some homes. "Parents should be sure to supervise social gatherings or be aware of where their children spend their time. And, donít be so quick to protect them if they get into trouble," she advises. "Sometimes it helps to allow them to experience some negative consequences."

Internet Activities

Most teens spend time on social networking Internet sites like MySpace and Facebook. But too much unsupervised computer time can lead to problems, says Longeway. "Kids are curious and they are eager to fit in. Thatís why parents must supervise their kidsí use of electronic media," she says. She suggests that computers should be placed in a central location if possible, and it is understood that parents can pass through the room at any time.

Peach is concerned that children arenít as careful as they should be about divulging personal information. "Sometimes kids will be too open and say too much about themselves. They donít realize that it isnít just other kids who are looking at these sites," she says. Parents can monitor their childrenís activity with parental control software such as PC Watch.

Anti-Stress Activities

"Stress is a totally normal human emotion that comes from scary "what if" thoughts," says Patty Jackson, life coach with THRIVE! in Pewaukee. "Kids may think, what if I canít, or what if Iím not, or what if I donít have ó fill in the blanks. We all have those thoughts and fears, but they are not always based on reality," she says.

Jackson advises children to stop and think about what they are worried about and what they want to happen. For example, "If a child is thinking, ĎWhat if I get lost?í then they need to make a plan about how to get where they need to go. If they are thinking, ĎWhat if I fail this test,í they need to decide to study. If kids stop, think about their worries, and decide what they want, they can work through many stressful situations," she says.

Stress has a body reaction as well as a mind reaction and breathing exercises can help relieve anxiety, Norton says. "Pay attention to your breathing. Is it too fast, too shallow, too deep? Sometimes I tell people to close their mouth and just breathe through their nose. Knowing your normal breathing pattern helps," he adds.

Hold on Loosely

"The real art of parenting is being involved, but not holding on too tightly," Norton says. "Try to have frequent, nonintrusive contact. Donít ask for a lot of details. If you have had a good relationship up to this point, try to maintain that," he says.

Parents can seek the benefit of other parentsí experience, too. "I will sometimes compare notes with friends and ask how they have handled a certain situation," Peach says.

The American Psychological Association offers some tools for parentswho want to help their children during this turbulent time of life:

Be available. Studies have shown that children arenít comfortable talking to their parents because mom and dad are too busy.

Respond thoughtfully. Remember to focus on your childís feelings about a situation, not your own.

Be honest. Be up front in an age-appropriate way, whether it is marital problems, money or other adult concerns.

Seek help. Thereís no shame in consulting a therapist or doctor.