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Three of my kids have made the transition from elementary school to middle school, and it wasn’t easy for any of them. After talking with fellow parents who have kids ranging in all ages, it seemed to be a common thread among all of us, but why is this the case for our tweens?

Jenna Daly, a clinical social worker who focuses on health and parenting and is based out of South Portland, said this is because “middle school students do still look to their parent’s reactions for boundaries and approval, yet they are moving into an environment in which they have both more freedom and responsibility.”

The students go from being more closely monitored to having more responsibilities such as “tracking their own schedule, knowing what they need for each class,” Daly said.

“This is the age where teens are headed into puberty and real answers to their questions about puberty and real information about their bodies,” said Katharine Appleyard, a licensed counselor who has been working with teens and adults for more than 20 years and practices out of Bangor. She suggests reading, then sharing the book with your teens, “Will Puberty Last My Whole Life?” by Julie Metzger and Robert Lehamn.

“Kids are shifting from being completely self-absorbed to becoming aware of the world around them. What was once a carefree existence, becomes a cautious existence where they perceive everyone to be watching them and judging them,” Appleyard said.

Middle school students are exposed to so many positive and negative things, want to fit in, and care very much about what their peers are thinking of them. It’s almost as if they are stuck between two worlds: They still long to be childlike at times, and want to grow up and explore new experiences.

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This time is also a change for the parents involved as they watch their children grow and evolve. They need to parent in a different way while trying to let their kids know they are there for them in all the ways they used to be, and trying to foster their children’s newfound independence. This is a life change for them, too, and it’s hard to find the right balance, Daly said.

Appleyard notices parents internalize “messages of worth from their teen years which make it difficult to parent from a place of clear head and heart.”

“Puberty and social pressures are also a huge piece to the puzzle,” Daly said. This is when children are physically and socially more mature, “and are learning [from each other] about social rules and expectations.”

This can cause kids to become more self-conscious, not to mention this is when their hormones, bodies and brains are changing rapidly. “During the teen and tween years, the prefrontal cortex — the ‘thinking’ area of our brain, which controls problem solving, goal creation, self-reflection and understanding consequences, is still developing. Your child may start looking more adult-like, but their brains are still catching up,” Daly said.

Middle-schoolers are also exploring self-identity, gender roles, social cliques and wanting more independence during these years. Anxiety levels rise as they enter this phase and go to a bigger new school, Appleyard said.

Change is hard for many people under the best of situations, so what can parents do to help our teen make this big transition go a bit smoother?

What to look for

There are some changes your teen will go through that are normal, such as “the need for more privacy, increased moodiness and reduced conversation with parents.”

However, parents need to pay attention to “significant shifts in personality, especially withdrawing or acting out behaviors,” Daly said.

How can you know if it’s more than that?

“If you are concerned, the first thing to do is talk to your child’s teachers, get to know the parents of their friends, ask your child what they are struggling with,” Appleyard said.

From there, you can access the situation and decide if therapy may be a good idea for your child.

Tips for parents

Here are some great tips Appleyard and Daly shared with us to help you and your children through the middle school transition.

— Be available: The best thing you can do for your middle school student is to be available and schedule time for one-on-one private conversations.

— Be understanding: Validate them, never say anything they are going through is silly. Open-ended questions will get them to speak more openly.

— Take the pressure off: Not making eye contact with your teen and talking while on a walk or in the car can reduce their feelings of anxiety and pressure. This may help your child open up to you in ways they may not if you are sitting across the table from one another with no other distractions.

— Let your child lead: When it comes to activities and self-expression, let your child choose. Get interested in their interests. This will be a great way to stay connected and involved in their life.

— Create space at home where they can feel safe and accepted, act like a kid and have their opinions and beliefs taken seriously.

— Realize if you want your child to listen to you, you have to listen to them, too. They want to feel heard, and modeling respectful conversations goes both ways. You cannot expect them to come to you with a problem or issue if you dismiss the small things going on with them.

— Keep your child close and engaged in family activities such as game night, family outings or watching movies together.

— Be curious about their life: Ask questions about their friends, school, what their latest hobby is or if there is something new they would like to try. Oftentimes, our tweens and teens need a bit of prompting.

— Model confidence and healthy behaviors by taking care of yourself and the situations around you.

— Do not feel rejected by your child: Remember it is normal for your child to turn away from you at this time, so do not take it personally or make them feel guilty about it.

This story was originally published in Bangor Metro’s September 2019 issue. To subscribe to the magazine, click here.