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
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
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."
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.
"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,"
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.