When Change Is Good, And Bad, But Ultimately Good: Starting Middle School

“You can’t walk me in. I’m really sorry, but it’s middle school, mom. I WILL get teased.” – Parting words from my 11-year old on the first day of school.

The many unsettling changes that occur in and around our children as they enter Middle School provides them with the experiences that they need in order to grow. Nature gives us building blocks – the tools and the abilities – but for us to effectively grow our skills and employ those building blocks, we need nurturing…we require learning.

Today’s world provides a whole new set of experiences that may make this process more challenging than ever. What we know is that middle school is a rite of passage, and while this time in life has always proven incredibly fruitful, there’s no doubt that it’s just as incredibly difficult. Some of the more external adaptations facing today’s new Middle Schoolers includes more stringent academic demands, more kids and new faces, as well as a variety of different classrooms and teachers rather than the single room and teacher they’ve been used to their whole lives, who by the end of the day may spend as much time with a child as his or her parents.

In addition to these external adaptions, there are the internal ones that can weigh quite heavily on a child. Hormonal changes mean that bodies and emotions are in flux, making it much harder to cope with a steady, predictable environment, much less a radically different one. Hormones can also distort thinking, impact judgment and decision-making, wreak havoc on motivation and create strange new obsessions and desires. The bottom line is that a rapidly developing brain means that not all systems are online at all times.

One of the ways this manifests is bullying – kids at this age aren’t always very nice to each other. Sure, adults aren’t either, but Middle School is where it seems to begin. Kids are more vulnerable and scared than ever before, and consequently they are often mean, critical or aggressive, after all, fear and anger are generated in the same part of the brain – they go together. When we are stressed, feeling insecure or depleted many of us are more likely to bark at people or kick the dog. So, why are we surprised when kids do it? Why kids are so mean to each other? That’s when we have to remind ourselves that what seems like a “mean kid” may actually be a small human being who hasn’t yet developed the experience it takes to control intense emotions without acting or reacting. And since acting out is designed to relieve tension, it works. It makes us feel better. So, naturally, we keep doing it.

There are other benefits to being mean. People leave you alone, for instance. The best defense is a good offense. Bullies want an easy target – kill or be killed. Ok, perhaps that was a bit extreme, but these sayings are trite for a reason: they are true. That doesn’t necessarily mean they are productive, healthy, or good for world peace, but there’s no denying that such behavior tends to increase in middle school along with all of the other internal and external changes and stress triggers. And this is how children learn.

I might be writing this because I myself need to hear it – as my daughter enters Middle School, it’s not out of my nature to see her as the easy target and I need to remember all of this so that I don’t “go all mama bear,” as she likes to describe it.

So how do we help our children navigate the myriad of landmines that they potentially face? Is it by protecting them, arming them, or giving them the tools and training for the journey? The answer is all of the above.

There are many researchers and clinicians who have studied and addressed the topic at length. If you have a new Middle Schooler in the family, here are a few books and articles I highly recommend:

Playground Politics: Understanding the Emotional Life of Your School-Age Child by Stanley Greenspan and Jacqueline Salmon.