The stereotype exists for a reason; kids become increasingly defiant, attracted to risk, and hyper-emotional through the middle school years. But there’s good reason for this behavior and if you can see past the rebellion to its source, you’ll be in awe of everything middle schoolers are doing to prepare for their future success.
In 10 years working with middle schoolers I have been humbled and inspired by the social and emotional capabilities of kids this age. As the parent of a middle schooler myself, I know first-hand how important it is to reset our perceptions about middle school to help our kids reach their potential as independent thinkers, creative problem solvers, and empathetic friends.
Yes, your child will become more defiant and rebellious in middle school. That’s a good thing.
Quick poll: How many of you would like your child to live in his or her own house someday? Everyone? Perfect.
That’s the idea, isn’t it? The fact is that you have built a cozy beginning for your child, but you are not your child’s future. Their future rests on how successfully they can navigate a world run by their peers. Figuring out how that social world will work and where they will fit in it is the key to your child’s success.
Middle school is when and where your child forms their lasting sense of WHO THEY ARE in the world. If only your child could just go into an empty room, shut the door, and emerge three years later with a shiny new, terrific identity! Alas, figuring out who you are is an enormously large SOCIAL project. It involves moving from concrete to theoretical thinking – not an easy skill to master. Theoretical thinking is all about making assumptions to test theories. Your middle schooler’s brain is working overtime to make a million assumptions about how the social world works and then seeing how people react to each and every one. This means trying new fashion, hair styles, language, friends, bravado, and behavior on for size.
It is incredibly hard for kids learn who they are and where they fit outside of You and Your World. It will take some trial and error, many mistakes, and a dash of rebellion to leave your comfy nest and strike out on their own.
Rebellion is a critical step in finding individuality but I’m not suggesting you applaud when you catch your kid smoking behind the middle school. How you react to your child’s missteps will set them up for one of two things: more success or more failure.
OK, how should I respond?
Here are some things you can do to help your child make the most of their middle school years:
1. When your child makes a mistake – whether a bold act of rebellion or an awkward stumble onto the wrong path – express empathy first. “That must have been hard or painful or embarrassing” always comes before “You screwed up, now how are you going to fix it?”
2. Be unemotional in your discipline. You may cry into your own pillow at night but if you cloud your discipline with tears, anger, or despair, your child will likely misinterpret you. Be firm, direct, and without emotion when talking about consequences. If you need to buy some time to achieve this say something like, “I need some time to figure out how to respond. I’ll talk to you about this tonight after dinner.”
3. Help your child take risks. Create an atmosphere where your child is allowed to do things that feel thrilling, daring, scary, and unknown. Take them to an audition, help them start a business, go bungee jumping. When you fill that need for risk with a positive source there is less chance your child will try to fill it through unhealthy activities.
The next time you feel frustrated or betrayed by your middle schooler’s attitude, imagine the alternative. They could not rebel, not stretch to figure out their new identity within their peer world, and remain perfectly comfortable staying under your roof…for the next forty years or so.