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October 23, 2011

The Middle School Blues

By Elaine Viets     

AMiddle school bluesmy, a TLC regular, needs our help. Her daughter has the middle school blues.

"My daughter is 12, just started at the middle school, and is completely miserable," Amy said. "She isn't having much luck making friends because she's gotten so shy recently. She used to be so outgoing and pretty much everyone wanted to be her friend. Now she cries every day. She is involved in out-of-school activities she enjoys, but her school doesn't offer any activities besides volleyball, basketball and track (yuck, to her mind) so she doesn't have any opportunity to get to know kids other than in class. The kids can't even sit with their friends at lunch. They have to sit with their homerooms.

"What do I do for her? What should she do? I feel like the people here have good heads and I need some advice now."

Amy, you’re a good mom for listening to your daughter. You’d be surprised how many mothers still dismiss adolescent angst with, "Cheer up. These are the happiest years of your life."

That’s what my mom told me. Then I was really depressed.

But Mom had adult problems. She was trapped in a four-room house with four noisy kids, too many bills, one bathroom, and no escape. My pre-teen problems must have seemed simple.

252px-Mary_Institute_and_Saint_Louis_Country_Day_School_Shield_1_svgI can’t advise Amy. I don’t have children or the right training. But I do have friends. I asked Jack, who has a young daughter, what he’d do. Jack sent me to Jan Jacobi, former head of the Middle School at MICDS, a top-notch St. Louis school. Read about the school here: www.micds.org.

Jan said, "First of all, this is not unusual in the first weeks in middle school. Painful as it is to hear, it can last well into the first year.

"My daughter, who sounds much like the girl in this situation, came from a public school system where three elementary schools pooled into one middle school. She had a rough first year. At one point we had a report from the school that she was sitting by herself for lunch. It took the first half of her first year for things to settle down, and when they finally did, she had kept many of her old friends (from her school) and made some good friends from the two other schools.

"With the intensity of what this daughter and her mother are feeling, they will not like to hear this--but the best thing may be to give the situation a little more time.

"In addition to waiting this out a bit," Jan said, "the mother should check in with the school to see if there is someone at the school (a counselor, an advisor, or a teacher whom the child likes) who could talk with her daughter. If she has made and kept friends in the past, and it sounds as if that is true, then she doesn't need outside counseling on peer relationships, at least not yet.

"Having the students sit together by homerooms in the first months of school is also not unusual. The cafeteria is one of the most frightening places in the school for the child who has not made friends quickly in a new school. Those friends all get to sit together and sometimes they actually enjoy excluding others from their lunch cliques.

"She might want to read ‘Best Friends, Worst Enemies’ by Michael Thompson. It's the best book I know on middle school peer relationships.Best frends

"If all else fails, she should meet with the principal to discuss what strategies the school can suggest to help her daughter with her adjustment to her new school."

"What this mother and daughter are encountering is not unusual," Jan said again. "The most encouraging piece is that the child was outgoing and made friends easily. If she has these social skills, it's just a matter of time before things get better. She has to keep trying to make friends even though she is discouraged, if not disheartened.

"Middle School is such a tough time, but it can also be a time when children begin to develop confidence. I've always felt that you develop confidence in direct proportion to your struggles. Amy's daughter can get through this---and she'll learn a great deal about herself in the process."



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My youngest daughter had a really rough time then, as well, and in a similar situation, with six elementary schools feeding into the middle school. I've asked her if she'd like to share her perspective, so she may chime in later.

As parents I think the hardest thing to do is watch our kids make their own way. Our natural inclination is to hold their hands or to help them out however we can. But sometimes that isn't in their best interests, as hard as that may be to realize. Just as when they are learning to walk and we have to let go so they can do it themselves, letting them learn to negotiate tricky relationships is part of the process of parenting. What makes that time even worse is that is usually when kids look the most awkward, with braces, or goofy hair, or splindly legs. Not to mention new boobs, or worse, no boobs. Sigh. It's a lot to deal with, for a kid and for the caring parent.

Kids can be so cruel to one another. I remember from my own childhood how mean other kids, especially girls, could be. I like to think that made me a kinder person, though. And that's my takeaway: this experience can make a person who they will be as an adult. This is a time when compassion for others can be a huge thing, and maybe Amy's daughter will be able to see someone else who is also shy and hurting and find her very best friend ever.

I spent two years working in a public Middle School. She will survive, although if you tell her that, you will probably get an "OH MOM!!!"

Working in a Middle School was an eye opener. And their is so much heaped in the first month or so, it is bizarre. She will find a crowd. She will find a friend or a few. Perhaps when the drama department gets moving.

This is also a good age for church youth groups to get going. She may find her friends there.

No they are not the happiest years of your life. You do one day realize that everyone was goofy when they were 13.

