The first day of school for any child is a day of excitement, nervousness, and above all, a day of transition. As children grow and develop, they go through several major transitional phases. The first major transition is the entry into pre-school/kindergarten. This phase is the beginning of a structured day with rules, limits, and expectations set by someone other than a parent. It’s the beginning of major peer socialization and learning. The second major transition, and the biggest of all is the transition from elementary to middle school. During their adolescent years, children undergo a major body transformation through puberty, an attitude transition as adolescents start to develop autonomy and independence, and, often most difficult for parents, the reliance on peers over parents for companionship and guidance.
The middle school developmental years are some of the most important years of a child’s life. These are the years that adolescents need the most guidance and direction as they start to form their beliefs, independence, self-image, and self-worth. The topics listed below are the 8 most crucial conversations parents need to have with their adolescent during these important developmental years.
Smart Phone Safety, Restrictions, and Monitoring
Most middle school children have smart phones and are typically more adept at using them than most adults. The middle school years begin a time of self-exploration, boundary pushing, entry into sexual interest, and peer pressure. A smart phone can be an anonymous gateway to all kinds of adult material, exposure to peers, and avenues for posting selfies, videos, snapchats, etc. Apps today allow your children to share their location with strangers, share images of their private life to peers, to order rides through Uber with a click of a button, and much more. Middle school (or even 5th grade) is the time to have a conversation with your children about appropriate smart phone use. Let your children know that you will be monitoring their phone usage, collecting their phone at night, and restricting certain apps. Tell them what behaviors are appropriate and inappropriate, what apps they will be allowed to use, and which will be restricted, and tell them the consequences of certain actions BEFORE it becomes a problem. It is important to let your child know that you care about their safety and that phones are a privilege to be earned with proper and appropriate usage.
How to Choose Healthy Friendships
Prior to middle school, most elementary school children are associated with friend groups based on their classes. They spend the majority of their day with the same people, and friendships are less about choices and more about association by schedule. As soon as an adolescent enters middle school, they are thrown into a brand new world of choosing friends. Many children find themselves overwhelmed and uncertain about who to choose as a friend and how to know a good friend, from a toxic friend. In middle school, peer groups are an important part of a child’s development of interests, hobbies, and social activities. Now is the time to teach an adolescent how to choose friends with the same morals and values as them and with the same rules and family values. Adolescents often have a very hard time walking away from a toxic friend for fear of “hurting their feelings” or social rejection from peers. They rely heavily on adults (parents, counselors, mentors) to encourage them that it is okay to change friends if they are being mistreated, bullied, or peer pressured. They need adult guidance on how to end a toxic friendship, and how to make new friends that are healthy and positive. Let your child know that you will help them navigate this new and difficult terrain and that they are not alone. This is also a good age to continue contacting the parents of your child’s friends to confirm plans and monitor their behavior. It takes a village, and being close with your adolescent’s friends’ parents is a good way to ensure they are safe and around healthy relationships.
Healthy Dating Relationships
Middle school is the time to talk to your child about healthy and unhealthy dating relationships. Let your child know your rules/expectations when it comes to dating, and help them learn how to choose a healthy partner who is respectful of their boundaries. Adolescents are very susceptible to peer pressure in dating relationships. They can be pressured into sending inappropriate pictures from their phones, performing physical acts, they may even be pressured into isolating themselves from their friends and families. In addition to those concerning behaviors, studies show that partner violence begins between the ages of 12-18, and when asked, most adolescents are not able to properly identify unhealthy/abusive relationship behaviors. Talking to your child about unhealthy relationship warning signs is a great preventative measure to help keep your child emotionally, physically, and mentally healthy.
Sex Education and/or Safe Sex Practices
For this topic, it’s important for parents to use their discretion and personal beliefs to direct the focus of the conversation; however, sexual education is an important topic for all adolescents to learn from their parents. School sex education does a good job introducing teens to information about puberty, reproduction, sexually transmitted infections, etc.; however, parents can further this conversation by talking to teens about their specific questions/concerns. In addition to talking to teens about safe sex/sex education, middle school is the time to talk to teens (boys and girls) about pornography. Research shows that most pornography addicted adults were first exposed to pornography between the ages of 11-12. Placing restrictions on your child’s phone and computer is extremely helpful, but it is not enough. Help your child understand the dangers and risks of pornography use and help them learn how to make healthy choices.
