As children enter middle school and instantly morph into adolescents, there are two developmental tasks looming large for them. First, they need to deal with puberty and feel some sense of “being normal.” Then, once they accept that they are not a freak of nature, their next task is to be seen (by their peers) as “lovable.” That’s when we, as parents, tend to collectively wince.
These two developmental tasks are the driving force behind your middle schooler’s conflicting desires to blend in (by being “normal”) but to stand out, look good, be cool, and make it all look effortless (in a big effort to be seen as lovable). And in Mother Nature’s usual extraordinary way, she added in some brain reconstruction at the same time to make the whole adolescent project a bit more dramatic and…sexy (literally).
So as you send your tweens or young teens off to middle school, recognize that they are searching for affirmative answers to two important questions: “Am I Normal?” and “Am I Lovable?” The challenge is that they won’t accept the answers from you, but your unwavering love and private hugs provide the crucial foundation upon which the rest of their lovability will grow. Though you can’t answer the questions, you can guide them toward the truth they need by normalizing what’s normal, acknowledging without encouraging relationships, and having the tough talks that will set the foundation for healthy sexual development.
Sixth grade generally begins with girls towering over the boys in height and hormonal influence. But, never fear. Boys’ growth starts later, but lasts longer, ultimately making them taller than most girls. Similarly, boys will begin to wallow in their own hormonal stew and experience just as much emotional stretching (new and bigger emotions) as girls.
As parents, the best things we can do for our children as their bodies and emotions grow, are to normalize normal, and stay calm. All 12-year-olds worry about how their bodies are changing and need reassurance that they are indeed normal and will indeed grow an adult body (or stop growing if that’s the worry). If we act worried, too, then they will freak out. Make sure your child understands what to expect next as puberty progresses. Don’t wait until a change has already occurred to explain it. And by all means, help kids recognize that normal bodies are not what they’re seeing on billboards or in magazines.
If you truly have concerns about your child’s physical development, or if your child has concerns that you can’t address confidently and calmly, then take them to their doctor so they can get answers they desperately need (even if it’s a simple, “Congratulations, you’re normal.”)
Acknowledge but Don’t Encourage Their “Relationships”
As puberty progresses and higher-than-ever levels of hormones wash over adolescent brains, it’s normal for them to experience those new feelings that change the way they look at each other. As much as we parents may want to wish it away, sexual desire is living large in middle school.
In these early stages, it takes on many forms with “desire” far outweighing “sexual” for most. Initially these new feelings may appear as increased attention to clothes and appearances or a new awkwardness in front of crushes. Increasingly, there will be blatant flirtation, both IRL (in real life) and digitally. And if your child finds a mutual attraction, they may be “going out” before you know it.
For young teens, “going out” comes after “talking” (which is usually texting), and they don’t really “go” anywhere. Although their developmental goal is to be peer-confirmed “lovable,” true love is not required. Instead, simply being labeled as someone’s boyfriend or girlfriend is confirmatory enough. And at this age, they are much more interested in the label than in the actual relationship. In fact, most middle school “relationships” only last a couple weeks to a few months. That’s just enough time to show their world they are indeed lovable.
As a parent, you will serve your child best by acknowledging their status as BF/GF with a well meaning, “That’s nice.” You will also help them by NOT pushing a deeper relationship, encouraging more time together, or arranging to send them on “dates.” Early sexualization is already rampant in our culture, and we don’t need middle school parents adding more pressure. Slow and awkward is good for now because fast and furious is just around the corner.
For many other middle schoolers, romance is not the required route to accepting themselves as lovable. A firm foundation in self worth goes a long way toward eliminating a desperate need for being someone’s girlfriend or boyfriend, now often referred to as “boo” and/or “bae.”” For both boys and girls, being lovable can also be achieved through friendships and feeling valued and respected among peers. So don’t feel like your child MUST be someone’s bae to check off this developmental task.
Promote Prevention through HOW
One of the greatest gifts of middle school is that it provides a developmental space in which kids are capable of understanding complex issues, they are making big plans for their future, AND they still listen to their parents (while pretending they’re not). That means it’s a critical time for prevention messages.
Thanks to our digital world, middle schoolers are exposed to information and opinions about topics traditionally saved for older adolescents. Whether they hear it from you or not, they definitely know something about sex by 6th grade. And by the end of middle school, they’ve been exposed to conversations or behaviors related to sexual orientation, gender identity, drugs, alcohol, STDs, condoms, teen pregnancy, rape, pornography and pretty much every other topic you may try to avoid.
Most teens actually want their parents to talk with them about sex, love and relationships, but when parents aren’t addressing the topics they are curious about, teens turn to their peers and the Internet where misinformation abounds.
The best way to help children is to talk openly and honestly about sexuality and relationships – the good and bad of both. Admit that sexual attraction is exciting, but that early sexual activity can definitely be risky. But in addition to the information you provide, encourage them to set their own boundaries within the context of her goals and values, and then challenge them to figure out HOW they can stick to their plan. HOW will they communicate their boundaries? What can they say?
This type of rehearsing is a highly effective prevention strategy for all adolescents. If they have time to think about and practice responses before they are faced with a challenging situation, they are more likely to respond in a way that is in line with their values. HOW will you know you have consent? HOW will you say no? HOW will you remove yourself from the situation?
As usual, they don’t need you to answer their tough questions, but they do want to discuss them with you. Challenging them to make a plan and figure out HOW they will stick to it is a crucial skill that will serve them well throughout their adolescent journey. And when the speed picks up and the awkwardness starts to fade, they will know how to steer in the direction that’s right for them.
Melisa Holmes, MD, is the Co-Founder of Girlology & Guyology, a medically based educational platform specializing in puberty, emerging sexuality, and adolescent health.
This piece is part of a week-long series with tips for how parents can help their kids survive middle school. Check out some of the other posts about middle schooler's developing brians, how to survive social drama, navigating academics, a tear-jerker from NBC News Anchor Kate Snow, the neurological reason why your middle schooler acts like a toddler, and how your kids really use social media. More to come each day this week!