- 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:
The benefits of mindfulness are not just anecdotal: A growing body of scientific research shows its positive effects on mental health and well-being. Practicing mindfulness has been shown to improve attention and reduce stress as well as increase one's ability to regulate emotions and feel compassion and empathy. Mindfulness is also widely considered an effective psychotherapy treatment for adults, children, and adolescents with aggression, ADHD, or other mental health issues such as anxiety. To learn more about the benefits of mindfulness, please check out this thorough article about mindfulness with children across the all the developmental phases.
There is remarkable evidence that shows that when you do things like mindfulness and relaxation training and yoga, that you are setting your body up to not express certain genes that could cause a lot of illness and disease in people. And the idea of kids learning this is quite beneficial, especially when we add in the different environment that kids these days are growing up in with technology. While we love our phones and some of us love them more than others, we really are creating an entirely different experience for kids these days. And the idea of having this mindfulness to rely on, to clear your mind, to enter into a thoughtless state and to really align your mind and body in a very positive way is very good preventive medicine.
I find in my work with families that parents are just as happy to be doing it as the kids are. And I essentially think all kids need to learn how to do calm breathing and one nostril breathing, which is where you close one nostril and you close your mouth and breathe in very slowly in and out through the other nostril. Usually you breathe in for seven and out for nine. And you do it for several minutes until you get really relaxed.
But, there are all of these apps now where parents can help their children learn how to relax. For example, C-A-L-M, is an app, which has an amazing bedtime stories as part of the app. Part of the app is free and part of it you have to pay for and the bedtime stories unfortunately is something you have to pay for. But, I’ve had children who’ve had a lot of trouble relaxing before bed and they listen to these stories. There’s one where the man’s voice is very soothing and you almost want to fall asleep the second he starts talking. And of course, that’s one way to use it. Another way is not at bedtime, but for them to really learn how to relax and how to decompress. And what I suggest is looking at the different apps to see if any resonate for you, your child or teen, and your family. InsightTimer is a good one. Buddhify is another one. Headspace is another good app. The most important part is to start somewhere and make it a habit.
Miranda J. Gabriel, Psy.D.
A licensed clinical psychologist providing psychotherapy to children, teens, and adults in the San Francisco Bay Area.
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