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Helping tweens through the trials of starting middle school

If your child is having some anxiety around starting middle school or junior high, it should come as no surprise. Whole TV series and books are devoted to the emotional roller coaster that comes with this stage of life—think Wonder Years or Diary of a Wimpy Kid.  

Know your tween will experience two main differences from elementary school:

  1. The social world is much less friendly and more complicated in middle school. Tweens tend to worry about things that are unknown and intangible—like social stressors, which are largely subjective and not concrete. They are just beginning to figure out how to deal with these situations.
  2. Developmentally, middle schoolers are trying to manage similar tasks to what they were doing in elementary school but in a far less supportive environment. Take learning math. In elementary school, kids can often just focus on that task and ask for help as needed. In middle school, they feel pressure to perform the task but also look cool while doing it (which usually means not asking for help). This is where a lot of kids get in trouble.  

Five tips to help your child:

  1. Try to balance being realistic and encouraging when helping them set expectations. Help kids accept that it isn't likely that everything will be great or terrible. Reality is more nuanced.
  2. Ask your child about what they are looking forward to and what they're worried about. If they can only answer one of those questions, then they're only sharing half of their thoughts with you (or themselves). Then you may need to spend more time helping them understand and address their worries.
  3. Start a good sleep schedule one to two weeks before the first day of school. Sleep is key to a stable mood and helps greatly in managing stress.
  4. Have your child walk through the school before the first day to orient or re-orient themselves to where their classes will be. If they meet a friendly teacher or staff person to welcome them back, all the better.
  5. Once school starts, check in with them daily. Ask open-ended questions. Encourage kids to give longer answers that can help you understand what is and isn't working well.  

Some worry about starting middle school or junior high is healthy. But here are:

Three signs your child could use extra help with the transition

  1. They isolate themselves from friends and family.
  2. You see major changes in their sleeping, eating, energy levels or exercise. These will vary from day to day, but any changes that go more than a few days could be an early sign that your child isn't handling the stress of school well.
  3. They spend too much or too little time on homework. Kids should be doing a reasonable amount (usually 30-45 minutes). Some kids get anxious and start to spend far too much time on it. Others dodge it completely. Homework is a good measure of whether your child is managing the academic and social stress of school.

If you are concerned, talk to your child. If your tween confirms that something related to school or otherwise is bothering them, offer options to talk with a primary care provider, a school counselor or a therapist if the child already has one. But don't do nothing or allow "I don’t want to talk about it" to be an option. It's important to seek out help.

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