Tips for Parents on a Successful Transition to Middle School

Young woman sitting with her son reading bookYes, middle school may be a time full of awkwardness and self-doubt, but it is also a time of incredible transformation and movement toward independence. With regard to its impact on human development, this period of life is second only to the period from infancy to age three.

Think about that for a minute.

Remember how much your child changed from birth to age three? That’s how much change, growth, and development will happen over these next three years as your teen navigates middle school! Get ready for a wild ride!

Many of the parents I work with feel lost, unsure of how much support to offer their middle school student. How much independence is enough? How much is too much? How do you support a child without being a helicopter parent?

I like to compare the situation to teaching a child to swim. Think about the stages we go through with swimming. When our kids are toddlers, we go in the pool with them and we never let go. Later, we let them swim farther and farther away from us, but we stay in the pool so we can rescue them at any moment. Eventually, when we are comfortable with their skills, we let them swim while we watch from our lounge chair. I think of parenting during middle school as that last stage. We are on the sidelines offering guidance and support. We are right there if they get into trouble, but, mostly, we let them do their thing.

In the spirit of parenting from the sidelines, here are some tips to help make your child’s transition to middle school successful:

1. Encourage self-advocacy.

Self-advocacy is one of the most important skills your teen will learn over the next few years. Speaking up for himself or herself and knowing how to ask for what they need is a critical, lifelong skill. Your teen can only learn it if you make an intentional effort to back away and let him or her step up to the plate.

  • When your teen has a question about homework, make sure he or she contacts the teacher, not you. Help your teen brainstorm what to say, and maybe even craft the email or conversation together. But let the message come from your teen.
  • When your kid forgets to do homework, let him or her approach the teacher to work it out. Maybe your child will need to stay in for lunch. Maybe the assignment can’t be made up and your teen will have to deal with the zero. Either way, let the student work it out with the teacher.
  • When your teen feels like another student wronged him or her, teach them to use the office as a resource. Help your teen report the incident to a counselor or dean, but let him or her take the lead.

Side note: With all of these examples, I encourage parents to follow up with teachers to make sure your child really did follow through and advocate for themselves. I have written many emails that simply say “I’m just checking to make sure my daughter talked to you about … ” This is very different from taking the lead and contacting teachers to solve it yourself.

2. Allow your teen to struggle.

This one is always hard for parents, and for good reasons. We don’t like to see our children struggle. Our instinct is to jump in and rescue. However, we all know that the greatest lessons in life come from learning from our mistakes, and if our goal is to raise children to become strong, independent adults, we need to learn to let them stumble.

  • Our kids take their lead from our energy as parents. The attitude you project will be the attitude they absorb. These next three years will be an unbelievable transformation! Allow your child to suffer the “natural consequences” of being unprepared for class. Maybe he or she will serve a detention. Maybe your teen will receive a zero. It will sting and your child will be upset, but hopefully habits will start to change.
  • Stop rescuing! Don’t bring the missing work to school for your teen. Don’t write the teacher a note about how busy your family was and why homework didn’t get finished. Let your teen learn to deal with the consequences.
  • Focus on growth instead of grades. Your child won’t earn an A on every single assignment, and that’s okay. Focus your conversations on how hard he or she is working, what is being learned, what support is needed, and how skills are growing, rather than just what your teen’s grades are.

The most important thing parents can do at this age is learn to ask, “How can I help? What kind of support to do you need?” instead of “How can I fix this for you?”

3. Encourage positive risk-taking.

Middle school is the perfect time to try new things, and becoming comfortable with taking positive risks is another critical skill in teen development. Some ideas for middle school risk-taking include:

  • Try a new sport.
  • Join a club or start a new one.
  • Volunteer or start a new charity drive at school.
  • Expand your circle of friends.
  • Try a music class.

There are so many ways your teen can learn to take a positive risk. The important part as a parent is to always acknowledge and praise the effort and courage it takes to try something new.

