It is the inherent messiness of this stage that gives parents an opportunity to “get in there and make a difference,” says Fagell. “Middle schoolers are impressionable, curious and raring to go. That makes middle school the perfect time to build their character and confidence.” Rather than stepping back, she encourages parents to lean in and provide vital coaching as children navigate the waters of early adolescence.
Strengthening the Parent-Child Connection
At this age, children are like young anthropologists: They are remarkably attuned to the actions and reactions of the people around them, and they are hardwired to seek peer approval. But middle schoolers are also hyperaware of the adults in their lives and hungry for their love and attention.
“Kids have a Ph.D. in you,” says Fagell. “They are watching everything you do. As a role model, you can transmit messages about your values through what you say and what you do. And they are capable of absorbing those messages. Developmentally, it is imperative for them to pull away from you, but they still care about what you think, and they are not as set in their ways as high schoolers.”
Most middle schoolers are insecure, says Fagell. After all, they are undergoing a profound physical and neurological growth spurt, and “no one gets out unchanged.” Because of that, they constantly question whether they are good enough, smart enough, attractive enough or athletic enough. “They are so hungry for reassurance that says ‘You are OK just the way you are.’ ”
The fastest way to shut down parent-child communication is to express disapproval, says Fagell. Instead, middle schoolers need parents to be an anchor – “a consistent, unwavering source of love and support” as they go through ups and downs of this stage.
“Expect that they will make mistakes,” says Fagell. “Your job is to help them recover from mistakes, not prevent mistakes, because you can’t.” And that’s a good thing, she argues, because, by and large, middle school is a safe time to stumble, develop better strategies through trial and error, build good habits and strengthen resilience.
Keep the Lines of Communication Open
Middle schoolers need adult mentors who can help them make responsible, healthy and ethical decisions. They need to talk through social dilemmas, social media and scary events in the news. They need guidance on how to handle gossip and sexting, sleep and homework, peer pressure and difficult emotions. And they need coaching on how to treat themselves and others with compassion.
Yet just when the problems seem bigger, many parents discover that their child is less inclined to want to talk. Be patient, says Fagell. “With a middle schooler, you often have to sit there and just be present before they disclose to you. This may require restraint. Give them a long runway to talk to you without having to overextend themselves.” You might discover that they are most open during rides in the car, walks around the block, after lights out at night, or while shooting some hoops.
In an attempt to be empathetic, parents sometimes make the mistake of “interviewing for pain or mining for misery,” says Fagell. “This means asking a leading question: Were the kids mean to you again today? Is that kid still poking you with a pencil? Are people still saying nasty things on group chats?”
Every day is filled with multiple events and emotions. If parents constantly zero in on the negative, it doesn’t honor children’s full experience – and it encourages them to focus on pain points that might be out of their control. Instead, says Fagell, try asking open questions such as, “Who did you have an interesting conversation with today? or Did your teachers do anything silly?’”
If you are tempted to offer a lecture, stop yourself and try sharing a story from your own life, says Fagell, such as a moment when you felt brave, discouraged, or confused. “You will not reach kids this age unless the information is relevant and pertains to their life. Otherwise, it will not go into long-term memory.”
Fagell also recommends watching a movie or show together, talking about a story in the news, or reading a book in common. “This provides emotional distance, and you can zero in on something that has relevance to their life.” In her own parenting, Fagell once capitalized on her child’s interest in a matchmaking reality TV show to talk about healthy relationships – even though Fagell herself didn’t particularly enjoy the show. “It got the job done!”
An Attitude of Curiosity
When adults rein in their own emotional reactivity, they can offer children something better: authentic curiosity about their lives.
“When you approach middle schoolers with an attitude of curiosity, that means you are putting judgment aside and treating them as the expert of their life. You are asking them to help you understand their reality. If you approach them that way, you are much more likely to get to the root of why they are cutting class or vaping in the bathroom.” In contrast, if you start with the behavior — and shutting down that behavior — “you shut down the lines of communication.”
Curiosity supports the development of honesty. Instead of telling overt lies, most middle schoolers choose to conceal information that they suspect will get them in trouble. While they know honesty is important, “they are also motivated to protect their privacy, social life or privileges,” says Fagell. “So if they sense they will get drama from you, they will conceal the information.” Parents can remind children that telling the truth can feel hard and takes courage – and express gratitude for their honesty when they share difficult information.
Middle schoolers are less likely to lie if they feel like adults care about their perspective. If they skip a class, talk about their experiences in that class and what motivated their choice. If they cheat on a test, explore how they prepared for it and what they could do differently the next time. And if you catch them in a lie, instead of shaming them, try asking, “What did you fear would happen if you told me the truth?” When parents have a full understanding of what motivates a child’s behavior, they can help them examine their choices and develop strategies for making better ones.
Coach Through the Interference
Fagell recommends that parents head into the middle school years with a coach’s mentality: “Tell yourself, they are going to make lots of mistakes, and this is an opportunity to give them the skills they need for life.”
Capitalize on your child’s growing sense of justice to articulate an attractive vision of who they can be. “Vocalize your family’s values, such as ‘In this family, we value kindness, and we treat each other well,” says Fagell. “Help them understand the impact they are having on others. When they hurt someone’s feelings – and they will – ask ‘How would you feel if someone did this to you or your sister or brother? How can you make it better? Instead of just saying sorry, how can you make amends?’ ”
Fagell offers this image to help parents reconcile why middle schoolers make poor choices: “Your child is an inherently good kid, but there will be all kinds of interference in middle school.” That interference might be fear – e.g., “If I stand up for this person, will I be targeted?” That interference might also be jealousy or insecurity. Remind children that these emotions are normal. While we cannot always control our feelings, we do have a lot of control over how we respond to them. As psychologist Susan David notes, “Emotions are data, not directions.”
Fagell hopes her work will help parents reframe their perception of these critical developmental years.