(Inspired by two tweens I know–very different from each other in some ways, very alike in others. Both of whom have known heartache and loss; both of whom are talented and full of potential; both of whom are just months away from middle school. One is my daughter. One is our sweet friend. I spent time around them both this last weekend, and I have not stopped thinking about what’s ahead for them since. This post is for them.)
We recently found out where CG will be going to middle school. It’s a complicated system where we live, in terms of public school, and so now that we have an answer we can relax a little and enjoy what’s left of 5th grade in the world’s best public elementary school (no seriously…it is).
My beautiful, tender-hearted, independent, opinionated girl–thrown to the chaos that will be her middle school years.
When I was doing youth ministry, I would often say to parents, “Look, it’s going to suck. I’m sorry. It just is. But you will get through it. You will survive. And so will they. But it’s going to be hard.” Those years–gah. They’re this vast battlefield of mean girls and raging hormones and bullies and fear and insecurity.
I moved from Texas to Georgia between Christmas and the new year when I was in 8th grade; from a large junior high in south Texas that was very diverse and very chaotic and often a bit more than I could handle, to a quiet, small town middle school where everyone had been going to school together since kindergarten and I was “that new girl that moved in next to Larry’s house.” (Shoutout to Larry–because he was my first friend in Winder, Georgia and we went on to brave high school and college together too, and I’m still grateful for him).
Talk about a whirlwind. It would take a couple of years (and the discovery of high school theater and chorus) to set right how utterly insecure I was at 13, caught in between a whole lot of change and some very chubby cheeks, unattractive glasses, and a mouth full metal.
Later, I’d watch the kids I worked with in ministry dive into middle school, and mostly just hold their breath and paddle furiously and try to find some sense of calm and safety and sometimes even fun amidst the overwhelming nature of it all. Some did this better than others. As is often true, the kids with more money, better looks, athletic prowess or impressive smarts generally rose to the top socially–but even for them, the pain of simply growing up, learning heartache, experiencing betrayal, knowing failure was often enough to bring them to their knees. They broke my heart on a weekly basis, and would often put it back together again, too, with their unexpected moments of grace and compassion, their damaged little souls working hard to make sense of the world and their place in it.
Soon it will be CG’s turn, and even as I feel anxiety rising and fear forming over what the next few years will be like for her, especially in this age of social media and fierce competition and opioid abuse and school gun violence, I try, too, to focus on what I know will help get her through.
And so, because I’m thinking about it, for what it’s worth, in my NON-expert opinion, parents and caregivers of tweens, here’s what I believe helps our kids survive the utter beast of middle school:
- Do not believe your child when he or she says, “I hate you and I want you to go away.” What they mostly likely mean is, “I’m scared, and I’m counting on you to love me regardless of what I say, but please don’t go away and please hold me, because I need your strength and love more than I ever have.”
- Do believe your child when he or she is behaving or speaking differently than normal. It could just be hormones. It could also be she doesn’t know how to tell you she’s being harassed, or he doesn’t know how to tell you he’s being bullied.
- Ask questions. Not, “How was your day?” because all that’s going to get you is a, “Fine.” But do ask, “Tell me something funny that happened today,” or, “What about today was hard?” or “What are you grateful for today?” She might roll her eyes and ask why you’re so weird. But that’s okay. You’ll live.
- Pay attention, but don’t assume the worst. Yes, all the awful things you hear about middle school are possible, but all the good stuff is possible too–kids are often at their most compassionate and driven when they’ve been hurt or are feeling insecure themselves.
- Love hard. Love. Hard. They will push you away. They will argue with you incessantly. They will hurt your heart. They will rage and cry and scream. But they need you. So much. And in the face of their emotion, they need you to stand firm with your love and grace and promise them over and over that you are not going anywhere, no matter what. That you are there to stay. No matter what.
- Don’t be afraid to talk. About sex. About drugs. About grades. About anger. About tears. About bodies. About relationships. About bullying. About ANY of it. Don’t be afraid. Being silent does not make any of it go away.
- Ask for help. From friends, from family, from teachers, from professional counselors, from whoever. Parenting is not a solo sport, despite what our super mom/dad Pinterest-Perfect culture would have us believe.
- Build your kids a tribe. For every one caring adult that a child has outside his immediate family that he can trust, his chances of succeeding grow exponentially. You cannot do this alone. You cannot be all that your child needs. Give your child the gift of knowing that she is loved beyond measure by more than just a few grown ups in this world, and her capacity for growing into who she is mean to be will, I promise you, increase.
There’s a reason I often say that, deep inside, no matter what age we are, we’re all just our middle school selves–insecure and volatile and convinced everyone is looking at us and worried about who we will sit with at lunch. And maybe the best thing we could do for that inner middle school child of our own is to find a real middle school child, and make it our mission to help him or her know that, in the end, it’s going to be okay. They’ll figure it out.
And they do not have to do so alone.