4. Keep your communication and connection strong.

Even with all of this new independence, your teen still needs you. In fact, I would argue that he or she needs a strong connection with you now more than ever. Your teen will most certainly start pushing you away, but rest assured he or she is craving connection. Some new twists on connecting at this age:

  • Find some new, creative ways to ask how your teen’s day was. Encourage him or her to tell you fun stories from the day, not just list the details about homework and grades.
  • Become involved in your teen’s social media. If you allow your teen to have social media accounts, use the apps as one more opportunity to engage with him or her. Send funny quotes you found, “like” pictures and videos, ask about celebrities your child is following. Engaging via social media gives you the double bonus of connecting and monitoring activity all at once.
  • Let your bedtime routine evolve, but not disappear. Maybe he or she is too old for bedtime stories and songs, but you’re still needed. Ask how things are going with friends. Let you teen share a new favorite song with you (even if you hate it).
  • Carve out time to spend together. Coffee dates, movie nights, watching your favorite show together—make one-on-one time a priority. Your teen is never, ever too old for that. I promise.

Middle school is hard. There’s no doubt about that, but it doesn’t have to be miserable. Be thoughtful about the messages you are sending your kids about this new adventure. Are you allowing your own biases to fill their heads with the idea that middle school is terrible and you just have to suffer through it and try to survive? Or are you letting your kids know that it’s going to be exciting, energizing, challenging, and new?

Our kids take their lead from our energy as parents. The attitude you project will be the attitude they absorb. These next three years will be an unbelievable transformation! Prepare for it, brace yourself for it, but most of all, enjoy it!

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  • maxwell

    September 2nd, 2015 at 8:33 AM

    I thought that middle school would be tough for the kids but luckily they all had a pretty easy transition. I think that it really helped that they have all always had a pretty tight network of close friends so that would help with the struggle just a little bit. I know that there are some kids who don’t have that kind of ease, but my kids did and I am so thankful for that.

  • Cheryl

    September 2nd, 2015 at 9:23 AM

    I’m so happy to hear the transition to middle school has gone well for your kids. Having close friends makes a huge difference! Middle School gets a reputation for being such a miserable time — but it doesn’t have to be :-)

  • maxwell

    September 3rd, 2015 at 8:30 AM

    Thanks! If I may add one more thing I would like to say that we always thought that being there for our kids when they were babies and toddlers was the most important thing, and it was, but I think that if possible it is even more important to be there for them now. There is so much angst and confusion and it is good for them to know that you are always going to be available when they need you.

  • Gabi

    September 3rd, 2015 at 1:42 PM

    These are truly the torturous years!
    But they can also be the time when your child really gets to know who he or she is, so it can be a great time to let them spread their wings and fly.

  • dale

    September 4th, 2015 at 11:36 AM

    I had one child who breezed through it and I had another that I practically had to drag to school kicking and screaming. It can be a challenge with each individual child but it is good for them to know that they have the love and support of their parents at home to help them get through that middle school jungle.

  • Clinton

    September 5th, 2015 at 11:39 AM

    As much as you may want to do it don’t be the parent who has to ride in and save the day anytime one little thing goes wrong.
    yes you can be the for your child to support him or her but show then that this is something that they can on their own.
    Don’t you remember how good it made you feel the first time that you were able to deal with something on your own without your parents?
    Kids today need that too and the way that they get this kind of confidence is for us to back off even times when we don’t want to.

  • Linda

    September 7th, 2015 at 10:50 AM

    I have kids who have never had a hard time sticking up for themselves, and while in some ways this has been very reassuring there have been other times when I wish that they would have learned a little more about keeping their mouths closed at times.

  • Cooke

    September 11th, 2015 at 10:10 AM

    Teach them to be strong and resilient, and that there are always going to be certain things that they have to let roll off of their backs. I am nit saying to let someone bully them or anything like that, but they just sort of have to learn to roll with the punches at times and teach them that sometimes the best choice is to turn the other cheek and walk away.

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