By Darryl Sollerh & Leslie King
Your child, that amazing, sweet, receptive, wonderful little bundle of discovery and excitement of only, it seems, a short time ago, is gone. Left. Disappeared.
In his or her place you may find a child with newfound capacities for breath-taking rudeness, hair-trigger moodiness, sudden combustibility and endless argumentativeness.
So what the heck happened?
In a phrase, Middle School. Or more precisely, the arrival of your child’s Middle School years, and all the developmental processes and challenges they entail.
Should you be feeling off-balance, taken-aback, shocked or frustrated by your child’s new disposition and prickly personality shifts, you are not alone. Not by a long shot.
Your Middle Schooler, quaking under the stresses and monumental changes in their own lives (please see our chapter on “Changes” for more on this), are struggling to find their way in the unfamiliar, precarious world of school and social demands. So even under the best of circumstances, worn nerves accompanied by cries for more autonomy can, and should, be expected.
But what is often overlooked in all this are the feelings this new stage provokes in moms and dads, who are also facing change and loss, triggered by the departure of the child they once held in their arms.
So while the stages of childhood development can be reliably predicted, how a parent responds to them cannot.
And so in this chapter we would like to address the bittersweet sadness parents will likely face, even as they have to rally their patience and understanding to cope with that new little “alien” in their lives.
Let’s start by reminding ourselves that a Middle Schooler’s life isn’t like what mom and dad may remember. Their child’s world is now filled with not only the usual nerve-shredding stresses of growing up, but are infinitely more fragile and even treacherous due to high tech communication devices all around them, capable of broadcasting even their slightest social stumble into a community-wide event of public record, potentially exposing them to a campaign of intense teasing or confidence-shattering ridicule.
Talk about a high tech nightmare.
And they, brave souls, go to school each day only too well aware of the dangers they face.
So when they come home they can often be exhausted, withdrawn, or agitated – all of which may trigger an entirely different set of emotions in a parent -– emotions that are often overlooked or underestimated.
And that is a key reason the Middle School years can arrive with such a shocking shift in family dynamics. The kids are under stress, and the parents are not only scrambling to catch up and adjust to the sudden changes, but are likely also feeling a sadness – a mourning and longing for more innocent days gone by. Consider:
A mom, unaware of any problems with her child at school, arrived home to a phone a call from another mother who, after introducing herself, proceeded to describe what the mom’s son had texted to other students about the woman’s son at school. Suffice it to say, the texts were not only mean, but filled with words the mom was truly shocked to learn her son was in the practice of using.
She was appalled, embarrassed and stunned She had no idea her son could say such things, much less broadcast them in cyberspace. In recalling it later, her most striking memory remains the sadness she felt, even beyond her upset, and her sense of dismay at what her son, her once sweet-to-everyone boy had now become capable of doing.
So what can a parent do?
In her case, in addition to curtailing his privileges and grounding him to illustrate the seriousness of what he had done, she also admonished him to never again express his upset at anyone by pressing a “send” button. Sage advice in an era when “send” means “forever on the record.”
Last but not least, she engaged him in a dialogue about how to treat others, transforming her initial sense of disappointment and bewilderment into becoming more aware as a parent. By doing so, she paid attention to how he was feeling about himself – a key reason he may have sought attention, even if negative.
More generally what any parent can do is to bring as much awareness of what’s going on with their child – and themselves — as possible. Seek out other parents who are likely going through the exact same set of emotions.
From a coffee with another mom or dad, to an informal parental support group, getting together with other parents can help you to vent all that this time means and signals in your own life, no doubt providing you with some relief as well as perhaps giving you some fresh ways to handle any provocations of the moment coming from your child.
That sense of relief can lend you a little more patience, making you a little less reactive when your Middle Schooler’s attitude might otherwise stand the hairs up on the back of your neck.
And then you have a better chance to give them your best – which is what you’ve always wanted to do in the first place.
Having done all that, it’s important to realize that there may also be moments like this, which can surprise a mom or dad in a very different way:
A dad and daughter had a long-established ritual of going to a movie together once a month. It was their time to be together, and the daughter had never let anything get in the way of her special time with dad. Her father, likewise, would make every effort to clear his work schedule so he would never have to cancel on her. And on one particularly busy day for the dad, after he had rearranged much of his schedule to be with his daughter on their night, at the last minute she called to say there was a sleep-over she wanted to go to. Swallowing his disappointment, he told her to have a nice time, and drove home alone, aware now that things had changed.
It’s never fun to discover that you are no longer the center of your child’s universe. And it can be even less fun when you are taken for granted. But while it is right to teach a child appreciation and respect, a piece of that “being taken for granted” can really be a compliment, because it means they are so certain of your love that they can get on with the business of growing up.
Likewise, try not to take it personally when a trip to buy clothes suddenly feels like a tug-of-war, with your Middle School daughter rejecting your formerly welcome tastes in favor of far racier fare, if not downright inappropriate outfits.
Even though your first thought may be to ground them for life, a quick glance through your own photo albums from yesteryear will likely display some of the outfits, hairdos and make-up that seemed so right at the time, only to now make you cringe or guffaw. Such is the way of things, no?
So be patient, talk to your spouse and or other parents to create support circuits throughout your community. When you have managed to create a support network for yourself, and deescalated from some of the more reactive emotions of the moment, your child may still offer up moods and recalcitrance, but those incidences will be less likely to turn into the storms they otherwise might.
This is not easy, or seamless. Nor has it ever been any different.
According to Plato, Sophocles once said, “The young people of today think of nothing but themselves. They have no reverence for parents or old age. They are impatient of all restraint. They talk as if they alone knew everything and what passes for wisdom with us is foolishness with them. As for girls, they are forward, immodest and unwomanly in speech, behavior and dress.”
Would you guess it was from the Golden Age of Greece? Not so Golden as far as the moms and dads were concerned, apparently.
So with a little judicious understanding, patience and support, as well as a recognition and awareness of the possible sadness affecting you, your Middle Schooler may not seem quite so alien to you, and you won’t seem quite so alienated from them. Not a bad deal, all things considered.
And if Sophocles phones, you’ll be ready.
For much more on this and all things parenting, please see our new Parenting Guides: “STOP YELLING, START LISTENING — Understanding Your Middle School Child”, and “HOW TO BE THE LOVING, WISE PARENT YOU WANT TO BE…even with your TEENAGER!”, available now at our site, “TheDancingParent.com”, or on iPad, Kindle or Nook.