I have two daughters with whom I was able to walk, well more like stumble, through these curious years of life called middle school, and I find myself feeling such compassion for moms around me during their similar season of life. I remember those years as some of my hardest and darkest mothering days. Before having kids, I was a middle school teacher, a coach, and a middle school girls’ small group leader. On paper, I had what it took to be a rock star mother during this season, but I wasn’t. No one else seemed to be having such a hard time either, or so I felt.
As I reflect back from the other side, the fogginess and confusion gone, I’m left with some takeaways. These are my own 10 lessons learned, maybe not yours, but maybe, just maybe you can relate that mothering during middle school is hard, and know you aren’t alone.
- My daughter really was getting excluded and left out, at least to some degree. The friends she once had in elementary were truly scattering as they tried to climb the social ladder or develop new friendships where there may have been no room for her. It may not have been to the degree I would view it looking in on the situation as an adult, but to her, it was all the time and it was major.
- I shouldn’t try to fix her problem, but just tell her I am sorry and that I love her. I had to learn, as a fixer, to just sit at the kitchen counter or on her bed at night and just rub her back genuinely expressing I was sorry she was having a hard time. I used to tell her it would get better, but I realized I didn’t actually know that. Instead I started saying that she would get better. Better at dealing with this as she got older. I learned to listen without giving advice. Empathy was most important to her heart.
- People said mean things. It’s true, they really did. She wasn’t completely overly sensitive or exaggerating completely. It seems that anything different or noticeable just has to be pointed out by her peers. Even a comment, said in a neutral way, can cause your child to feel weird or hurt.
- She likely feels invisible from the opposite sex. We didn’t want our daughters to date in middle school. But there is still a feeling, as described by a mentor, that girls feel invisible or sexual, hardly any in-between during middle school. Good luck navigating those emotions.
- Don’t fight over self-correcting issues. A counselor told us to fight the battles on attitudes, not all the actions, like personal hygiene or cleaning the room. Some behaviors aren’t worth causing more conflict over during this season, as eventually she will care about her greasy hair and body odor and won’t want to live in a pigsty. Those changes happen. I should hold her accountable but not go overboard on these. I needed to simply state the punishment without all the emotion I felt. I became transactional with her instead of relational, always reminding or instructing all the things that needed to be done or redone. Tucking her in bed at night became a fight as I couldn’t see past the messy room and into her heart.
- Her teachers really didn’t cover the material, or at least it didn’t stick if they did. Man, as a former middle school teacher I hate saying this, but I have found this to be true. We have spent countless nights at the kitchen counter Googling answers, teaching them concepts as if for the first time. And no material they possess seems to cover the study guide questions for tomorrow’s test.
- She will come back to you and enjoy you in a few years. She may not be all in on family time or be the sweetest, but she will start to linger more, be more affectionate and not be so testy once she gets to high school. That little girl who was so sweet in elementary is still there, she’s just adjusting.
- How she views herself really settles during this time of life and takes a long time to rewrite or undo. This season of life has such an impact on how she views herself. Some lies she believes really take root, and deeply, as her peers are becoming her most important influence. What they say about her sticks. She barely knows herself during middle school, so oftentimes, her peers’ views of her define who she is. Praise her as much as possible and try not to constantly point out deficits. I guarantee she is already being hard on herself, so tread lightly.
- Peers are with her constantly. There are no breaks now with texting and social media, so make her take breaks/fasts and spend time with family. This will be a fight but establish some boundaries early.
- We had to nip disrespect in the bud. Any eye roll or walking away during a difficult conversation or disrespectful tone was an immediate punishment. We established this punishment ahead of time so it wasn’t reactionary. Because in that moment I was about to go nuclear and take technology away for life, losing her trust that I didn’t follow through with what I said. She could have all her feels, but needed to know there were consequences for how she acted and talked to her primary authority. It really did provide security for her to know her authority was still her authority.
I hope your daughter is thriving and this all seems like nonsense to you. I think that these 10 lessons I have learned may just be my way of doing therapy on myself as I reflect back on a hard season of life, hoping that the hard season I endured has meaning to help someone else mothering in the middle. During that season I needed to know these experiences were normal and right on time, as a friend says. I needed to view the middle school years as a time of planting good seeds in her, not fretting about the fruit that was being shown. This is such a great time to plant healthy seeds in your daughter’s life. Make them good ones, and try to help uproot the bad seeds she and others may already be planting.