Education consultant Jennifer Miller notes that children may not confide in you at convenient times or when you ask them direct questions. However, if you create a trusting and open listening environment, they will be more likely to open up to you when they are ready. At those times, listen actively and ask questions. Try not to offer solutions to problems immediately. Instead, discuss the problem and allow them the chance to think for themselves about their own issues.
Many children entering adolescence are more self-conscious than when they were younger, as their bodies are changing and they experience more social pressure. Let your child know you’re always there to listen and, if he asks for it, offer advice. Try sharing stories of embarrassing times you had growing up, and encourage older siblings or family members to share as well. Having the reassurance of a supportive and empathetic parent can help your child through feelings of self-doubt and self-consciousness.
Even if he excels in an area that might not be popular, like a certain sport, playing a certain instrument, or joining certain clubs, his ability to recognize his strength and value in an unpopular area is self-awareness. Acting upon that strength and developing it further is a way to really show self-awareness, especially at this age when peer acceptance and pressure is so prevalent. Tom Hoerr, who is Head of School at New City School in St. Louis, recommends praising your child’s effort, energy, and participation instead of focusing on the final outcome.
Director of Rutgers Social and Emotional Learning Lab Maurice Elias says that it’s better to say what you see. For example, “It looks like you are feeling conflicted about going to that party, because you are not acting as excited as you usually do,” or “You say you are not nervous about the test, but you are very fidgety when you are trying to sit down and study.” By saying what you see, you signal to your child how he looks and give him a chance to correct you, explain, or perhaps deny what you said, but still have that feedback. This is different from saying, “You don’t really want to go to that party, do you?” or “I can’t believe you aren’t nervous about that test.”
It may be hard at this age to engage your child in a long discussion about emotions, but taking a couple of minutes a day to ask “What made you feel good today?” or “Did anything upset you today?” is a great way to show you care. Try to avoid questions that will get a “yes” or “no” answer to create more conversation. New York City-based teacher Anne Harlam suggests also talking about your own feelings. For example, “I’m really stressed out about this deadline at work” or “I’m really excited to spend time with the family this weekend.” Even if there isn’t always a discussion started, simply by providing daily interactions around your child’s emotions you’re creating an environment where your child knows he can talk to you. This will make him more likely to talk to you when he is ready to, or really needs to. For more ideas on what to say, visit our conversation starters guide.
During adolescence, children often pull away from their parents, and they may not discuss important topics as much. Try not to take it personally, and point to other trusted adults your child can talk to about concerns, dreams or friendships. A close family friend, cousin, grandparent, aunt, teacher or school counselor could be an adult she could turn to. Take the time to get to know the adults with whom your child is interacting to make sure they are safe mentors for your child.
At this age, some children may say that their parents are “stupid” or “don’t understand anything,” but parents are still one of the biggest influences in their lives. It can be frustrating to deal with a middle-schooler who may seem more difficult than in her younger years, but by maintaining your own composure, remaining calm, and addressing your child with respect, you can show her what self-management looks like. Try to remember that you will feel better if you’re able to maintain your calm when dealing with your child, and try to talk through your strategies, too. For example, “I’m going to count to ten before I respond to your question.” You might be surprised when you see your actions reflected in your child.
These shouldn’t be considered “chores” but simply tasks that everyone in the family has to do to keep the household running smoothly. Emphasize that everyone in the family has tasks to do and it’s part of being a team, or family. She could be in charge of taking out the garbage, doing the dishes, feeding the family pet, or sorting and folding laundry. Allow her a choice in which task she does, but stay firm that she needs to choose something. By doing a task she may or may not enjoy, your child is learning more self-management and responsibility, as well as how to be an active member of the community.
Slamming doors, yelling, or acting out against family members or friends may happen frequently at this age. When your child has calmed down from an outburst, talk to her about how her actions reflect on her and affect the family. For example, she may scare a younger sibling or pet when slamming doors, or she may hurt a friend’s feelings when acting out. You might also point out a time where she was able to handle a similar situation better. By pointing out her self-management skills and how her actions affect others and their perceptions of her, you are giving her a tool to see the impact of her behavior on the people who matter to her -- including herself.
Middle school is an awkward time for any young person. It may involve a move to a larger school with more peers and going between classrooms for the first time. Your child may feel uncertain in this new and shifting social scene. He may also be nervous about making friends. By talking to him and explaining that everyone else is going through the same challenges, you can help him better-understand his peers and the importance of using empathy in his social interactions. You may also want to encourage him to make new friends or join school clubs and organizations to get to know different people. New York City-based teacher Anne Harlam adds that if your teen is more introverted, you should try not to push him into social situations or put too much pressure on him to meet new people. She suggests that you allow your adolescent to make friendships at a pace with which he is comfortable, and give him the support that he may need to overcome his social challenges.
