Supporting Your Child’s Transition to Middle School

During the first five years of life, the human brain is a growing dynamo. Every day, millions of new neural connections are made, making early childhood the most important time for brain development.

What’s less well known is that the second most important time is adolescence. Experts say that a year before a child’s body shows signs of puberty, the brain begins a massive growth process that doesn’t end until young adulthood.

That means right when a child is starting middle school — around age 11 or 12 — they are beginning one of the most intense transformations of their lives, making these school years especially fraught.

But unlike, say, the transition to kindergarten, it’s less obvious how parents can help. In middle school, peers take center stage.

“If your kids think you’re, airquotes, totally lame, that’s a good sign that their brain is developing exactly as it should,” says Mitch Prinstein, chief science officer for the American Psychological Association and a professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “Socially, their lives are all gas and no brakes.”

It’s normal for adolescents to want to spend hours on the phone talking or texting with friends, even after they’ve been with them all day, Prinstein says. It’s how they build their identities and figure out where they fit in. But this doesn’t mean that parents aren’t important.

In fact, experts say that parents play a key role in supporting their adolescents as they transition out of elementary school into the complex world of middle school.

[READ: Understanding School-Based Mental Health Services.]

Be a Consultant, Not the Boss

While preteens are wired to seek out new experiences and social interaction, they also need stability, just like toddlers and preschoolers need to know that a trusted adult is there for them to come back to when they’ve been exploring the world.

But helping your child make the transition to middle school may require that you change how you see your role in your child’s life.

“It’s a shift from being the boss to slowly thinking of yourself as a consultant to your child,” Prinstein says. “You might tell them how you handled something when you were their age, and invite them to figure it out with you. You wouldn’t do that with a 5-year-old.”

Parents also play a different role in middle school itself, including less volunteering in the classroom. But that doesn’t mean parents should step back their engagement in their kids’ day-to-day lives. Experts emphasize the importance of good habits going into this developmental period. Breakfast and a good night’s sleep will help your child navigate the hustle of crowded hallways and new teachers.

Prioritize Self-Management

Supporting a middle schooler is similar to coaching an athlete as they train. Parents can’t do the work for their kids, but they can provide key help. Experts stress the importance of the “productive struggle,” when kids at this age learn to solve their own problems and, to a greater extent, turn to their peers for help. Your child still needs you, but they also need the space to figure things out on their own.

For example, here are a few ways experts say you can support your new middle schooler while also stepping back:

— If there are other kids in the hallway when your child is opening their locker for the first time, consider asking another kid to help your child (if they need help) and resist the impulse to show them yourself.

— Give your child choices instead of mandates, when possible.

— Let them know that when they make a mistake, it’s a chance to think about how they will handle the same situation differently next time.

— If they get their class schedule and they’re not happy with it, resist the impulse to call the school and “fix” it.

Keep in mind that this developmental stage is more about learning self-management than academic achievement.

“If you don’t use these years to teach them how to advocate for themselves, help them discover how they learn and how to reach out when they need help, then you’ve missed a prime opportunity,” says Phyllis Fagell, a counselor at Sheridan School in Washington, D.C. and the author of “Middle School Matters,” a guide for parents.They will need all those skills to succeed in high school.”

[READ: Looking at Private Middle Schools in New York City.]

Keep Communication Open

Take advantage of the last days of summer to find out what your child is expecting from middle school. Television, books and movies paint a pretty grim picture when it comes to this educational chapter. Your child may have images of small sixth graders being slammed into a wall of lockers by big, muscular eighth graders.

Ask open-ended questions. Acknowledge that a lot of media presents middle school in a bad way. But be prepared to listen. They may be anxious, but maybe not in the ways you expect.

“A lot of times, parents don’t have fond memories of this period themselves,” says Todd Brist, principal of Watertown Middle School in Watertown, South Dakota. “Be careful about projecting them onto your kids. Listen to their current concerns and assure them that a support network is in place, including a team of teachers and counselors.”

Give Your Middle Schooler Opportunities to Socialize IRL

Adolescents are often more emotional, more sensitive and moodier than they were as younger children, but they are also capable of more cognitive challenges. They may become more concerned about current events and the world at large. They also need more opportunities to socialize.

For all of these reasons, experts stress the value of after-school activities, clubs and sports teams. The stakes are low in middle school, so kids don’t need to be great athletes to join teams. Clubs are a great way for kids to meet new people and explore their interests. Research also shows that sports participation can lead to better academic outcomes.

Another benefit of clubs and sports is that they take place in person. Adolescents are wildly enthusiastic about screen time, and many kids entering middle school will have their own phone. But, as every parent knows, online life is complicated. While it is normal for kids to connect with their friends this way, phone use can easily get out of control, potentially interrupting sleep and leading to drama that spills into the school day.

[READ: The Pros and Cons of Single-Gender Schools.]

Experts suggest that parents encourage in-person socializing and monitor the amount of time their kids spend on phones and devices. Developmentally, says psychologist Mitch Prinstein, kids’ brains at this age crave interaction, but they don’t get as much out of social media as in-person contact.

“Online interaction is the anti-calorie of social interaction,” he says. “They’re not developing the capacity or skills to form close bonds.”

Similarly, if you don’t tend to eat dinner together, now is a great time to start. Use this time to ask kids about their school day, experts say. Preteens are exploring their place in the world, but they need open communication and support at home more than ever, even if they act like they don’t.

“If you tell them you’re always there for them, the likelihood is they’ll roll their eyes, and that’s OK,” says Nancy Deutsch, professor of education at the University of Virginia. “That’s what they’re supposed to do.”

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