Is this normal?

One of the most common questions I as a Middle School Director from parents is “Is this normal?” Sometimes, it is phrased differently: “what is wrong with my son/daughter?” Sometimes, there are hints of desperation: “What happened to my loving child?”, or “What did I do wrong?” Regardless, parenting teenagers or pre-teens can be difficult and unpredictable.

After teaching or leading middle schools for fifteen years and raising three kids through these years (we are still in it!), my answer is most often, “YES! Yes, this is normal.” Raising a middle-schooler can really keep us on our toes. My advice to parents during this time is usually to cherish it. This time will pass so quickly, and right before your eyes, you are watching your child become an adult. It is like getting the opportunity to watch a caterpillar become a butterfly, and you get the opportunity to decide just how beautiful that butterfly will become.

Here are just a few things I often share with parents (and teachers who aren’t parents) during this time:

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Social Media and Belonging

“No house should ever be on a hill or on anything. It should be of the hill. Belonging to it. Hill and house should live together each the happier for the other.”
–Frank Lloyd Wright

As I have said many times, adolescence is a time of great development for children. Middle school is a time in which development is greatly focused on the social and emotional. One aspect of this development is a sense of belonging. As children seek greater autonomy away from their parents, they seek greater acceptance from their peers. After all, their bodies and minds are preparing for a life away from their parents’ home. This can lead children to question where they belong and what they enjoy doing.

Today, adolescents use new methods to satisfy this developmental stage that might be unfamiliar to parents who relied on team sports, organized after school activities, or good ol’ fashioned trips to hang out at the mall. Social media now plays an active role in developing a sense of belonging in positive and, potentially, negative ways. As parents, we should be aware of how our children are using these platforms and actively monitor its usage.

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Teaching Perseverance

“It is hard to fail, but it is worse never to have tried to succeed.”
-Theodore Roosevelt

Last week, in a very rare moment of downtime, I perused my social media sites, and it wasn’t to check up on my kids this time. I was excited about a friend’s recent news, and I wanted to check to see how things were going. A friend from high school is in a band, and they had a major label release of their first album. The album has garnered critical acclaim. What is interesting about this news is that I am a woman of “a certain age” (that age when it becomes impolite to ask how old I am), and this friend has been working on getting an album deal since we were in high school. That is a very long time to be working for something with very little success.

To be honest, if I were in my friend’s shoes, I would have given up long ago. Many people told him to get a “real” job, and he did. He was quite successful in that arena too, but on the side, he continually worked towards his dream of being a recording artist and making his own music. I was struck with awe as I considered how long it has taken for him to achieve his goal. I could only imagine the number of rejections he had faced before getting to this point. I felt that sense of pride that rises up when we recognize the efforts, perseverance, and achievements in others, especially those we have supported along their journey.

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Setting Boundaries with your Tween/Teen

“We should not look back unless it is to derive useful lessons from past errors.”
–George Washington

One of the greatest dilemmas of raising adolescents is maintaining the balance between keeping them safe and supporting their increasing need for independence. Adolescents can look and sound like adults, but as we learned last week, their decision-making capabilities are significantly delayed compared to their physical development. They tend to be impulsive and driven by peer relationships. This is why it is paramount that we consistently provide boundaries for behavior, and we re-evaluate them often. Establishing boundaries or limits can help to reduce conflict within families and help adolescents feel safe and less overwhelmed. After all, they are often dealing with many physical and social changes.

Many online resources or books on parenting provide age appropriate guidelines for boundaries or rules. I encourage parents to use those guidelines, but to also evaluate a child’s maturity level in addition to age. For example, you may have set the standard that your child can get a cell phone by the age of thirteen. However, they have not shown the responsibility to complete homework on time or complete daily household chores, then they should not receive the cell phone.

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Open Conversations with Tweens and Teens

“In your calm is your strength.”–German Proverb

Over the years, I have told many people that I didn’t choose Middle School Education; it chose me. It wasn’t until my children approached adolescence that I truly understood the depth of this calling. My years of teaching middle school certainly gave me a leg up in preparing for the tween/teen years as a parent, but it doesn’t make it easier. Adolescents and pre-adolescents have unique qualities that can make parenting a challenge.

Around the onset of puberty, there are marked changes in the development of children’s brains. This begins before outward physical changes of puberty are noticeable, but parents will often notice behavioral or attitudinal changes in children beginning around the age of 9 or 10. This is the age that the brain begins to recognize and to be receptive to the sex hormones of estrogen and testosterone for the first time. In addition, one region of the brain, the amygdala, grows (or rather swells) exponentially during this time, up to 20 times its original size. This increased size continues until about the age of 20 to 25 when the frontal lobes have fully developed and begin to take on greater control. The amygdala is responsible for emotional response and control. In addition to the ongoing development of their brains, their bodies are growing and changing just as quickly. They are driven to be more social, yet more independent from their parents.

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