Supporting Your Tween With the Transition to Middle School

It’s that time of year already – Fifth Graders are finishing up their last few weeks of elementary school. Summer is coming and then after…Middle School!

Helping tweens with this transition can be daunting for parents. Perhaps, as the parent of an up and coming middle schooler,  you can relate to these challenges:

  • Push and Pull: Your tween wants independence; or, for you to give them space and even ‘back off.’ And yet, they also need lots of support. After all, they are still developing executive function skills like staying organized, staying motivated, and asking for help. How do you back off while keeping them on track? How do you avoid arguments and power struggles?
  • Avoidance: Because it stirs them up and makes them nervous, your tween may want to avoid the topic of Middle School altogether. It’s hard to know how to help if they won’t (or can’t) talk about it.
  • Here and Now Thinking: Middle school can feel like some distant, far off thing to your tween. This can make decision making (e.g. Do you want to sign up for summer band camp? When are soccer tryouts?) challenging to say the least. Help them get organized and future focused by building calendars, lists, and reviewing enrollment paperwork together.
  • Different Priorities: You and your tween may have different priorities for what makes middle school a success. They might be more focused on friends, which elective they get, and whether their class schedule matches their peer group’s. You might be more focused on organizational skills, study skills, and getting into classes that prepare them for high school. This mismatch can sometimes make it hard to work together on a plan for success.
  • Changing Roles: As you prepare to support your tween with this transition, remember that parenting a tween is complex; you might be noticing that what worked in the past doesn’t anymore. Your support role will shift from being a ‘manager’ to a guide. Give your tween more decision making power and opportunities for low-level mistakes (that they learn from), without micromanaging or doing it for them.

Middle School Checklist

With  these challenges in mind, here is a quick check-list of some tasks that will give you a jump start as a Middle School parent:

  • Attend all orientations and Parent Nights.
  • Learn to log into any portals or grading systems.
  • Learn about lunch time and how to keep tabs on their bill; agree on spending limits ahead of time.
  • Make a personal connection with your child’s Home Room Teacher or Counselor.
  • Learn about all After School programs.
  • Pick one sport or activity that sounds interesting and set expectations about being involved.
  • Learn about grading expectations and homework policies; read these with your student.
  • Read (or skim) the Parent Student handbook together; discuss differences between Middle and Elementary school.

Different Levels of Support

With my first child, I had good intentions to do all the things in the above checklist–and then more.

But for a variety of reasons, I didn’t do them thoroughly. For example, I never learned to log into the grading system to check his assignment (gasp!).

Fortunately, he was always on top of things.

But every tween is different; they develop organizational skills and other school readiness skills at different rates and so, need different levels of support from us.

Rather than seeing their need for a higher level of support as a problem, I encourage parents to see this as part of their child’s natural developmental path; even tweens who “would lose their head if it wasn’t attached” (quote from one of my son’s 6th grade teachers about him–super validating as his mom by the way!) are ‘right where they should be.’

Advice For Parents

  • Remind yourself that this is an adjustment for the whole family. Car pools and bus routes are new, social groups are shifting, schedules have changed.
  • Be patient with yourself, especially the first months of the school year. Usually by Halloween things are settling down.
  • Be flexible and expect last minute changes to the schedule.
  • Use all the tools at your disposal to create order and communicate; including digital calendars, wall calendars, post it notes, sharpie notes on your palm.
  • Expect to forget things (oops! It’s my carpool day) and be patient and forgiving of yourself.
  • Take care of yourself: eat well, drink water, sleep, get some time for movement or rest each day. From experience: never drive a minivan full of tweens without the right sustenance in your body–being hungry, tired, thirsty yourself will make the chatter in the back seat somewhat overwhelming.
  • Ask for help when you need it and accept help when you think you don’t need it.
  • Enjoy the new found independence and freedom! This is an exciting new chapter in everyone’s life. Your child is quickly becoming a young adult and you can let go of the reins a bit at a time.

