- Combination locks. Many a preteen is terrified that they won't be able to get their locker open. As a result, they will be stuck with no place to put their books, or they will not be able to retrieve needed materials for the next class or at the end of the day. What you can do: First, understand that this fear isn't completely unfounded, as students have limited time between classes. Try buying your preteen a combination lock over the summer to practice on, or see if the school will allow your child to come try the lockers out before the start of the school year.
- Being late for class. Yes, preteens have loads of energy, but even they find it challenging to move from class to class on time. The consequence for lateness can be detention. No kid wants to get in trouble because they weren't fast enough! What you can do: Reassure your child that they are not alone. Brainstorm ways to streamline the process. What will they do if they are not sure where a particular class is located? Who can they ask for directions (for example, the teacher of a previous class, or an advisor)? Is your child good at keeping their books and papers organized? If not, help them to organize their binders and books so they don't waste precious minutes between classes. And remind your child that they will have to save socializing for lunchtime or after school.
- Not having friends. Often children worry at the start of middle school about making friends. Middle school can be an especially difficult time for girls, given the rotating nature of girls' friendships, the emergence of queen bees, and the shifting social order. What you can do: Try to focus on this time of new beginnings. You might ask, "Do you know anyone from your old school who is going to be there?" If your child scoffs at your attempts to identify potentially friendly faces in the crowd, try to identify their fears and put them in perspective. You might say, "You had friends at your old school, what do you imagine might happen that you wouldn't you be able to make friends at the new one?" or "Are you worried that the kids from your elementary school won't want to be friends anymore?" Don't feel like you have to supply a steady stream of solutions. Sometimes it helps kids just to voice their fears to a sympathetic listener.
- Being too different. Nothing is worse for middle schoolers than standing out in a way they haven't chosen, which means anything at the far end of the "normal" curve. For a girl, it could mean being the tallest in the class or the most developed; for a boy, it could mean being the shortest or the clumsiest. At some schools, fashion is the arbiter of all things cool, and middle schoolers may live in dread of showing up with the wrong backpack, brand of jeans, or style of shoes.
What you can do: First, understand that the tween years are a stage that marks the beginning of their search for an identity. Whatever it is about your preteen's personality or appearance that concerns them, don't say, "That's silly," or "It doesn't matter." Minimizing their feelings (even with the best of intentions) will only make your child feel more alone. Preteens' self-esteem drops during this time, due to a combination of hormonal activity (remember too that puberty is setting in) and brain development. Emphasize the positive as one way of boosting an insecure preteen's confidence. If, for example, a boy is small in stature but fast on the playing field, his parents could coach him to view his size as an asset rather than a liability.
- Tough classes. Some kids worry that they won't be able to keep up academically. A child who is nervous about the increased workload may worry that there will be too much reading, or that he or she got good grades in elementary school not because they were smart, but because the teachers liked them.
What you can do: There's certainly nothing wrong with acknowledging that the work will be harder (it will be!), but assure your child that it won't be more than they can handle. Remind your preteen that while being a good student is important, they have other strengths as well — perhaps they love to draw, or play soccer — so that their entire sense of self isn't wrapped up in grades. Encourage them to let a teacher — and you — know if they think they need extra help or if they are falling behind. That way you can take steps to address problems early on, perhaps by having your preteen meet with a teacher after school, or working with a tutor.
No matter how confident your child is at the prospect of starting middle school, chances are there's something about it that has them scared silly. What concerns kids most—and how can parents help them work through their fears? An informal survey of parents, students, and experts who work with adolescents turned up the following:
Miranda J. Gabriel, Psy.D.
A licensed clinical psychologist providing psychotherapy to children, teens, and adults in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Information and opinions found on this website
are not substitutes for
medical or psychological advice. Dr. Gabriel can't answer questions about someone's specific situation or give
personal advice. Please see the Disclaimer section under the Contact Page for more information.