Many schools have programs about these topics that involve books and other readings, and finding out about these can open up conversations about their content with your adolescent. If she seems to have some concerns about bullying, look for natural opportunities to mention books about the topic, like Freak by Marcella Pixley, Wonder by R. J. Palacio and Cornered: 14 Stories of Bullying and Defiance by Rhoda Belleza. These books lead naturally to a discussion about the forms that bullying can take. You can also ask her if she’s ever dealt with bullying or cyberbullying, and work together to figure out ways she can handle these types of situation in the future. For more age-appropriate book examples, see our reading list.
Your child’s social world broadens during middle school, and it’s important to take the time to regularly talk to him openly and honestly about his feelings and friendships. Whether it’s at the dinner table or right before his bedtime, have frequent chats with him about his social life and his role as a friend. Try not to be too judgmental while having these discussions, as this can cause him to withhold information or not want to talk about these issues at all. Director of Rutgers Social and Emotional Learning Lab Maurice Elias says that it’s good to always offer to drive for your adolescent and his friends. He adds that you will learn a great deal by listening to their conversations in the car, and you will also get to know more about your child’s friends and what they are doing.
Maurice Elias says that counselors can be a good source of information about what is happening in school, and if you notice changes in your child’s behavior that you can’t explain, you can check in with them. There could be things happening at school that you should know about, particularly bullying or cyberbullying. The counselor can be a big help in understanding and, in some cases, reaching out to your adolescent.
Many middle-schoolers have passions and pursuits that are important to them, and it’s helpful to encourage your child to find out what his “thing” is. You can do this by researching topics of interest together or pointing out potential hobbies or future career options. Colorado-based school counselor Sharon F. Sevier suggests that once you identify your middle-schooler’s interests, you may want to have him participate in groups or activities outside school that foster his talents and may help him find new friends. She says that these groups enlarge the friendship circle beyond school. Youth groups and programs at religious organizations, scouts, athletics, music, drama and volunteer work all offer adolescents a chance to grow and blossom and develop new friendships with different people.
Regardless of your child’s friends and social status, peer pressure will become an issue at one point or another. Education consultant Jennifer Miller recommends that you discuss peer pressure openly with your child, and talk about possible scenarios. You can ask her questions like, “What if the other kids are spending the night at a house while the parents are unaware and out of town?” Ask how your child feels about the scenario you’ve offered, and discuss the potential consequences of various choices and what she might say to a friend who is asking her to take part. Talking through these kinds of possibilities prepares her with language to use with her peers so she is ready.
Parent Toolkit expert Faye de Muyshondt suggests that you teach her how to maintain eye contact, speak clearly, introduce herself and smile or convey warmth to make a good first impression. You can help your adolescent practice this by role-playing and taking turns introducing yourselves to each other. Talk to her about the importance of first impressions and help provide her with a mental checklist that she can use when meeting new people. Director of Rutgers Social and Emotional Learning Lab Maurice Elias recommends that you also ask your child to reflect on the first impressions that she is making on others. For example, you can ask questions like, “How do you see yourself?” “How do you think others to see you?” and “How do you want others to see you?” Keep in mind that you are also modeling for your child when you meet new people and make introductions, and you can use those situations as teachable moments.
Most adolescents use electronic devices and social media, and it’s important to teach them how to behave appropriately online. Take this opportunity to discuss how the digital age has improved our lives, and then remind her that a person’s online footprint lives on in the virtual world and that almost nothing can be erased once it’s posted. This is also a good opportunity to discuss online bullying. Talk to your teen about the importance of being kind to others online and resisting going along with the crowd when someone is being made fun of. Monitor her time on social media and make it clear that “friends” in the virtual world are not the same as friends in the interpersonal world, and that she will need to develop her skills in relating to people in a range of everyday, non-electronic situations.
Support your child when he makes decisions you don’t agree with. It is bound to happen in every parent-child relationship. Even if you knew it was a bad decision, take the opportunity to talk with your child about it. Try not to lecture; instead, ask what he learned from the choice, and how he’ll handle a similar situation in the future. If he hurt you or someone else, give him the opportunity to make amends and ask for forgiveness. It’s important to show your adolescent that even if you don’t agree, you will still love him and be there to talk with him. For example, instead of saying, “I told you it was a bad idea to skip studying for that test,” say “Do you think you’ll skip studying next time? What would have been a better choice?”
For example, talk to her about her physical health and the consequences of making irresponsible decisions like smoking cigarettes. Tell her about the impact on her health, like how it would affect her soccer skills or singing ability. Also talk through alternatives to negative choices. For instance, explain to her that she can always call you or other family members for a ride home instead of getting into a car with someone who has been drinking or using drugs.
By allowing him into discussions like which movie to see or what to have for dinner -- as well as more important matters, such as how to deal with issues affecting younger siblings -- you’re giving him the opportunity to have his opinions heard. This shows that his opinions matter and that you’re open to hearing about his ideas. This may encourage him to share decisions he has to make about school or friends with you as well.