When I was recently talking to a group of parents, I asked the question, “What comes to mind when you think about parenting young adolescents or middle schoolers?” “Survival!” was the overwhelming answer.
For many families, this is true. The middle school years can be one of the most difficult phases of parenting. What is it about those middle school years that makes them so challenging? The simple answer is development. The developmental tasks of these children are hard for parents and child alike. Understanding what is going on in the child during the middle school years might help all involved to survive.
The middle school years are approximately between 10 and 14 years of age. This is a time of significant physical and psychosocial development. The main event during this time is puberty. The onset of puberty can occur at any time during those years and for some children even earlier. This results in significant differences in children among those ages. Some 11 year olds are more like 14 year olds, and some 14 year olds more like 11 year olds. This variation is one of the more challenging aspects of the adolescent years.
Puberty and adolescence are not the same. Adolescence is an approximately 10-year period during which a process occurs that transforms a dependent child into an independent adult. Puberty is a one-half to three-year chemical and biological process that develops a child into sexual maturity. Puberty occurs in early adolescence and is completed long before the child is a physical and psychological adult. This reality accounts for a large part of the challenges of the middle school years.
A wide variation occurs in the age of onset of puberty. Girls can begin puberty between the ages of 8 to 13 (average age of 11), and boys begin puberty between the ages of 9 to 14 (average age of 12). Puberty is triggered by hormonal changes in the developing child, increased estrogen in females, and increased testosterone in males. When exactly puberty begins is influenced by a number of factors, including genetics, environment, diet, and one’s body type/weight. Children are considered early bloomers or late bloomers if they are younger or older when puberty begins.
Being an early or late bloomer can be a source of stress to the child and the parent alike. Children (to a greater extent than adults) compare themselves to their peers, and being different can be a source of insecurity. To begin developing before or later than their peers can leave children feeling awkward and insecure. Additionally, those who develop later are often smaller and can experience feelings of inadequacy as they may not be able to keep up with or compete with more developed peers in physical and athletic activities.
As stated earlier, during the adolescent years significant psychosocial development is occurring. Children in this stage are developing psychologically in terms of their awareness of who they are as a person, or in other words, their sense of self. They are figuring out what they are capable of, what they think, and what they feel. Additionally, they are developing in terms of social awareness by figuring out who they are in comparison to others: do they measure up? They are also learning more about being in, and getting along in, relationships with others.
In the middle school years, children are moving out of a stage where the focus was on developing a sense of competency as well as pride in their abilities and accomplishments. Middle schoolers are moving into a developmental stage where the major focus is on identity development. They are asking questions such as,
“Who am I?”
“Do I have what it takes?”
“Am I good enough?”
“Will others accept me?”
The problem is that their focus has shifted from what parents say and think to what peers say and think. So to whom are they asking these crucial questions? Peers, who are just as confused about who they are. This single dynamic may account for the majority of difficulties that middle school children experience.
While each child is different, some difficulties are fairly common. The first of these is a feeling of awkwardness. With rapid changes in their bodies and hormones, they often feel out of control. They wonder what is normal and if they measure up. Hormonal changes lead to new experiences of sexual arousal and the desire to form romantic and sexualized relationships with others. As the changes in their bodies become more visible, they are often treated differently by others. Those who mature early may experience an increase in popularity, while those who mature more slowly may experience rejection and a decrease in popularity.
The physical maturing process is also complicated by the fact that as they look more like adults, others may expect more adult-like behavior of them. The adults in their lives are often disappointed by the immaturity that remains in these adult-looking children and respond with criticism. Additionally, as they look more like adults, middle-schoolers may receive unwanted sexual attention that leaves them confused as to how to deal with it. This is happening at the same time they are trying to figure out their own sexuality.
Because this physical maturing process results in feelings of insecurity and uncertainty, middle schoolers look to their peers for acceptance. This leads to the forming of groups in which what is expected of them for acceptance is more easily discerned. Not being accepted by a group can leave one with an unbearable loneliness. This leads many young teens to adopt ideas, values, preferences, and actions that will get them accepted by the group. Being accepted by a group leaves them less vulnerable to the various forms of social cruelty so prevalent at this age. These include teasing, exclusion, rumoring, and in extreme cases, bullying. So, in this regard, groups seem to also provide a form of protection.