Study Habits & School Organizational Tools
One of the more noticeable changes from elementary to middle school is the course load and homework. Middle school teachers assign more homework, have higher expectations, more exams, and a stricter late work policy. Talk to your children about their course load. Help them to learn about time management by analyzing how much time they will need to dedicate to homework and studying each night. Teach them how to organize their backpack, planner, and binder. Although you might hear the all too familiar, “I can do this myself,” adolescents in middle school are incredibly reliant on teachers and parents to help them develop study habits, time management skills, and organizational skills in order to be successful in high school.
Research shows that kids who are involved in activities inside and outside of school have higher academic achievement, are less likely to get involved with drugs and alcohol, have better attendance records, and are more likely to complete high school. Boredom is often a gateway into experimentation and reckless behavior for many adolescents. Kids whose time is filled productively are less likely to get distracted by unhealthy behaviors. Schools offer many activities for students to get involved in, such as: band, orchestra, sports, choir, theater, clubs, dance, robotics, debate, art, photography, and more. Communities also offer: sports leagues, boy/girl scouts, horseback riding lessons, employment opportunities, church youth groups, and more. All of the above listed activities are equally beneficial for adolescents. When involved in an extracurricular, kids learn teamwork, leadership skills, development of a skill/talent, they make friends, boost their self-confidence, create goals, and more. Talk to your child about the options that will work for your family and encourage them to try a variety of activities until they find a niche. Continuing with the same extracurricular involvement in high school is a huge advantage when applying to college.
The middle school years are often a child’s first exposure to drugs and alcohol. They may be exposed online, at school, with friends, with older neighbors, etc. It is important that you have talked with your child about how to handle an encounter with drugs/alcohol before they are first exposed. Help them come up with a plan on how to handle different scenarios and tell them who they can tell/talk to if they encounter a situation.
How to Handle Depressed Thoughts/Feelings
As their bodies change, many adolescents will experience changes in mood associated with fluctuating hormones. These hormonal changes will then combine with stressful situations and many adolescents will develop intermittent feelings of depression. Help your child understand that is it normal to feel many feelings as they go through their middle school years. Pay close attention to their changes in behavior such as: moodiness, increased sleep, insomnia, irritability, or isolation. These can be signs of stress or depression. Offer to talk to your child or help them choose a trusted adult or counselor to talk to about how they’re feeling. Many times, children are afraid to tell their parents about how they’re feeling for fear of being judged or getting in trouble. Offer them a listening ear and comfort them before offering advice. Your presence and empathy goes further than anything else at this stage. If you suspect your child is depressed, it is always necessary to ask them about suicidal thoughts and feelings. It is a myth to think that mentioning suicide will “plant ideas.” The reality is that talking to adolescents about suicide can be a lifeline to seeking help. Remember to seek professional help if you feel concern about your child’s changes or moods.
Parents, this stage is a difficult and overwhelming stage for your child in many ways, but in most ways it is a beautiful one. With your openness, attentiveness, communication, and support, your child will be navigating this tough stage successfully. They will develop their self-esteem, self-image, interests, hobbies, and personalities. Remember, professional help is there for you, your child, and your family should you need it. Best of luck with these important conversations! Please feel free to reach out to me for any comments, questions, or concerns at: Kristin.firstname.lastname@example.org
About the Author:
Kristin O'Connor is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist practicing with Cy-Hope Counseling. In addition to her counseling services, Kristin serves as the Marriage & Family Therapy Program Coordinator and Supervisor for Cy-Hope Counseling, overseeing the work of practicum student interns.
Kristin graduated from Texas A&M University receiving a Bachelor's degree in Psychology. During her time at Texas A&M, Kristin volunteered at Giddings State School for incarcerated youth where she created and ran a Youth Mentor Program for adolescents. Upon graduating from Texas A&M, Kristin completed her Master's Degree in Marriage and Family Therapy from Oklahoma State University where she worked as a clinical intern at The Center for Family Services seeing clients for marriage counseling, family counseling, and individual counseling. During her time at OSU, Kristin served as a clinical student intern at Payne County Youth Services, counseling teens and their families in Stillwater, Oklahoma. Kristin also served as the clinical student intern at Ripley High School, and Ripley Middle School counseling students and running counseling groups for teens. Upon graduating from Oklahoma State University, Kristin joined the Cy-Hope Counseling staff as a founding member and helped build and establish the counseling center.
Kristin specializes in working with couples, families, adolescents, and individual adults. Kristin is a certified Prepare-Enrich pre-marital counseling provider and is also trained in play therapy, Filial Therapy, and Parent-Child Interactional Therapy.