Middle School or Bust!
Helping Your Preteen Transition to Middle School
By Samantha Blank, LMFT

You are in the aisle waving frantically at your child and focusing your camcorder. You want to capture the moment the elementary school principal gives your child their “diploma.” You think, “How did this happen so fast?” It feels like only yesterday you were walking your precocious 5 year-old into kindergarten for the first time; for so many parents their children’s elementary school experience flies by. Now, watching your preteen walk confidently back to join their class, the realization hits – Middle School is coming! Is their still enough time to prepare your child (and yourself) for the next step?

Transitioning into middle school can be a daunting time for students and parents alike. The middle school years are full of concerns ranging from preteen worries about making friends and finding the right classes, to parents’ fears of increased importance of friends, peer group pressure, and academic success. These years also include the onset of many of the big physical developmental changes, puberty in particular. Crossing the threshold into middle school is a life-altering passage. According to leading researchers of middle school transitions, Marie F. Shoffner & Ronald D. Williamson, not only are students growing and changing in remarkable ways, they are also moving into a new phase of their education. They often enter a larger school, with greater diversity and a wider range of curricular choices. No wonder these few years can be full of so many trials and tribulations for preteens and their parents.

Student Concerns
For your son or daughter, beginning middle school will bring up a multitude of anxieties and insecurities as well as lots of excitement. For most students, the elementary school experience was generally positive, full of learning, growth and accomplishment. Classes were smaller and reporting to only one teacher provided a sense of safety and consistency. Entering into middle school with so many new kids, six or seven new teachers and just as many classrooms can feel overwhelming to even the most prepared student. The anxiety of making new friends is hands down the most common worry for students on that first day of middle school. Who will I sit with during lunch? Who will walk with me to class? What if nobody likes me? What if the older kids are mean to me? Insecurities revolving around peer issues are the most apprehensive element for students before starting school. “I had lots of friends in fourth and fifth grade, but only one of them is going to my school. I don’t know if we will have any classes together, I don’t want to be the only one sitting alone” Kelly, 11.

The most frequent worries for students starting middle school include:
· Being the youngest kid in school
· Being bullied and/or teased
· Fitting in
· Having to change classrooms
· Having to change clothes in the locker room for gym
· Increased homework load
· Making new friends
· Managing new extra curricular activities
· Puberty and body development

Parent Concerns
For you, trying to help your son or daughter get through these years successfully will take patience and understanding, paired with a good helping of information and resources (a spa day now and then won’t hurt either). Most parents with young adolescents express concerns that are focused towards safety, positive character building and academics. Maisie McAdoo, a recognized writer on issues relating to adolescents states, “Parents need to take the steps to address the emotional and social needs of young adolescents but also provide new academic challenges that tap into their emerging abilities”.

The most common concerns for parents helping their children to move through this period of transition include:
· Academic success, insuring their child is keeping up with schoolwork and homework
· Bullying (their child becoming a victim or a bully)
· Managing preteen’s mood swings
· Navigating through so many students
· Parents having less contact with teachers
· Peer pressure (especially involving drugs, sex and violence)
· Puberty and providing the right information
· Trusting their preteen to make the right choices.

What You Can Do
All parents want to make this transition easier for their children and for themselves. The best way to ease the increasing anxieties of your preteen is by providing information and by being supportive. Researchers Emmett R. Mullins & Judith L. Irvin have documented the lowest self-esteem ratings and highest self-consciousness ratings from subjects between the ages of twelve and fourteen. Help your son and/or daughter feel good about him or her self, so they feel confident and trusted to make the right choices. Being a preteen is hard; parents can make it a little easier.

The following is a number of guiding principles parents can utilize to ease the challenges during transitioning:

Talk less and listen more.
· The inability to listen well is at the root of most conflicts. It’s important for everyone to listen and pay attention to each other.
· Ask brief questions to understand your son or daughters specific viewpoint about beginning middle school.
· Pay attention to what they are not able to say. Watch for nonverbal cues such as shrugged shoulders, nail picking or lack of eye contact. Listen for feelings (scared, embarrassed, overwhelmed) to help you appreciate your preteen’s perspective.
· Give your son or daughter the attention they deserve. Show that you are listening with attentive body language (eye contact, head nodding).

Do research about the school.
· Get information about the new school; bell schedules, maps, teachers and cafeteria menus (have the information handy, but do not bombard him with everything all at once).
· Find out about orientation days, buddy programs and school counselors.
· Introduce the new school environment before the first day of school (let her walk around on her own before there are hundreds of bigger kids pushing past her in the hall).

Be Supportive
· Help build your preteen’s confidence with genuine compliments of their accomplishments and be specific; “Rachel, I am really impressed with the way offered to help Grandma organize her closet.” “Evan, I love how you are so creative, you are becoming quite the artist.”
· Allow your son or daughter to solve his or her own problems. When your daughter gets into an argument with her best friend let them work it out. If your son is upset because he did not make the soccer team, give him the opportunity to work through his disappointment on his own before jumping into protector mode.
· Encourage your preteen by telling him that you trust him to make good choices.
· Always provide an ear (a nonjudgmental ear) when needed so she always feels comfortable coming to you with her problems.

Provide Opportunities of Maturity and Growth
· Help your child stand up against bullying and peer pressure by offering appropriate comebacks and practice them often so they feel comfortable thinking quickly when faced with difficult situations.
· Build empathy and perspective. Never forget the importance of parent role modeling. Make sure your child hears you give compliments for someone’s hard work or your appreciation of a kind deed. Participate in community activities that focus on helping others.
· Present opportunities for your son or daughter to build confidence and responsibility. Even if you have to start out small at first, such as assigning your son specific chores around the house or asking your daughter to participate as a volunteer for a community event.

The next three years will go by quickly (although at times it might seem not quickly enough). This period will be full of many highs and lows, successes and disappointments, changes in friends and in personal styles. To help your preteen navigate through this challenging stage you will have to have your game on. They are going to need you - even if they ask you to drop them off a block away from the school! They have grown up right before your eyes, and will continue to change is so many ways. You can feel more confident to navigate through these years of transitions by providing love, support and a non-judgmental attitude. And if the going gets rough, a call to the school counselor or a quick online search will provide additional resources and support for you and your teen; filling the middle school years with wonderful experiences, ready for the camcorder.
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