Navigating middle school is tough: How parents can help

Groups of middle school students standing near lockers and walking through school corridor

Middle school can be challenging for many students. It’s tougher academically than elementary school, with more work and higher expectations. Even just changing classes — which for most students starts in middle school — can be stressful. It can be challenging socially, as students try to find friends and community amidst what can be very tough peer pressure. It’s also when some students start to experiment with sexuality and substance use, which can be overwhelming — even when glimpsed secondhand through the experiences of friends.

So what can parents do? Here are some suggestions for helping your middle schooler navigate these new waters.

Support schoolwork and socializing

Help them stay organized and on task. Keeping assignments and tests straight with multiple classes is an adjustment. Encourage your child to use a daily or weekly planner (paper or online). Help them work out a schedule that makes sure they get their homework done while also still having time for exercise and other activities. Fight the urge to micromanage; the idea is to help your child gain skills — and any true gaining of skills involves making some mistakes.

Be mindful of the effects of screen time — and social media. Screen time has a way of eating into things like homework, sleep, and other important uses of time. And social media can not only be distracting but a source of anxiety for middle schoolers. Everything and everyone looks perfect on social media, whether or not they are. It’s easy to feel less than or left out. Have ground rules about device use, such as no use during meals or homework, and charging the phone outside of the bedroom at night.

Get to know their teachers and school culture. Go to the fall open house. Sign up for any conferences or other resources offered to parents. Join the PTO or look for chances to volunteer, to the extent that you can around your own responsibilities. It can give you useful context and connect you with other parents.

Support healthy habits

Keep healthy habits in mind. A healthy diet, regular exercise, and getting a good night’s sleep are crucial. If life is particularly busy, think about making some healthy snacks, lunches, or dinners ahead of time on the weekend. Exercise can be as simple as a walk — maybe even to school or with the dog.

Encourage your child to get involved — but not overscheduled. Joining a club, sport, or other school-sponsored activity is a great way to make friends and grow as a person. At the same time, all of us need downtime. Make sure that downtime gets scheduled along with any extracurricular activities. Some of that downtime should be fun family time, like a game or movie night, or going out for ice cream, or whatever your child enjoys.

Strengthen bonds — yours and theirs

Keep the lines of communication open. Eat meals together, make sure to carve out time to be together and talk — or rather, listen. It’s always a good idea to listen more than one talks, and this is particularly true in middle school. Ask open-ended questions. Make it clear that you won’t judge. Be supportive and positive. Try to validate strong emotions, which can help defuse them.

Remember that the point isn’t to give advice but to help them feel comfortable talking to you, something that won’t be true for long if the conversation turns to your opinions. Sometimes it’s easier to talk when it’s less intense, like while watching a movie or sitting in the car — using media can also be a useful way to start conversations about tricky things like relationships.

Keep your expectations reasonable and fair. Your child does not need to get straight As in middle school to get into a good college. Nor do they need to be the lead in the school play or the best on their sports team. Have some ground rules about homework, healthy habits, and follow-through on commitments (and agreed-upon chores), but keep the emphasis on quality of life rather than achievement. This is a time of finding their way; let them do that.

Ask for help if you need it. If your child is struggling in some way, there is always someone who can help — such as a teacher, guidance counselor, a friend or family member, or your pediatrician. Adolescence is tough for both the child and the parent; we all do better when we do tough things together rather than alone.

About the Author

photo of Claire McCarthy, MD

Claire McCarthy, MD, Senior Faculty Editor, Harvard Health Publishing

Claire McCarthy, MD, is a primary care pediatrician at Boston Children’s Hospital, and an assistant professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School. In addition to being a senior faculty editor for Harvard Health Publishing, Dr. McCarthy … See Full Bio View all posts by Claire McCarthy, MD

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