My oldest recently finished her first year of middle school. It was quite a learning experience – perhaps more for me than for her.
There were highs and lows, unexpected surprises and unwelcome obstacles. My husband and I talked about it the other day, and he made the comment that when people reminisce and long for the “good old days,” they’re never talking about junior high. No one ever says, “I wish I could go back to junior high.” College – yes. High school – sure. Junior high – not so much.
And after this year, I can say with conviction that there’s a reason for that.
I learned that once a child enters those junior high school doors on the first day of school, the days of childhood are pretty much over. The protectiveness and hand-holding of elementary school are gone. Junior high teachers expect a lot from their students, and the rapid increase of personal responsibility will stagger a child who is unprepared – it will also build maturity in one who is ready.
I learned that friends become the focus of a middle schooler’s attention. Sure, classes may be interesting and teachers can be great. Parents are still around and siblings are in there somewhere. However, the forming, breaking and reforming of friendships take up SO MUCH emotional energy. When a middle schooler is distraught because a friend betrayed her, and she cries as if it’s the end of the world, don’t blow that off. Because, effectively, it IS the end of the world she’s created for herself. It doesn’t mean a new one can’t be formed, or that the end of that friendship isn’t healthier in the long run. It DOES mean that a little bit of sympathy and stillness is in order from Mom.
I learned that junior high kids sleep. A lot.
I learned that a junior high kid really does rely on the things they’ve learned during their childhood. It may not seem like it as they’re exploding emotional bombs or holing up in their room, but if you listen closely to what they’re saying, you’ll see that all of those values you’ve been teaching them from birth are little by little influencing their decisions and interactions with others.
I learned that middle schoolers have two modes. Say all of the words or say none of the words. If you want them to talk, the absolute worst thing you can do is ask them to talk. Then, when they finally do decide to talk, stop what you’re doing, turn your phone off, and listen. Because the firehose is turned on, and you need to prepare to get drenched.
I learned that junior high is the age of forging new paths and trying new things. Those activities that I as a parent love to watch her do and participate in aren’t always what is wanted or best for my child. I have to let go of some of my own expectations in order to make room for her to explore possibilities and choose her own expectations.
I learned that a middle schooler needs their parents just as much as, if not more than, a baby or a toddler. Not to make a snack or change a diaper, not to pick out clothes or wash their face, but to listen when they need it, to advocate for them when they can’t, to give wise counsel, to stay calm in their storm, and to give unconditional love and stability no matter what’s going on in their lives.
I learned that honesty about my own shortcomings really is the best way to build my relationship with my junior high kid. I had to tell her that this stage is as new for me to parent as it is for her to experience. Sometimes I make mistakes – I say the wrong thing, push when I should let go and stand back when I should step in. All I can say is that I’m doing the best I can, and I’m trying to love her the only way I know how.
Our home isn’t a battlefield, it’s a fortress. It’s a refuge and a safe place, with strong walls and supports that can stand against emotional sieges and physical failures.
So what’s the biggest things I learned in this first year of junior high?
We’re in this together.