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Transitioning to Middle School: Guidelines for Your Child’s Social Life

January 1, 2016/by Jane Romeo

This post is part of our “Because Kids Don’t Come With Instructions” series edited by Ellen Taner. The series is in support of FamilyKind’s Systematic Training for Effective Parenting (STEP) program launched during the fall of 2015.

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Question: My daughter will be starting middle school next year. How can I help her adjust to the big social changes without being too intrusive?

Response: The transition into middle school can be a difficult time. At times you and your child will be excited and sometimes, afraid of this big transition academically, socially, and physically. Children tend to rely more heavily on the opinions and attitudes of peers and begin to pull away from their parents. However, it doesn’t mean you will no longer have a significant influence over your child’s movement towards independence.

Meeting new kids from several different schools whose families are unfamiliar to you may feel unsettling for you and your child. However, it may also be a wonderful time to explore new interests. Encourage your child to join sports teams, clubs or other extracurricular activities. Explore their interests and passions and find activities that are a good fit for them, ones they will enjoy and stick with even during difficult challenges. However, ease any loneliness in the beginning months by encouraging your child to arrange dates with grade school or other familiar friends.

These middle school years are often referred to as the “drama years”. Your child is experiencing physical changes (possibly beginning puberty) which only adds to the unease and insecurity that a new social environment can provide. Mood swings become rampant, “popularity” and “coolness” become more paramount. Their body image and clothing start to take precedence over many other things. Kids like to be part of a group and being perceived as different can be a devastating feeling.

Friendships change, often weekly, with tears or fights. It’s tough to let them experience being at the receiving end of a social conflict without stepping in. You can, however, let your child know you are interested in what’s going on, that you want to hear about their day. If you are patient, are a good listener and don’t try to be too corrective, chances are they’ll be more apt to share their experiences with you. Invite your child into the conversation by asking what they think they can do, what is their opinion of why this is happening, and just listen. Too many questions or advice may make them want to back off from talking altogether. Some kids will naturally want to share, while others may not want to discuss these matters with you. It can be a delicate balance at this age.

Experiment with different times or activities that encourage conversation such as during meal preparation together, bedtime, taking a walk, driving, or other activity. If your child still needs to be encouraged to open up, schedule a weekly “sharing time” for the entire family to talk about a highlight, and a low point of the week. To make it fun, have a household object such as a pillow, or an old stuffed animal that is held by the speaker until they are done sharing. Keep the time to five minutes per person to start. Privately with your child, come back to anything you heard that you want to explore further. It’s always helpful to share your own problem solving strategies you used to handle your low point, as well as what you did when there was a highlight.

Be open to using resources that are available at school, in the community, or FamilyKind. Consider taking a parenting class with other families with adolescents to learn effective communication and family management skills that will help minimize the “drama” and increase the maturity you want for your child.

Middle school is a time of developmental and social change for your child. Be ready to accept the rollercoaster of emotions and social fluctuations with patience and understanding and with time you’ll be witness to their newfound growth and independence.

Jane Romeo is a Systematic Training for Effective Parenting (STEP) educator. Learn more.

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