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Betwixt & Between

Understanding Your Middle Schooler

By Mike Strzelecki

They’re called the “tween” years—those tumultuous, treacherous and confusing middle school years when kids dangle precariously between childhood and adolescence.

Girls keep dolls in their bedroom and edgy Avril Lavigne CDs in their boom box. They want to bear their midriff by day, and cozy up in flannel girly pajamas by night.

Boys emulate their favorite NFL star, yet can’t quite cut the umbilical to their favorite racecar set. They have the technical know-how to download MP3 files from the Internet, but still can’t figure out how to put dirty socks in a laundry basket.

“Middle school is a critical time for both child and parent,” says Akintunde Morakinyo, a psychologist in the Baltimore County school system and counselor of middle school-age children. “It’s generally where children choose their niche and peer group, which they will stay with through the remainder of their schooling.”

The tween years are a time of sweeping and drastic change. Puberty hits like a ton of bricks, giving way to developing bodies, changes in sexuality, weight gain, acne, voice changes and perhaps braces. Children obsess over their bodies and compare themselves to peers.

Tweens have emerging intellects, and assert opinions with greater persistence (some would call them “know-it-alls”). Humor becomes more sophisticated, often salacious with boys. Tweens chase fads and fret over fashion. They suffer from wild and wicked hormone-fueled mood swings. Anxieties over school, athletics and social affairs can become oppressive.

Such monumental changes unfortunately conspire against the parent/child relationship. In their quest for independence, tweens no longer consider Mom and Dad the center of their universe, or defer to them in wholesale fashion. Family time is deemed way uncool. Often, the parent is reduced to a role player: banker, chauffer, cook. Parents also become the target of frustrating and confusing outbursts, which leaves relationships strained.

If the tween years are tough on kids, they’re utterly brutal on Mom and Dad. So what’s a parent to do?

Just ask Donna Corwin, parenting expert and author of The Tween Years: A Parent’s Guide for Surviving Those Terrific, Turbulent, and Trying Times between Childhood and Adolescence (McGraw-Hill/Contemporary Books, 1998). “The tween years are not a time to take it easy,” admonishes Corwin. “Parental input and guidance are vital during this time. The relationship, rules, boundaries and communication you establish now will take you into the serious teenage years when a solid foundation can be your lifeline to your child.”

In her book, Corwin lays out strategies parents can employ to combat their changing relationships with their tween. Corwin identifies self-esteem as the most important self-value a child can possess. She tasks parents to elevate their child’s self-esteem through constant encouragement and by reinforcing their positive traits; steering them into activities they feel good about; keeping criticism on a constructive level; planning fun family activities; and encouraging them to invite friends over.

Corwin also suggests parents lengthen the leash on their tween, appeasing their desire for an added dash of freedom and independence (while still monitoring their friends and whereabouts). She says parents should also remain firm about cutting off back-talking and other negative behaviors.

Corwin warns that anger must be kept in check during this dynamic time. “Many parents, unprepared to cope with adolescence, use angry confrontation as their only resource to discipline their children,” she explains. “But anger only leads to more anger, and the parent-adolescent relationship can deteriorate into one of constant battles.”

To control angry confrontations, Corwin recommends that parents selectively choose their battles (and not sweat the small stuff), reduce negative interactions and criticisms and strategize ahead of time about how to respond to situations certain to arise.

Corwin also stresses the vital importance of parents maintaining productive and positive communications with their middle schooler, which may require an extensive degree of listening and understanding. Parents should refrain from dismissing their child’s feelings and concerns, no matter how trite they appear. That Good Charlotte concert may seem trivial to you, but probably means the world to him or her.

And never give up the affection. “What is important is that you continually tell your child how much he is loved and valued,” explains Corwin. “Don’t stop trying to sneak those hugs and kisses because secretly he or she wants your attention and love.”

Beyond the passing phase

Certain problems associated with tweens can lead to more dire consequences. Based on his experience counseling Baltimore County middle school students, Morakinyo identifies substance abuse, depression and delinquency as three such critical issues that parents need to keep an alert eye out for.

“Middle school is typically the first place kids have contact with drugs,” Morakinyo notes. “The experimentation is often done by the time the kids enter senior high school.” Morakinyo suggests that parents keep close tabs on their children’s peer groups and monitor where off-school time is spent.

Depression can rear itself in middle school-age children. It’s often brought on by a traumatic event, such as a death or divorce. “Schoolphobia,” plummeting grades and lack of interest in activities are warning signs of possible depression.

So is aggressive behavior. “Whereas adults become withdrawn when they are depressed, children become excitable and angry and often engage in fights,” says Morakinyo. “You’ll see wild mood swings with depression in kids.”

Morakinyo calls juvenile delinquency the most prolific red-flag problem he faces as a middle school counselor. Disorderly conduct and shoplifting are delinquent activities often mentioned.

“Whether children have problems with delinquency usually comes down to their peer groups,” notes Morakinyo. “If their friends are getting in trouble and showing signs of delinquency—that’s a sure red flag right there.”

Morakinyo notes that eating disorders may emerge in middle school, but more typically in senior high or later.

Keeping your middle school child on the straight and narrow does not guarantee problem-free passage through these turbulent times. Amy Ferrell, an Ellicott City resident and teacher with the Olney Psychiatric and Counseling Center, knows all too well. Ferrell is intimately familiar with the hurdles of raising a tween, with four of her six children either in or through middle school.

“My first daughter attended middle school in Prince George’s County,” explains Ferrell. “She had a very difficult time. She was dealing with changes in our family and the death of her close grandmother. But more importantly, she had to deal with being one of the few students in her class that came from a close-knit family environment—one that attended church and had rules and standards and expectations. Most of her classmates came from a more ‘anything goes’ environment. The differences between her and her classmates were very real.”

“She was ridiculed by her classmates,” Ferrell adds. “It just wasn’t cool to be smart and to pursue excellence.”

As Ferrell’s daughter progressed through school, she struggled to lead two wildly divergent lifestyles. She felt torn. Her daughter ostensibly chose to walk the path with her school friends, arguing that that is where she spent most of her time. This led to declining grades and more parties, which quickly gave way to the abuse of alcohol and other substances. Her daughter eventually dropped out of school.

Ferrell’s daughter has since reclaimed her life and achieved a diploma. And Ferrell has surely applied what she learned from that ordeal to parenting her subsequent tween children. But she also knows there are no assurances or easy answers.

“There’s no way you can control all aspects of your life as your child enters middle school,” she offers. “But it’s not about getting the situation right or controlling the situation. It’s about knowing that you can maintain love, communication and limits with your family through this difficult time, and grow together from the process.” BC

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