Surviving middle school can feel like juggling, and keeping all the balls in the air can be stressful: academic accomplishments, social demands, and changing appearances (hello puberty!). The best way to avoid a meltdown is to recognize the early warning signs. Here are tried and true tips to guide your tween through these years.
Warning Signs of Too Much Stress: Overwhelmed Kids 101
- Lying to avoid homework and escape into video games: "I forgot my textbook at school.”
- Complaints of stomachaches and begging to stay home from school (when the pediatrician can't find anything wrong)
- Moodiness, irritability, and defiance: “I won't, you can't make me, leave me alone!”
Focus on Effort: Grades Will Follow
Instead of emphasizing grades, focus on how they are learning. Mastering soft skills at this age will give them a strong foundation for the future: listening, concentrating, asking for help, managing time, and developing relationships with teachers and peers. Learning how to learn will be applicable to every aspect of their lives, in high school, college, and beyond.
Build Strengths: Where Does your Child Naturally Excel?
If your child tends to focus on their weaknesses, draw attention to their strengths. If your sixth grade daughter is a confident dancer and mathematician, she will be better prepared to handle a low grade on her social studies presentation. Instead of thinking, "I'm a failure," help her contextualize the experience: "I'm a talented dancer and mathematician, but I need to work on my public speaking skills.”
Promote Perseverance: Everyone Feels Frustrated Sometimes
As adults, we rarely place ourselves in situations where we have to develop a new skill, and when we do we tend to find the experience frustrating. Think about the last time you backed a giant moving truck out of a narrow drive, or asked for directions in a language that is foreign to you. These situations can be physically and emotionally draining. For our children, facing challenges is a regular experience. You can help build resilience by showing your child that you believe in their ability to achieve difficult tasks. Reinforce that even the smart kids have to study, and that frustration is a normal part of mastering a new concept. Finally, praise your child's ability to stick with challenging tasks, and help them experience pride in their increasing abilities.
Keep Your Chill: Teach Problem Solving
They might look like hip, independent teens, but tweens still look to their parents for cues about how to respond to the world around them. If they sense that their inability to turn in an assignment stresses you out, they are going to internalize your anxieties. Instead of leaping into a lecture on the merits of responsible behavior, help your child learn how to solve their own problems. If your fun-loving son keeps forgetting his homework on the kitchen table, first praise him for completing the assignment, and then help him figure out how to return it to his backpack so he can receive credit for it the next day.
Anxiety, at its heart, is an overestimation of danger, and an underestimation of competence to manage the danger. When your tween understands that it is a normal part of growing up to face challenges and tolerate frustration, you avoid meltdowns, stress induced tummy aches, and lying about homework. That frees up more time for family board game nights, cooking experiments, and other fun, relaxing ways to spend the evening.
Elana Hunter, LPCC-S is the Clinical Director of Cleveland Health and Wellness Center
This article was originally published in Northeast Ohio Parent Magazine, January 2018.