Without a doubt, one of the toughest transitions a child goes through is the elementary school to middle school transition. This transition is tough for parents, too. As a parent, it’s normal to be unsure about how to help your child navigate through this process. Your pre-teen has questions about this big life change. You’re likely to hear concerns about:
- Changing classes: How will I figure out my combination lock for my locker? Will I make it to my locker on time? What if I forget my binder in my locker? How many teachers will I have? Does changing classes mean more homework? Will I get lost?
- Body image and identity: Do the older kids dress differently? When I go to gym, do I have to change in front of everyone in the locker room? What if I want to dress or act differently than everyone else?
- Peer relationships: Will I still have the same group of friends? What if my friends are doing something that’s wrong? How do I deal with friend drama?
You probably don’t have answers to all these questions, and that’s okay. During these formative years, your child is learning to question their surroundings. Not only is this normal, but it is also critical to their development. This questioning helps form judgment and critical thinking skills. As they come to you with these questions, you may sense they’re worried about what this life change will be like. Uncertainty related to the middle school transition can lead to increased anxiety. On top of that, the excitement of going to middle school is often enmeshed with feelings of overwhelm. Your child may or may not openly express their anxieties about the upcoming year. In this blog you’ll learn practical tips for helping your child cope with middle school anxiety.
START A CONVERSATION WITH YOUR MIDDLE SCHOOLER
This means not waiting for your child to come to you with their anxieties. Carve out time to talk about potential questions, worries, or concerns. As the topic of back-to-school begins to surface, start conversations with your child with prompts such as:
“How are you feeling about starting middle school?”
“What questions do you have about this new school year?”
“Let’s talk about going back to school. What are you excited for? Do you have any worries?”
CREATE AN ENVIRONMENT OF OPENNESS
To encourage your child to be open and honest with you, discuss a variety of topics with your child (even the uncomfortable ones!). Open up the conversation by asking what they know, or what they’ve heard about topics like:
- Social Media & Internet Safety
- Friend drama
- Body Image
Answer questions that you imagine they might be too embarrassed to ask. Reinforce the idea that no topic is off-limits, and that they can always come to you if they have questions. This is also a great time to clarify and emphasize family values.
FOCUS LESS ON FIXING MIDDLE SCHOOL ANXIETY
Of course, they would be anxious. Their body is telling them that something new and potentially dangerous is happening. It’s doing exactly what it’s supposed to. There are social and academic challenges ahead and they are rightfully concerned. Often they feel they are the only one with these concerns. They might think something is wrong with them, and that they’re overthinking things. Hear out your child’s concerns, and let them know that their concerns are normal. When you normalize your child’s concerns, a weight is lifted. Validating their worries, rather than trying to fix them, has a much deeper and long-lasting impact. You can say things like:
“It makes sense that you would feel that way”
“I felt the same way when I was your age”
“It’s totally normal to feel that way, and I bet it’s hard”
FIND PRACTICAL SOLUTIONS
If your child is nervous about the logistics of this transition (changing classes, lockers, etc.), help your child find practical solutions. Many schools offer an orientation day to all incoming students. Some schools allow children to tour the school more than once before their first day. Call your child’s school to inquire about this process. One (or several) walk-throughs with your child is a practical solution that can help ease some anxiety. In addition, discuss solutions for possible scenarios:
“Where do I go if I get lost in the school?”
“What should I do if I’m late for class?”
“Who can help me if I can’t get my locker open?”
PRACTICE SKILLS APPROPRIATE FOR MIDDLE SCHOOLERS
Helping your child learn and solidify organizational and time management skills can help decrease the anxiety related to their new academic responsibilities. As you prepare their school supplies, make this a joint effort. Spend time going over their planner, discussing how they’ll manage:
- A morning schedule including when they’ll need to wake up, head out the door, and arrive in homeroom
- An evening schedule including when they need to complete homework and fall asleep
- Expectations for time needed for homework and studying every night/week
- A system for remembering which supplies will be for which classes
- A checklist for homework
As you utilize these tips, remember that your child’s middle school anxiety is not completely unavoidable. While you can’t shield your child completely from this anxiety, you absolutely can help your child cope with these difficult feelings. Techniques such as listening, validating, finding solutions, and teaching skills will minimize your child’s anxiety throughout this process.
Looking for a book related to this topic? Check out Frazzled: Everyday Disasters and Impending Doom, a New York Times Best-Seller focused on normalizing common concerns for soon-to-be middle-schoolers.
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Lauren is a Licensed Marriage and Family therapist who is passionate about creating a safe space for families, couples, and individuals. Lauren provides her clients with skills and tools to change dysfunctional patterns in their lives. Lauren specializes in treatment for anxiety, food allergies, divorce/remarriage, and grief and loss.