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Those Middle School Years …

By Stacy Beller Stryer, M.D.

Those middle school years …
As a parent, we often think these are years to be feared.  Years that we wish we could just blink away.  We hear horror stories from our friends and look at book titles, such as “Parenting 911,” and “The Roller Coaster Years,” with trepidation.  If only we could run away … just for awhile.
But, if we did run away we would be missing out on some of the most rewarding and exciting times we will have with our children.  Sure, I am not going to deny that middle-school age children(referred to as “middlers” by authors Charlene Giannetti and Margaret Sagarese) are emotional, moody and, at times, unreliable.  But, as someone once told me, almost every negative attribute can be turned into a positive one.  I guess that means that maybe, instead of being emotional and unreliable, our middlers are actually passionate and spontaneous.
Developmentally, they are expanding their horizons in many ways.  This is when they develop abstract reasoning, a complex sense of humor (beyond the potty jokes), and the knowledge that there is an entire world out there for them to conquer.  This is when they begin to develop strong interests, likes and dislikes, and when they begin to take greater risks – in a positive way.
Personally, I love being with my middler (8th grade) and my almost middler (5th grade) girls.  They are interesting, exciting, and a blast to be with.  When my 8th grader becomes passionate about something, particularly some social injustice, she can talk a mile a minute.  My 5th grader can be very intense when she practices viola or writes original music for her instrument.  She often performs for me while I am preparing dinner.  Both are becoming much more adventurous –  last month we went to an Asian supermarket and bought several  canned fruits we had never heard of so we could have taste tests.
I have been thinking about these middle years recently, not only because my children are this age, but also because I have been preparing for a lecture on this topic for parents at a local school.  Although I have been counseling patients for years, I have recently read several additional books on the topic in preparation for the talk.  They have been helpful, although my basic parenting principles remain unchanged.  They seem to be important for children and teens of all ages.  I think (“Parenting, according to Dr. Stacy”) that the six key elements of being a good parent of any age child include:
1.     Open communication
2.    Respect and consistent discipline
3.    Compassion
4.    Sensitivity
5.    Awareness
6.    Being a role model
Although the principles remain the same over time, the way we express them varies, depending on the child’s age.  For middlers, there should be a strong emphasis on sensitivity and awareness.  Children in this age range tend to be very emotional and sensitive, and we need to understand and respect this.  For example, they may not want to be kissed or hugged in public anymore.  Or, they may need some private time after school or in the evening.  We should allow them to retreat to their rooms for a certain time period before bombarding them with questions or making other demands.  Respecting their needs ultimately improves communication.  We should also be particularly aware of sudden or extreme changes in our middlers’ behavior, as depression, eating disorders and other problems can appear during these years.

Adapting these six basic parenting skills will certainly not ensure a problem-free middle school experience for you or your child, but it will make it much more likely that he or she will come to you in times of need and will strengthen the relationship that you have with each other.  Consequently, your middler will be less likely to engage in high risk behaviors or succumb to peer pressure which occurs during these years.

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