Helping Middle Schoolers Build Confidence and Character

Aug 28, 2019 | South Pasadena

For many adults, the words “middle school” evoke a negative, gut-level response. These reactions are grounded in our own potent memories from that time, says Phyllis Fagell, a school counselor, psychotherapist and author of Middle School Matters: The 10 Key Skills Kids Need to Thrive in Middle School and Beyond – and How Parents Can Help

“Middle schoolers experience every feeling as a polarity,” says Fagell, “and we are wired to remember the negative.” So our own memories of being rejected by a friend or embarrassed by a teacher have an outsized place in our long-term memory. “And you are bringing all of that to the table as your child approaches middle school.” When it comes to how we talk about and interact with middle schoolers, we need a new mindset.  “Rather than looking at this phase with dread, see it as an opportunity to share your values and solidify your relationship with your children.”

Strengthening the Parent-Child Connection 

At this age, though insecure, these kids are like young anthropologists: They are remarkably attuned to the actions and reactions of the people around them, and they are hardwired to seek peer approval. But middle schoolers are also hyperaware of the adults in their lives and hungry for their love and attention.  So, keep building that level of trust between parent & child.

Keep the Lines of Communication Open 

Middle schoolers need adult mentors who can help them make responsible, healthy and ethical decisions. They need to talk through social dilemmas, social media and scary events in the news. They need guidance on how to handle gossip and sexting, sleep and homework, peer pressure and difficult emotions. And they need coaching on how to treat themselves and others with compassion. Yet just when the problems seem bigger, many parents discover that their child is less inclined to want to talk. Be patient, says Fagell. 

“With a middle schooler, you often have to sit there and just be present before they disclose to you. This may require restraint. Give them a long runway to talk to you without having to overextend themselves.” You might discover that they are most open during rides in the car, walks around the block, after lights out at night, or while shooting some hoops. In an attempt to be empathetic, parents sometimes make the mistake of “interviewing for pain or mining for misery,” says Fagell. “This means asking a leading question: Were the kids mean to you again today? Is that kid still poking you with a pencil? Are people still saying nasty things on group chats?” Every day is filled with multiple events and emotions. If parents constantly zero in on the negative, it doesn’t honor children’s full experience – and it encourages them to focus on pain points that might be out of their control.

To read more detailed tips about helping your child through the magical years of Middle School, click here to read the full KQED article.