You’ve bought the binders, the books, and the backpack. But buying supplies and adjusting bedtime schedules aren’t the only preparations you should be making for the start of middle school.
It’s time to prepare for the social “blind side.”
A social blind side is when, at some point during middle school, your child will be faced with one of the following scenarios: the realization that a friend is really a frenemy; that the whispers in the hall are about him; that she wasn’t invited – didn’t even know about - the birthday party she saw on Instagram.
Preparing Your Child
The painful thing about being blindsided is - as the name indicates – your child didn’t see it coming. So how do you prepare for the unexpected?
Even though you don’t know when or how a blind side will occur, part of your preparation is telling your kids that at some point, it likely will happen.
While you might be hesitant about introducing a worry before it happens, normalizing this experience is important so kids know that if (when) it does happen, it’s not because they’re weird or they did something wrong.
Try sharing stories about things that happened when you were in middle school. You may even want to change personal stories to be about “a kid you knew” so your child isn’t afraid to talk openly without criticizing or questioning you.
Why Do Social Blind Sides Happen So Frequently In Middle School?
At about age 11, kids begin the important but messy process of developing an identity apart from their parents. To become a healthy adult, they need to figure out who they are, what they believe in, and what they like as individuals. They no longer like everything that you like. They practice not looking like you, or thinking like you, or behaving like you. It’s why we start to see so much rebellion in middle school, although it’s not so much rebellion as it is trial-and-error. I call middle school “The buffet of life” because it’s a time when kids start trying new things to see what suits them. Of course, they make a lot of mistakes. Some are harmless, like changing the way they dress. Some hurt, like dumping a friend in an effort to belong to a new group.
Aside from prepping your child for the eventuality that a blind side may occur, the best thing you can do as a parent is be prepared for the aftermath. The social blind side will make you want to jump to your child’s rescue, but according to many middle schoolers, a parent’s help often backfires.
Each year, I host three mother-daughter conferences for girls headed to middle school and their moms. During our breakout session, the girls share their thoughts on how they wish their moms would help them with this painful, if very common, middle school issue.
Straight from the experts themselves, here is a list of “Dos” and “Don’ts” middle schoolers want you to know when they run into friend trouble.
“Mom or Dad, PLEASE...”
"...Don’t call the other parent."
“My mom will call the other mom to say her daughter did something wrong, but then that just makes it worse because they think I told my mom to call. It’s so embarrassing.” Involving other parents may seem like a good idea because it can correct behavior in the short run, but tweens need to manage friendship issues, even the ugly ones, on their own. Having a parent intervene doesn’t make the situation less painful or make your child more socially confident. Think of it this way: If you confided in a co-worker that you were having trouble with a colleague, how would you feel if your co-worker called the boss behind your back to fix things? It’s undermining and demeaning. The same goes for calling the school. (Reserve this step only for matters of repeated targeting by a bully.)
What to do instead: Help your child brainstorm ways she would feel better responding the next time something bad happens with her frenemy. These might range from ‘ignoring it and hanging out with Mom instead’ to ‘questioning the other person about her hurtful behavior.’ Let your child contribute his or her own ideas to the list as you listen non-judgmentally. Running into friendship trouble can make tweens feel helpless, but coming up with personal solutions is a great way to restore feelings of capability and confidence.
"...DON’T talk to the other kid."
“My Mom will sit us both down and say, ‘You two have been friends forever. Can’t you work this out?’ And that never works.” The way your child and their frenemy behave in front of you is not the same way they behave when they’re alone. Your request for better behavior won’t impact how they act privately. Also remember that kids grow and change during middle school, just as friendships do. Just because they’ve been friends forever doesn’t mean they’ll be friends right now.
What to do instead: Help your child think critically, and hopefully unemotionally, about the situation. Remember, this isn’t your problem, so try not to take it personally, no matter how offended you may be for your kid! Instead, keep the focus on supporting your child by helping them figure out how they want to handle it and voicing your reassurance. (According to the kids I work with, going out for ice cream together never hurt either.)
"...DON’T tell your friends."
“I hate it when I hear my mom talking about it with her friends. I don’t even want her to tell my family until I say it’s okay.” Tweens and teens are rightfully sensitive and embarrassed about their personal lives. It’s all new territory and though watching them learn to navigate their new friendships may be fascinating, adorable, cringe-inducing, or painful, we should only be observers, not commentators.
What to do instead: Ask permission before you share any information with anyone else, including your spouse. You’re modeling how to have good relations, after all, and respecting privacy is an excellent place to start.
"...DON’T make excuses for the other person."
“My mom will try to explain why someone is acting a certain way, like ‘oh, maybe she just had a bad day today’ or ‘maybe it’s because her parents are going through a hard time.’ But that doesn’t make it any easier when my friend is being mean to me.”
What to do instead: In the pain of rejection, it’s hard to learn a moral lesson about what motivates people to behave badly. What most people need when they feel hurt is empathy above all else. Leave logic, psychology, and reasoning for later. Try saying something like, “That must feel terrible. I’m sorry you’re going through this.”
"...DON’T talk about it too much."
“My mom will bring it up at every meal to make sure I’m okay. I just want her to stop acting like it’s the most important thing.” Be careful – too much attention to the problem and you can over-victimize your child.
What to do instead: Be sure to express support for your child and make sure they know you’re there to listen, then touch base once later to remind them you’re still available. After that, give them time to process this on their own. You may be making it into a bigger deal than it needs to be. Kids sometimes say that spending time near their parents is better than talking. Lots of them said, “I just want them to sit by me on the couch and watch TV.” Your reassuring presence in their lives might just be enough.
"...DON’T blow it off."
“She always says ‘It’s not that a big of a deal, or, ‘There could be bigger problems.’ I know it’s not cancer or anything but it still isn’t good.” You may be trying to avoid adding salt to your child’s wound, or trying to teach them to be less sensitive, but your child wants a little bit of empathy first and foremost.
What to do instead: Try saying something like “I’m here for you, and I might be able to help you think through this. If you want some advice, we can talk about it as soon as you’re ready. You just let me know.” Kids agreed that they really liked it when their parents asked them whether they wanted advice.
Your own memories of being blindsided in middle school may cause you anxiety about sending your child off to the same inevitable fate. But if you understand why blindsides happen and how to react when they do, both you and your child will get through it more quickly and with a lot less pain.
Michelle Icard is an author, speaker and educator helping parents, teachers and kids love middle school. For more tips on navigating the middle school years, read Michelle’s book, Middle School Makeover: Improving The Way You and Your Child Experience The Middle School Years.
This piece is part of a week-long series with tips for how parents can help their kids survive middle school. Check out Sunday's post about middle schooler's developing brians. More to come each day this week!