Karen is right about the hormones and changing bodies. And the other girls are the worst. Braces, acne, and there is no chest size that will not be picked on, stared at or made fun of.

Talk to some of the other parents, especially ones who have older children. The school could either be a big help or a part of the problem. It is better to get a feel for if they have your back before you need them. Sadly, I have seen both.

Boy, this takes me back.

Middle school was really hard on our daughter. Suddenly, people who had been her friends since childhood turned on her, and I mean viciously. I had never realized how damn MEAN middle school girls could be.
I was furious. I mean, some of these girls had eaten at my table, and they were going THIS to my little girl? My wife talked me out of going down to that school (or as I called it "that nest of vipers") and administering a few talking-tos and maybe a sound shaking or two.

But, it got better. Lots better.

Unfortunately, that's not much comfort to someone going through it. All you can do is let them know how much they loved and are valued and hang on.

Mean girls. They're just starting to get attention now. But they were sure there when I was in school, and their words hurt.
Amy, this has to be hard for you -- maybe harder than it is for your daughter, because good parents hurt when they're children are in pain.

A friend advised me when I began teaching middle school (jr. high back then) to be prepared for the radical mood swings of this age group. He said a student will be over-the-top mean and angry, get over it, and expect all to be as smooth and lovely as before the storm. Great advice.
I also learned that the high energy of that age group can/must be channeled with lots of activity and attention, or there will be problems. Alan is right about activities, in school or elsewhere: church, scouts, community theater, wherever her interests would best be served. Our library system has even started teen groups: book discussion, knitting, etc. My great-nieces met some of their best friends at Ren. Faire. (I still can't imagine a school without drama, journalism, and other clubs for the non-athletic).
The mean girls will always be there; the trick is to have them be unimportant to your life . . . and maybe read Susan McBride's Deb's books (guilty pleasure when the mean girls get what they deserve).

This is so hard for moms and kids.
When I was in school there was no middle school. We just shuffled along in the same school and thenon to high school.
I do remember my first daughter having nightmares before entering middle school. After all she was leaving the elementary school cocoon. But eventually she made new friends and made it through.
My younger daughter reveled in middle school because she could shake some of the kids that she was not enamored with in elemenatry school.
I would say that maybe the school could involve the kids in a food drive or other charitable activity. Maybe coming together could ease the fears and the kids could get some satisfaction in helping for a good cause. There is no getting around it. The kids are on a roller coaster. My daughter teaches middles school and the kids are great but there are always challenges. The key is to get the children to have a common interest, IMHO.
All the best, Amy. I will keep you in my prayers.
I tend to pray a lot..for myself and others.

Amy sent me this information earlier:
"My daughter is a physical kid, and school doesn't allow for much activity. Now it's worse because the kids only get a 5-10 minute recess after lunch (depends on how long they take to eat). So she can't even run off built-up energy during a break because breaks barely exist.

"She sees some of her female friends obsessing about clothes, hair, make-up and boys and turning snooty. Most of her male friends abandoned her years ago for the almighty football. She gets teased about staying friends with other boys: "Do you like Jackson?" "Ooooo, Kelsey likes Ben!" She said after school one day, "I'm not allowed to have male friends anymore." She gets out of some class time to go to the brainiac sessions for English, so she likes that."

And I should add that Amy and her family live in Wisconsin -- the state where the governor is hacking away at school budgets and state employees (that's Amy's husband) are dissed as lazy and overpaid.
Guess the Gov. forgot he's a state employee, too.

Thanks, everyone. It's good to see similar experiences. I should note I do have an older daughter, now 17 and a senior at the alternative high school. We homeschooled her last year, which was frustrating and satisfying at the same time. Anyway, big sister had a history of being bullied and eventually just ignored, so I may have hit the panic button earlier than most, despite my younger daughter's very different experiences leading up to middle school.

I looked at the school's website to see about other activities. It looks like student council will be starting up soon, and in spring the gardeners will get to dig and plant in the community garden. All the other activities – drama, jazz band, strings club, show choir – are for the 7th and/or 8th graders only. I guess they're trying to let kids adjust to middle school.

My kid goes to drum lessons, lyrical and jazz dance, and volunteers at the humane society cuddling bunnies. So she is busy. But the school day is long. She leaves the house shortly after 7 for the bus and gets home after 4. And then comes homework.

I know I'm not saying anything that is unique to our family. But I just want to help my kid(s) be happy and fulfilled. At the same time, I know how lucky we are to be able to help her and send her to the activities she enjoys, so I feel sort of like a first-world whiner.

Thanks for the supportive comments and sound advice. I'm so grateful to all of you.

You're not a first-world whiner, Amy. You're a worried mom -- and they're at every economic level.
I like the idea of being a bunny cuddler. What an interesting young woman.

