By Joan Goodchild
For many, the middle school years are remembered as a time full of pre-teen angst, social drama, and lots of awkwardness. And while it's easy to assume the most challenging stages of parenting would be the exhausting, sleepless months of caring for infants and toddlers, not so says research published by Arizona State University. ASU researchers say mothers of middle schoolers reported the highest levels of stress and loneliness and the lowest levels of life satisfaction and fulfillment. Turns out we all get to relive the rottenness of junior high a second time around -- through our offspring.
"I am not at all surprised by these results," said Amy Brinn, clinical director of The Parenting Journey, a nonprofit agency based in Somerville that offers programs to assist families. "In my experience, the middle school years can be the most challenging time for parents because it can be the most challenging time for the children. They are in those 'between years,' where they are starting to feel the hormonal and body changes of puberty and feel a pull both toward childhood and toward growing up."
As a result, this causes a lot of complicated feelings and moods, and can lead to outbursts, hypersensitivity, and "testing" behaviors, Brinn noted. A sweet child may be likely to bring home bad feelings that spill over from school and cause parents to question whether it is the same calm kid who got on the bus that morning. With emotions running high, it can also prompt some to feel as though they are suddenly alone in their parenting challenges, according to ASU research, which also found parents feeling more isolated and lonely during the middle school years.
"When children are in preschool and elementary school, parents often come together at birthday parties and school events," she noted. "Once children are in middle school, parents are less likely to meet each other and have a chance to talk about what is going on with their children. Maybe the largest factor is that parents really worry about being judged. They often feel that others have 'the secret' to managing their children, and they feel shame that they don't. But -- spoiler -- there is no secret."
Brinn said one way to deal with that feeling of isolation is to get active and make the effort to get to know the parents of their children's friends, even if it's not as easy as it was in the early years of parenting.
"It will really help both to feel less isolated and to create a cohort of parents that will ensure better safety for the children as they experiment with new and possibly risky behaviors," she added. "Parents need to find a way to take interest in their children's interests; it's a way of keeping connected. Children tend to talk most freely in the car and in informal settings, so take advantage of that to learn more about your child. It is so important to find parents that you can talk to without fear of judgment. Seek them out."
Michelle Icard, speaker and author of Middle School Makeover: Improving The Way You and Your Child Experience the Middle School Years, said this is also a time when parents realize that life isn't all about the kids anymore.
"Until middle school, kids see themselves as appendages of their parents. It makes sense," she said. "Parents have scheduled playdates, signed kids up for activities, even picked out their outfits their entire lives. Once kids begin to pull away from their parents and toward their peers, it can leave parents feeling stranded. Add to that all the changes midlife brings -- from reinventing careers, to reevaluating relationships, to taking care of aging parents. It's a lot! And didn't many of us form friendships around our children's friends' parents when they were little? When kids go to middle school, not only do they pull away from parents, but they often make new friends, so parents find themselves starting from scratch with friends again, too."
Icard's advice: Start cultivating your own interests. Find a hobby and take advantage of the free time you'll now have to explore your own interests.
Robert Evans, executive director of The Human Relations Service in Wellesley, advised against placing too much importance on the ASU research, and noted the experience in his practice is that middle school is not notably more stressful for parents than high school.
"It's a big transition, which always makes most people anxious," said Evans, also author of Family Matters: How Schools Can Cope with The Crisis in Childrearing. "The kids are developing physically and sexually, and since they hit puberty earlier now than they did 50 years ago, the change can seem more abrupt."
Regardless, he noted, the parenting experience is individual to all families, and he disagreed that parents feel most isolated and lonely during this time, as opposed to during the entire adolescent cycle. His advice: Relax and don't try to manage your child's adolescence.
"They need room to grow and try things out, and to learn from experience -- including disappointment and failure," he said. "Almost everybody survives their adolescence successfully."
3 Tips for Easing the Middle School Years Michelle Icard, speaker and author of Middle School Makeover: Improving The Way You and Your Child Experience The Middle School Years, offers these suggestions for parents:
1. By the time your kid heads to middle school, find a hobby. Take advantage of the free time you'll now have with your child cocooning in their room and explore your own interests. As your child pulls away, you'll be much happier and you'll be modeling how to live an engaged and meaningful life.
2. Every middle-schooler will present challenging behaviors. When yours does, try not to react with too much emotion. The more detached and disinterested you seem in your child's attitude, problems, and bad mood, the more your child will want to talk with you. "I often compare middle schoolers to cats. The harder you try to get their attention, the more they hide. But the moment you appear distracted or disinterested, they come around," she said.
3. Research shows that teens often misread facial expressions. The part of the brain that is responsible for evaluating how someone feels by looking at their face doesn't work well until a person reaches their 20s. This explains why your child often thinks you're angry when you're not. To keep lines of communication open and prevent your child from storming off when you ask a simple question, keep a neutral expression on your face when talking to your kid. "I call it having a 'Botox brow,'" she said. "Pretend you can't furrow your forehead. You may think when you do that you're expressing interest, empathy, or concern, but your child will misread you and assume you're angry. This is my favorite tip, and parents tell me all the time it's a game changer."