This is a contributed post by Nik Bowers.
I sat behind my desk, looking at a mom and her daughter with their arms crossed, each refusing to acknowledge the other.
It was my first year as a middle school principal. As a mother, I could understand the mom’s frustration with her daughter.
The attitude she had with her mother was worse than the one she had with her teacher. The mom was frustrated because her daughter “didn’t care,” and how could she force her to care?
For six years, I sat in the front row of many child-adult relationships, helping each grow in their roles at school and as people.
I saw things behind closed doors that broke my heart. I also saw so much growth and success that I fell in love with the process of growing middle schoolers and their parents.
Both of these things, combined with my own research, changed the way I parented.
Five Lessons I Learned about Parenting Middle Schoolers as a Principal
1. You can not microwave maturity; you must give them opportunities to grow.
Many parents want to ignore middle school, but it is a pivotal time in human growth and development.
We can’t force maturity, but we can help build academic, social, and emotional skills that will boost their autonomy and toolbox in high school. You teach them in middle school and refine their skills in high school.
High school gives them time to practice and learn from these skills, giving them opportunities to fail forward and learn before they are off on their own.
Teenagers want risk and challenge. This desire for adventure and responsibility were historically met through apprenticeships that started at the age of 12 or 13.
Now, we set aside time for safety and control; to keep them out of trouble, we give them simulated realities and virtual friendships through electronics. But, they only experience virtual maturity, not real maturity. There is a difference.
What kinds of healthy risks can your child take?
A great way to connect and take some healthy risks is to take a class together where you are both beginners learning something new and work through the fear of not being good at something. Model what that looks like, and celebrate when you learn something new! This is part of a growth mindset when you celebrate growth, not their performance or outcome.
2. Consistency Matters in Middle School Parenting
When I say “consistency,” most people think of instituting boundaries, setting expectations, and following through with discipline.
While that is important, there is something even more critical: consistency in who you are and your character as a parent.
Are you the same person behind closed doors that you are in public? Do your children see your character as being consistent when people are looking and when they are not?
This matters so much to adolescents because they are looking for the real, not the perfect. When parents put on a fake front in public and are completely different at home, your child questions your reliability, what you believe, and your authenticity.
How do you do that?
- Modeling the person you want your child to become.
- Don’t say one thing and do the other.
- Being the most honest person your child knows.
Scientists have found that being consistent as a parent greatly affects a child’s mental and emotional growth. When parents are consistent, their children will pick up the values, skills, and habits they want to teach them.
Consistency in positive parenting allows the child to feel secure, trusting, and loved.
On the other hand, chaotic parenting, which includes discipline that is hard to predict and constantly changing rules, can make a child feel very anxious and low in self-esteem. Parenting that isn’t consistent can have long-lasting effects on how a child sees themselves and the world.
3. Connection builds respect. Control creates resentment.
Tweens want and need connection. Relationships, not more rules, are what empower young people and help them trust and respect each other.
When we get to know kids, empower them, and truly trust them, they tend to lean into the relationship. Relationships trump rules every time.
The goal should be to share control with your tween and slowly give them more autonomy as they learn and grow, gradually releasing responsibility to them over time.
Adolescents who have overbearing parents might turn to compliant deviance as a coping strategy. This means that even though they seem to follow the rules set by their parents when they are alone or no one is watching, they act in ways their parents think are wrong.
This kind of rebellion is an attempt to make one’s freedom known. Parents might not realize how often this happens when students have to deal with different expectations from their parents and a desire to be independent.
Related: Middle School, the Hardest Time Yet as a Parent (So Far)
4. Interpret instead of lecture.
Big kids do not need more information from you. Information is available 24/7 and is at their fingertips as their world gets bigger.
One student explained it as “going from a garden hose to a fire hydrant.”
The big problem is that they need context around that information, which adults need to provide.
How do you not lecture but instead interpret? I developed the 3E Model Of Communication to use with tweens and teens.
Engage: You want your child to be involved in thinking, not just receiving information. Engaging them in conversation means getting them to tell you what they know.
You do this by asking thoughtful questions in a calm and relaxed manner and not evaluating what is said. Many parents jump into a conversation with their advice and opinions before they have all the facts. This means that your responses might be way off.
Some tips include
- “Tell me a little about what is going on…”
- Using “it” instead of “you” keeps the feeling of judgment and evaluation away from the conversation. Instead of “You are so messy! Look what you did!” try “Oh, look what happened. Better pick it up so it doesn’t go all over the house.”
- Use “what” instead of “why.” “What happened?” is better than “Why did you do that?” This keeps things neutral.
- Use reflective and sympathetic statements. “Oh wow, that is really weighing on you.”
Explore: Reflecting on what an adolescent says can help them see that there are other ways to solve a problem and take action to solve it. When a parent says, “I heard you” and “It’s normal to feel the way you do,” the teen is more likely to think, “What can I do about it?”
Tweens and teens are creative with solutions when they are ready. As a parent, you must read your child to see when they are prepared to explore solutions. Sometimes, they need more time to vent.
A possible phrase to use includes: “Are there any alternatives to that?”
Also, keep in mind, it’s okay to skip the closing comment and not have the last word. Being the “winner” in every discussion necessitates having a “loser,” and that is usually the tween or teen.
Explain: Once the information is out and processed, this is when the parent can fill in the blanks. The goal is not to have to explain everything, but sometimes some misconceptions or misunderstandings need to be clarified.
This is not a lecture of your opinions, but more of an FYI. You grow them in the calm moments, not the chaotic ones.
5. Help Them Answer These Important Questions:
- Who am I?
- What do I believe?
- What am I good at?
- What are my strengths?
- What are my weaknesses?
- How do I matter? With my friends? My family?
- How do I fit in?
- Am I normal?
Forging a solid relationship in middle school can help you parent more effectively during the teen years.
Three years later, the mom and daughter sat in my office as the girl prepared to enter ninth grade and discussed her new goals for high school.
The relationship was very different. Over the course of three years, we took time to drill down to the heart of the matter.
I saw this mother-daughter duo grow a deep and respectful relationship. The mom had to pull back and adapt her parenting to her evolving daughter. The daughter was interested in music, so they took a guitar class. The young girl found something to care about, and they shared in the learning process.
The mom also worked on being more open and honest with her daughter. Since the mother remarried, the daughter felt lost in their relationship. It was up to the mother to become more open and authentic with her communication and be more consistent in how she showed up for her daughter.
Middle school parenting is a hard but critical time
Being a principal was the most challenging job I ever had besides being a mom.
Working with middle schoolers is like attempting to herd a group of cats, each with their own unique personality and challenges.
But their unwavering honesty and openness made me realize how wonderful being a tween or teen really is.
I learned to keep my cool, ask questions, laugh, and embrace the messy but beautiful process of growing humans.
More than that, I learned that connecting with my teens and tweens, instead of trying to control them, gave them the space and grace to discover who they were from the inside out.
Like this post? You may also like to read: Dear Son: Here Are 13 Promises on Your 13th Birthday
Looking for more information on raising your middle school tween or teen?
We love this book, Finding the Magic in Middle School by Chris Balme. It’s an empowering guide for parents and teachers seeking a positive, practical alternative to the confusion and struggles of middle school.
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