Middle school is just brutal, and I don't know of a school who tries to make it easier. I don't know why.

I think girls may have it the worst. I remember the first day of 7th grade (we had Jr. High School, 7-8 grades only), dressed in a little cotton frock like the ones I wore in 6th grade. My best friend's mom picked me up to drive us to school and my friend was in a little pink suit with ballet flats and a new, short hairdo. She had suddenly grown up. I hadn't. She was never mean to me, but we weren't best friends anymore.

I have one son, and all I can say is he SURVIVED middle school. Again he only went for 7-8 grade, although some of the elementary feeder schools stopped at 5th grade so there were 6th graders on campus. The multiple teachers, multiple assignments per night, re-alignment of friends who played sports, friends who played music, friends who were brainiacs - it all landed pretty hard on his shoulders. The school was un-encouraging. The first day, we were told: "We want your child to excel. That being said, we have 1700 students in this school. We are not your touchy-feely elementary experience. Teachers will not call you back the same day you call them. If you really want to talk to a teacher, your best bet is to come to the school and chase them down."

With educators like that, all we could do was make our son get in bed before midnight and go easy on his grades.

Whoa, Gayle, that educator sounds cold. They're still kids at that age. Couldn't they be a little touchy-feely?

Elaine, this was a wonderful blog to do, and Jan Jacoby's contribution is sound.

Mostly my schools were just upper and lower, but it was during those 7th, 8th, and 9th years that I discovered field hockey, sports band, swimming and sailing. That made it work for me for many years.

It was more difficult for two of our four children, but the advice above stands true.

I have two daughters whose middle school experiences were really mixed. Oddly, they had great teachers (mostly) who had some after school activities that brought like minded kids together. It seems that teen age angst is a given. I worked in a middle school where I led groups for kids who had a lot of anxiety, and they just felt better talking about it, and dispelled a lot of the myths about how badly you could get treated. Community activities helped as well. I do feel that parents are intimidated by the "1700 students and no time for touchy feely stuff." I find this often takes a quiet statement that the school is responsible for the child's well being while in school, and facilitating this is their job. Of course, I live in California where touchy feely was born. Amy, your daughter sounds like a dynamite kid. Maybe you can point out how well she does in some things, and let her know this is just part of life-which I believe it is. By the way, anthropologists say say that we have lost something because we don't have initiation rites today. These would build strength and fellowship. So maybe clubs could build this. Meanwhile, you are doing a great job of listening, and supporting her. Parents will often ache for their kids, won't they? Sorry to go on so long, but this is what I did for a living.

Middle school is HARD! I remember telling my daughter, "Look, middle school sucks. And you will often feel weird, and that everyone thinks you're weird. However, the great thing about middle school is that everyone ELSE is so busy thinking that THEY'RE weird, they're actually not that focused on you. And eventually, it will pass. And all the rest of your life will be great because it WON'T be middle school."

What kind and thorough advice, Lil. I like the idea of initiations. That's what bat and bar mitvahs are, right?
Cornelia, your advice made me laugh out loud.

Gayle, any administrator who thinks not getting called back the same day is acceptable better check his resume. I get called back every day, within 24 hours. The teacher, the principal or the school board. If I ever had to go to school to get an answer from a teacher the principal should expect to explain why to TV cameras.

Amy, best of luck. You both will survive. Check back with us in December, please.

Cornelia, that's terrific advice! I was such a people-watcher that the main things I remember of feeling awkward or uncomfortable myself were primarily two events: when an unfortunate gal with wild hair, sallow skin, and an ungainly body wore the same exact jumper that I did, and I couldn't wear it again without feeling I looked like her; when a rude boy behaved unforgivably amidst a crowded hallway. The rest of the time, I guess I was the compassionate kid we hope our youngsters will encounter--I was busy feeling how uncomfortable so many of my friends were in this new stage.

My 'Irish godson', however, was a different story. He loved school and was always so outgoing, popular, fun-loving, until the first weeks of middle school, when he threw up and/or wept or both, every single morning before school. One day, when his parents were away, I dropped him off at school, and realized that this was no ordinary adjustment blues. Turns out, a classmate was sending him obscene text messages, and he was horrified, sickened, and unsure of what to do, terrified some adult would read the messages and think they were his, etc. Once that vile Eddie Haskell of a classmate was found out and called to account, our guy resumed his sunny outlook, and did fine in public schools, graduating last summer as a happy and well-liked guy.

Although it is hard to ferret out what's wrong when it is things like bullying or cyber 'crimes', I think that kids gain greater confidence when helped to acknowledge, face, and correct the situation, than if they never encounter it in the first place. (NOT saying I think kids should be bullied or targeted!!!)

