During the first five years of life, the human brain is a growing dynamo. Millions of new neural connections are made every day, making early childhood the most crucial time for brain development.
What is less known is that the second most important time is adolescence. Experts say that a year before a child’s body shows signs of puberty, the brain begins a massive growth process that doesn’t end until young adulthood.
This means that right at the start of middle school—around age 11 or 12—a child is about to begin one of the most intense changes in their life, making those school years particularly trying.
But unlike the transition to kindergarten, for example, it is less obvious how parents can help. In middle school, the focus is on peers.
“If your kids think you’re totally lame, that’s a good sign that their brains are developing exactly as they should,” says Mitch Prinstein, chief science officer of the American Psychological Association and a professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “Socially, their life is gas and no brakes.”
It’s normal for teens to want to spend hours on the phone or texting friends, even if they’ve been with them all day, says Prinstein. This is how they build their identity and find out where they fit in. But that doesn’t mean parents aren’t important.
In fact, experts say parents play a key role in helping their teens make the transition from elementary school to the complex world of middle school.
Be an advisor, not the boss
While teens are destined to seek out new experiences and social interaction, they also need stability, just like toddlers and preschoolers need to know that there is a trusted adult they can return to when they’re done exploring the world.
But helping your child’s transition to middle school may require changing your role in your child’s life.
“It’s a shift from being the boss to slowly understanding yourself as your child’s advisor,” says Prinstein. “You could tell them how you handled something when you were their age and invite them to find out with you. You wouldn’t do that with a 5-year-old.”
Parents also play a different role in the middle school itself, including less volunteering in the classroom. This does not mean, however, that parents should reduce their involvement in their children’s everyday lives. Experts emphasize the importance of good habits at this stage of development. Breakfast and a good night’s sleep will help your child navigate the hustle and bustle of crowded hallways and new teachers.
Supporting a middle school student is similar to coaching an athlete during training. Parents cannot do the work for their children, but they can provide important help. Experts emphasize the importance of “productive struggle” as children of this age learn to solve their own problems and turn to their peers for help to a greater extent. Your child still needs you, but they also need the space to figure things out for themselves.
For example, here are some ways experts say you can support your new middle schooler while taking a step back:
- If there are other children in the hallway when your child first opens their locker, ask another child to help your child (if they need help) and resist the impulse to show them.
- Whenever possible, give your child choices rather than instructions.
- Let them know that if they make a mistake, they have an opportunity to think about how they will handle the same situation differently next time.
- If they get their schedule and aren’t happy with it, resist the impulse to call the school and “fix” it.
Remember that this stage of development is more about learning self-management than academic achievement.
“If you don’t use these years to teach them how to stand up for themselves, help them figure out how to learn and how to reach out if they need help, then you’ve missed a prime opportunity.” , says Phyllis Fagell, a counselor at the Sheridan School in Washington, DC and author of Middle School Matters, a guide for parents. “You’re going to need all of those skills to succeed in high school.”
Keep communication open
Use the last few days of summer to figure out what to expect for your child from middle school. TV, books and films paint a pretty bleak picture when it comes to this educational chapter. Your child may have pictures of little sixth graders being thrown against a wall of lockers by big, muscular eighth graders.
Ask open-ended questions. Acknowledge that much media portrays middle school poorly. But be ready to listen. You may be anxious, but maybe not in the way you expect.
“Often parents don’t have good memories of that time themselves,” says Todd Brist, principal of Watertown Middle School in Watertown, South Dakota. “Be careful when projecting them onto your children. Listen to their current concerns and reassure them that a support network is in place, including a team of teachers and counselors.”
Give your middle school students a chance to socialize IRL
Adolescents are often more emotional, sensitive, and moody than younger children, but they are also capable of more cognitive challenges. You can worry more about current events and the world in general. They also need more opportunities to socialize.
For all these reasons, experts emphasize the value of extracurricular activities, clubs and sports teams. The stakes are low in middle school, so kids don’t have to be great athletes to join a team. Clubs are a great way for kids to meet new people and explore their interests. Research also shows that participating in sports can lead to better academic results.
Another advantage of clubs and sport is that they take place in person. Teens are raving about screen time, and many kids entering middle school will have their own phones. But as every parent knows, life online is complicated. While it’s normal for kids to connect with their friends in this way, phone usage can easily spiral out of control, potentially disrupting sleep and leading to drama that spills over into the school day.
Experts suggest parents should be socializing and monitoring the time their kids are spending on phones and gadgets. Developmentally, says psychologist Mitch Prinstein, children’s brains crave interaction at this age, but they don’t benefit as much from social media as they do from face-to-face contact.
“Online interaction is the anticalorie of social interaction,” he says. “They don’t develop the ability or skills to form close bonds.”
If you don’t tend to eat dinner together, now is a good time to start. Use this time to ask kids about their school day, experts say. Preteens are exploring their place in the world, but more than ever they need open communication and support at home, even if they pretend they aren’t.
“If you tell them you’re always there for them, they’re probably going to roll their eyes, and that’s okay,” says Nancy Deutsch, a professor of education at the University of Virginia. “You should do that.”