Advice For Tweens Directly From Tweens

I asked my two Middle Schoolers (Sixth and Eighth grade) what advice they would give to incoming Middle Schoolers.  Here are some highlights of what I heard from them:

  • Try to be yourself, even when other people are showing off or “being annoying.”
  • Try to go to the same school as some of your friends from elementary school. That way, you will have some friends right away.
  • But also, friendships will change in Middle School. And so, try to meet some new people.
  • Do a sport or a school activity.
  • Check your grades twice a week.
  • Turn in all your assignments; don’t get 0’s. 
  • Stay out of the drama. Especially if it’s on social media.
  • Get your homework done at school if you can.
  • Have fun! Middle school is cool.

Tips For Making the Transition Smooth

1.   Identify Trusted Adults Right Away

Help your tween identify at least one adult who they feel ‘gets them’ and who they know cares about them.Ideally more than one. Maybe it’s a coach, the school librarian, a counselor, or one of your tween’s favorite teachers.

2.   Help Your Tween Join Something

It takes time to build relationships and feel comfortable at a new school. Encourage (even require) that your tween joins a school activity: a club, a sport, Band, may a D&D or the Chess Club. Joining in creates a sense of connection and belonging.

3.   Stay Involved (but back off!)

Keep asking about how things are going and when you don’t get more of a grumpy grumble in reply, stick with it! A lot of times you tween will want to talk later into the evening, when younger siblings are in bed. Maybe ask for a ‘rose’ (something that went well) and a ‘thorn’ (sticky, yucky part of their day). Avoid the urge to jump in and ‘fix’ things when they report feeling unhappy. Try to just listen and validate their experience.

4.   Avoid Buying-Into the Hype and Fear

There is a lot of fear out there about Middle School–books and movies focus on how awful it is and as parents, we hear lots of horror stories about overcrowded classrooms or fights in the hallway. Chances are your Fifth Grader is hearing some of this as well. For example, my Fifth Grader was told that he was going to “be jumped everyday” because of being short. There’s a lot of hype! And so, help your tween by questioning these stories, visiting the school together, and talking to real people who have had success in middle school.

5.   Help Your Tween Expand Their Friend Group

Middle School is often a time when friendships shift and change. It is normal for kids this age to seem to ‘float’ between friend groups; they are forming a stronger sense of themselves, what they like and don’t like, and often working to figure out all the nuances of the social scene, which gets complicated by puberty and different levels of maturity.

It’s also not like elementary school where you may have just set playdates for them. And so, the process of reaching out to other parents can feel less straightforward. But here’s the deal–your tween still needs you to reach out to other parents. And so, join carpools, attend sporting events, volunteer for the parent group fundraiser. Just follow their lead a bit more than perhaps you used to.

6.   How to Manage Difficult Social Dynamics or Bullying

In Middle School, there often is a fairly entrenched social hierarchy. What this means is that most Middle Schoolers don’t want to stick out as different, weird, or uncool. It makes sense: if everyone is doing the hard work of figuring out who they are then pretty much everyone is feeling lost and insecure much of their day.

This definitely gets better by 8th grade. But it is something most or our tweens will face in Middle School. And so, if their friend group is feeling unsafe because of constant jabbing or teasing or ‘one upping’ then ask them about this dynamic and help them identify times when they feel like they are able to be themselves. Help them reflect about how they want relationships to feel. 

And if bullying becomes a concern, remember that bullying usually involves roles that are fluid: your tween might be the target in one moment, the bystander (person encouraging and watching), or the initiator (pot stirrer) in another. It takes practice to recognize when they might be in one of those roles and bravery to step outside of them. Ask about what the school has in place for  Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS)–a required component of education in public schools across the country. Knowing what is being taught, modeled, and reinforced in terms of social skills will help build your capacity to ask for help when these values are not being followed.

If you would like more information about how to help your tween or teen build confidence, try new things, and handle stress, please reach out. I offer free 15-minute phone consultations and would be honored to help.

Just follow these steps:
Contact Della Pope
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