Teenagers are very challenging.
As a parent of four children with the oldest two just starting Kindergarten, I'm already dreading the middle school experience.
It makes sense that the most common request I receive from our parent community as a middle school principal is just a four letter word: HELP.
Help me with my student.
Help me understand.
Help me figure out what to do.
Help me with reassurance that I'll survive to see my teenager through these years.
Help me during these middle school years.
Help me understand how to support my student during middle school.
Over the years, I've come to realize a common thread with these parental concerns that can be very hard for the parents to hear: your kid is very normal.
Yes, they seem weird. They should be weird; they're in middle school and a budding teenager to boot. They're built to be different. The issue isn't your student. You can't fix them. You can only figure out how to best support them. Here are my top four ways to build a better parent to support your middle school student.
1) Don't make excuses for your student's behavior
It is very likely that your student will make a mistake during middle school. Don't make excuses for them. While you can always follow up with the classroom teacher or school administrator regarding the consequence, having a common message that mirrors the school's communication is a must. You may not agree with the lunch detention, but don't attack the consequence; instead, use the situation to talk about the behavior and how to make better decisions in the future.
If you do disagree with the teacher or administrator, you need to find a way to work with them to address your concerns. While you may know your student the best, we have the experience of having thousands of students within our sample size. The best meetings I've been a part of is when the parent asks appropriate questions to further the conversation and understand the What's and the Why's of the incident. Just know that middle school is a great time to make a mistake for your student. These are learning opportunities that can help steer your student to better decisions in the future.
2) Listen to your student... but don't trust them
This might sound a bit harsh but here's a nugget of truth: Kids lie. Not only do they lie, but they lie for no reason and especially in times where it would just be easier to tell the truth. I sometimes start conversations with students who may have made a mistake with the following sentence: "Look... sometimes students start this conversation with a fib... even though I know what's happened... even though I have twelve eye witnesses... even though I have video surveillance footage... even though you have signed a statement that you wrote admitting to the mistake... even with all of this evidence, some students will start the conversation with a fib... so let's start with the truth instead?" Please know that 99% of the students will still start with a fib, even after that speech.
When you are speaking with your student, don't necessarily trust what they're telling you. Teenagers are extremely skilled in telling parts of the truth but somehow leave out the most important details that substantially change the story. I often share that there is a box of truth filled with ten truthful statements. Students will tell you truthful statements 2, 5, and 8. In their mind, they're not lying. To them, omission of the full truth isn't a lie. You need to listen to your student but don't necessarily trust what they're telling you.
3) Work with your student's teachers and administrators, not against them
While you really want to believe your student and the lengthy, very convincing details they share about their seven missing assignments in Social Studies class for first quarter, be very gentle when you contact the classroom teacher on your student's behalf. Despite your student swearing on their new copy of Fallout 4 that they did the work, you may not be getting the full story. The teacher will most likely be able to let you know exactly what happened with each assignment. Chance are they've taken notes along the way, anticipating your student will create an elaborate story about the missing work.
"It disappeared in the cloud" is the new "the dog ate my homework" and just as likely. While it is possible that the teacher made a mistake and misplaced the work, the overwhelming most likely to have happened result is that your student didn't turn them in. The best advice I can share is to have your student meet with the teacher to address the missing work. Feel free to follow up with an email to the teacher if you don't get the full story from your student. Not only does this help your student learn how to advocate for themselves, it provides you, the parent, an opportunity to have the matter solved before you rush in to rescue your student unnecessarily so.
4) Keep your perspective (also, your children are more resilient than you think)
As previously shared, I once had a family share that a 6th grade boy saying a bad, not-appropriate-for-school phrase to their 6th grade daughter was the worst thing that had ever happened to their family. I agree that it was not a pleasant experience for their student, and it led to additional conversations with their student that they may not have wanted to have just yet, but "worst thing that had every happened to their family"?
Earlier that week, I met with a student who was struggling through their parents' divorce. Earlier that day, I fed a student who didn't get breakfast... or dinner the night before. The following week, I counseled a student who was on the verge of losing one of their parents to cancer. Keep your perspective.
I understand that your student's 4.0 GPA may be threatened because they didn't complete a 50 point assignment on time because they had soccer and basketball practice the night before. I recognize that it can be a very hard lesson for your student (and perhaps the parent as well) to not earn a spot on the 6th grade basketball team. I sympathize that their best friend since elementary school may have decided to break away from their friendship for non-communicated reasons. All of these situations are very challenging for a middle school student. This is when your student needs you to be a pillar of support. Commiserate but don't make excuses to your student for what's transpired. Let the missed assignment be a learning experience. Didn't make the basketball team? Start practicing for next year's tryouts. Explain how friendships can come and go... and while losing a friendship is never an easy thing for anyone, share with your student that there are so many more opportunities to make new friends and new acquaintances tomorrow. It will be a better day. Behind the scenes you can schedule study buddy sessions, sign your student up for a private basketball league, and organize play dates with other students your son/daughter may start up a friendship with.
Your student will be ok. It might be scary as they transition through the traumatic-to-them (and traumatic-to-the-parent) experience, but they can and will get through it. Be there to support them.
The key message repeated through each step is to be a part of the solution. Don't complicate the concern. Your student will latch on to your worries and it may spiral them further downward. Always listen to your student and assume good intentions. Just know that it's going to be ok. They're going to be ok. And just as important, you're going to be ok. Just make sure you ask for help.