The start of a new school year is upon us, and if you have a child transitioning from elementary to middle school, this huge leap might be causing some big feelings. New friends, more homework, and raging hormones — that sounds like a recipe for disaster, but it’s really a list of just a few of the things that makes this particular academic shift rough on kids (not to mention their parents).
Not sure how to deal? Scary Mommy checked in with an expert for tips on making this time more exciting and less terrifying for you and your tween. The good news is that, with a bit of prep and practice, the transition can go smoother than imagined. Well, except for maybe the raging hormones part... that’s a whole different beast.
Validating Your Child’s Feelings
Imagine starting a new job with increased responsibilities where you’ll have to work with a team of people you don’t even know, all while going through the longest, most intense bout of PMS ever. Yep, that’s what your tween feels like — only worse because they’re still figuring themselves out (OK, so are adults) and the world around them, wondering what the hell is going on with their bodies.
The key to helping your child tone down the anxiety and build-up around this transition is working through the fears that cause it, and showing your child that you care and understand.
“Parents can support their children during this time of transition and new adjustments by opening up discussions to listen to their child’s thoughts and feelings,” says Linda R. Price, licensed educational psychologist and clinical presenter for Minding Your Mind, adding, “Parents can validate their child by reflecting what they hear, i.e., I know it can feel scary going to middle school. I hear you and understand where you’re coming from, as this is a big change for you and your peers. It can help to share that they are not alone and for parents to take the time for their child to feel seen, heard, and understood.”
Making the Transition From Elementary to Middle School Less Scary
To following suggestions can help your brand-new middle schooler get off on the right foot this school year:
- Make friends with new classmates over the summer. Maintaining strong friendships your child built throughout elementary is vital, but so is making new friends. Encourage your child to participate in one-on-one meetups or group events with old and new friends over the summer so they’ll have lots of familiar faces (aka support) when they begin middle school.
- Tour the campus before school begins. Whether it’s an official tour or a self-guided walk in and around the grounds, this step can help your child familiarize themselves with their new environment so it won’t be as intimidating during the first days of school. Inviting peers to tour the campus together is a great way to explore and work through fears or questions together.
- Get the 4-1-1 on academics and extracurricular activities. Request this from the school in advance so you and your child can review what the curriculum will look like, what performance and behavior will be expected of them, and what fun classes or activities they can look forward to.
- Plan a manageable after-school and weekend structure. Price says parents play an essential role in helping their children maintain a balanced set of activities that challenges them socially, physically, and intellectually but aims to avoid overwhelming them. Using a calendar or digital planning tool can assist kids in keeping track of their own schedules.
- Encourage self-advocacy. Help your child practice the skills necessary for communicating their needs and setting boundaries. This can set them up for a more successful academic and social experience.
- Ask for extra support. School counselors are trained to provide specialized support for dealing with school-related challenges, in addition to general mental health support. Your child’s pediatrician or a private mental health professional are also great resources. And don’t overlook the invaluable insights that older kids in your family or community can offer.
- Talk to your child. This may seem like a no-brainer, but opening up to your child about your own difficult life experiences can help ease their own feelings and provide them with examples of overcoming challenges.
- Look for relatable examples. In addition to sharing your own experiences, look for books, movies, TV shows, or quotes on the subject. Sometimes a lighthearted or fun approach can help break the spell of doomed thinking.
- Remember to be patient — with your child and with yourself. The transition is hard for everyone involved, and a little compassion and patience can help prevent an already tough time from worsening. Take a deep breath or a few minutes to think before diving into any difficult conversations.
In addition to supporting your child’s mental health throughout the process, these practical steps can go a long way toward lessening first-day-of-school jitters and make for an overall less stressful school year.