BTW, the girl with wild hair, sallow skin and ungainly body? I didn't think I was any 'better', just her discomfort was so obvious that I worried I looked just as uncomfortable in the jumper, although I was a twig with no figure and straight hair. Subjective impressions are so huge during those years!

A fascinating study last year or the year before showed that when youngsters are given only praise or compliments or positive reinforcement, they begin to doubt the veracity of the person offering the praise. They're (of course!) smart enough to know that nothing in this life is all good all the time. One of the things that I loved about my mom, who did a pretty darned good job when it came to relating to me, was that she was just as happy to sit cross-legged on the ground and quietly enjoy a moment in nature, as to initiate conversation. She didn't have time or energy to spend on extra 'building up', but if I was in difficult times, she knew how to just let me know she believed in me and that I'd find my way through whatever it was.

I have a 12yo 7th grader, and as a 6th grader she had moments, too. I don't felt like a did much.
But I did spend a good amount of time encouraging her, and complimenting her.

If her friends were being mean at the lunch table, I asked her if she wanted to try sitting somewhere else. Or encouraged her to push back a bit (as in: "have you tried, 'really, you're still going on about that?' Maybe add a bit of an eye roll. And act like you're just so bored of them going on and on about [the teasing topic]). And I pointed out early and often that the people most often teasing are those that are the most unsure of themselves(she's friends with one girl who was being hurtful - but also has some noticeable injuries and missing extremities from a lawn mower incident a few years ago. I think middle school insecurity hit her hard, and she was lashing out). And that they often tease those who seem the most pulled together, or that don't seem to need their friends approval as much. Today they're still friends and closer than they used to be.

Having said that - know your limits of encouragement. The girl who slapped my DD at her bday party a few years earlier did NOT set foot in my house again, and oddly enough we never got around to setting up outside time to hang out... I didn't drama about it with DD, just failed to encourage the relationship.

Finally, building / restoring a foundation of confidence worked well too. As far as I was concerned, the "mean girls" were jealous of DD - and I told her so (brains and early development in her case). And I complimented her on her appearance, told her how nice she looked(especially when the breakouts started), how responsible she was, etc. She knew I was always there to talk, to complain, to give (good or bad) advice, to get a hug.

I remember middle school. And you could not get me back to middle school without a substantial bribe!

Lil, you always have such wonderful things to offer up. I truly wish I'd had my clinical supervision with you.

Cornelia, your ability to make humorous the darkest times of life, often keeps me going.

You guys are amazing, truly.

When my middle daughter was in 7th grade she was just starting at the high school. The middle school had not been built yet, so they had 7-12 in the same school. It was a nightmare for her, in particular because she's very small, and was really tiny then. I remember one time she came home and wailed to me, "I walk around all day looking at people's belt buckles!" (Yes, she was a drama queen!) She hated going to school, and was in a bad mood every day for a couple of weeks.

But then she found Meghan and Jill, and the three of them became fast friends. They are all 27-28 now and still good friends. Meghan just got married, Jill was in the wedding, and Robin was there, too.

It gets better.

Wow. Reading this, it's all coming back -- I'm remembering being the biggest (er, tallest) geek in school. And tripping over my feet. And upset because I thought a mean girl laughed at me. No way would I ever be that age again, Susan B. Not for a million bucks.

Hah, I just remembered the junior high students in Sugarwood, who had known me as their neighbor since they were old enough to go outdoors, coming over after their orientation for high school. "Will they really throw freshmen over the side if they go up in the loft?" and other questions and rumors, quickly put right by "Mary" who would be "Miss Garrett" at the new school. I warned them not to buy elevator or pool passes either . . .

Reine-Thank you so much. It's funny, but I've thought the same of you.
Thank you, Elaine. Yes, we miss these rites of passage.

I wish I had something to add. My own middle-schooler is so happy that she's out of elementary school -- she found 4th and 5th grade so tough. I was exactly the same. 4th and 5th grade were nightmarish for me and once I hit middle school, it was (relatively) clear sailing. But it wasn't that way for lots of my friends, and it may not always be that way for my daughter either. But does it help to know we're all pulling for you, Amy, and for your amazing child?

Well, the day is winding down in my neck of the woods. I think this great group of people really could solve all the world's problems, and I thank you for devoting today to solving mine. It's great to hear how miserable everyone was! Ha! Except Harley and her daughter, whose misery came earlier in school. We'll hang on, and we'll be OK.

Gayle, that school sounded brutal. Talk about unengaged.

Laraine, I hope my daughter never goes through what your Irish godson did! Good god!

Harley, yes, it helps to know you've got my back and my kid's.

Lil, Cornelia, good words.

Thanks, all.

Good luck to you and your daughter, Amy. I think she'll be okay with a mom like you.

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