So why are middle schoolers so mean to each other? The simplest answer is that all people find those who are different threatening in some way, but the answer to this is understanding. As we try to understand those who are different, we are less threatened. To truly get outside of yourself — outside of your thinking and your values in order to understand others — requires some level of security in who you are. Middle schoolers lack this security because they are not sure who they are. In fact, developing an identity is the major psychosocial task of adolescence.
Adolescence is a time of fear and self doubt. Fear leaves a person feeling vulnerable. Exercising power can relieve fear. This dynamic is often at the root of social cruelty and bullying.
All of these issues can make school a difficult place for middle schoolers, and difficulties are a distraction from learning, for some to a significant degree. School is where most of the relationships with peers take place, where peer groups form and peer interaction occurs. Peer interaction in the past was mostly limited to school and church. Now with social media, the problems of comparison and social cruelty can occur 24 hours a day.
The middle school years are difficult for parents and teens alike as they renegotiate their relationship. These young teens are beginning to want more independence while still yearning for and needing parental security and support. They desire to make more decisions on their own while they still have the maturity and reasoning skills of a child. They still want their parents’ help and guidance, but they want it on their own terms.
What parents and teens alike fail to realize is that they have the same goal — they just differ on how to get there. The goal is for the teen to grow up into an independent and fully functioning adult. This shift from being a dependent to an independent should occur. Questions arise regarding how much responsibility is required for increased privileges, when should a teen be allowed to do certain things, and how many decisions should be shifted to the teen at the appropriate time. When parents and teens are able to talk about these issues, the process can be successful for all concerned.
1. Is survival the only goal for the middle school years? Or can middle schoolers and their parents thrive during this time? Every family will be different. Several factors should be considered, the most important of which is communication. Parents need to communicate to their children about the hormonal and physical changes that will occur during puberty. This needs to occur before puberty begins and to continue after its onset. Children may feel awkward about the conversations; nevertheless, they will benefit from honest, straightforward information.
2. Communicate about the process of adolescence itself. Talk about having the same goal of increasing independence. Discuss specific expectations and responsibilities, and be open to giving more privileges and autonomy in decision making.
3. Remember that the main developmental task of adolescence is identity development. Talk to your children about who they are — their gifts, abilities, and personality characteristics. Affirm strengths and be patient with weaknesses. Provide activities that allow them to have experiences that create success and a reinforcement of strengths.
4. Have specific discussions about social cruelty and bullying. Children are often hesitant to initiate conversations about these topics with parents. Talk to them about how to deal with it if they are experiencing bullying. Also, talk about values and respect to deter them from perpetrating social cruelty.
5. Teach children about relationships, romantic as well as sexual. Again, do this before puberty and continue the discussion on throughout the adolescent years. They will be exposed to and find information about these issues somewhere as it is all around us. Be the first ones to talk to them about it and continue to be the voice of health and sound judgment during the adolescent years.
It is imperative for parents to stay relationally engaged with middle schoolers. In addition to communication, continue meaningful engagement. This includes family outings, hobbies, and recreational activities. Engaging in service as a family is another way to get kids out of themselves for a moment.
Along these lines, require that in order to use social media, you have to have access to all of it. Social media is a tool. Like all tools, we train kids how to use it, we monitor use, and we eventually let them loose to use it on their own. Don’t be afraid, as a parent of a middle schooler using social media, to monitor and have access to their accounts.
Remember that as the child moves through adolescence, you are still the parent, and it is okay to act like the parent. Set appropriate boundaries while perpetuating a relationship bond and participating together in meaningful and fun activity.
One last suggestion: Take the “long view.” The difficulties of today will be the memories of tomorrow. Simply surviving is settling. Strive to thrive!
Dr. Thomas Barbian is the executive director for the Christian Counseling Center of First Presbyterian Church in Columbia. He received his doctorate in clinical psychology from the Cambridge Graduate School of Psychology and Counseling in Los Angeles. He also holds a master’s degree in marriage, family, and child counseling and a bachelor’s degree in biblical studies.