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Managing the Middle School Years: 8 Keys to Parenting Your Preteen

Purposeful Parenting Community! It is good to be back after a brief time away from posts. We had an amazing Trunk or Treat and Fall Festival last week, but it's time to get back to the weekly content you deserve!


Our last post on The Roots of Challenging Behavior talked about how there are many causes of challenging behavior, but the most simple is that it is a stage of development, where the challenging behavior is common for that temporary stage. With a stage, behaviors will naturally end when the parent or caregiver is able to guide the child through the stage, so I thought it would be a fitting topic to discuss how parents can successfully manage the middle school years!


If you are reading this post and you have a middle-schooler at home, you know that this stage of development is possibly the most difficult to manage, due to unpredictable emotions and behavior. For many first-time parents, you just began to figure out your child and how to meet their needs, but now they've totally changed and you have no idea how to respond. Some studies have shown that parents' self-esteem is lowest during early-childhood and the preteen years. Uncertainty of how to care for your child can be so frustrating! Before we begin, I wanted to share this hilarious video on Middle School behavior...check it out!


Middle School is a time of change. In a lot of ways, this stage is like your child looking into a steamed mirror after a shower. The image slowly comes into focus as time goes on, and they are learning to see the person standing in the mirror looking back at them. Your role is to help them see and be the best version of themselves.


Changes in Your Middle Schooler

  • Change in the brain

The adolescent brain's frontal cortex is developing rapidly during this stage. While we know that 95% of your child's brain is developed by age five, this is stage where the brain develops neural pathways in the frontal cortex that help with decision-making, abstract thought, inhibiting emotional and hormonal impulses, and controlling behavior. Makes sense why all those are things your preteen is struggling with, huh?

I love this interview with Jay Giedd, M.d. One thing he says is that the brain is like a tree that has grown tall but is now growing extra branches and leaves that are essential for the tree to thrive and grow. The brain grows far more cells than necessary during this time and begins to establish pathways for decision-making and key behaviors. Your job is to help the brain discover which pathways are the essential ones (those behaviors and skills you want your child to keep and develop), and the brain will actually lose the other pathways naturally.

That's why when the stage of development ends, many of those challenging behaviors disappear! You are your child's guide as their brain naturally develops.

Rewiring of the brain means that poor decisions are made and reckless behavior can occur. It is a messy process partly because at this age, the brain is telling the body to produce massive amounts of hormones that course through their body and can lead to poor decisions, so it's important to acknowledge a few facts about the brain if we want to understand teenage behavior.

The brain is relying deeply on its short term memory during this development process, so it can only hold between 5 to 7 pieces of information at a time. Don't be surprised when your child frequently forgets things. Maybe it's a water bottle or jacket, or maybe it's a homework assignment, but know that it means their brain is working overtime!

To help the brain through this development, feed it with healthy, nutrient rich foods to promote on-time and successful development both physically and mentally. Be careful with screen time, especially with violent video games. Violent video games fire up the amygdala part of the brain (responsible for emotional reactions), and when played repeatedly at this sensitive age, can hardwire the brain for intense emotional reactions because of the under-developed frontal cortex.

  • Change in the body

The body is going through significant changes, like that morning you realize your son's voice is significantly deeper. These changes often lead to insecurity, which is why it's so important that you talk to your child about the physical changes before they occur and follow up as they occur. As change occurs, affirm the good and do your best not to embarrass them about the awkward moments.

Their hormones are causing more development than they may be able to handle emotionally, especially if this development occurs earlier or later than their peers, so be prepared to guide and reassure them.


The Keys to Managing the Middle School Years

  • Respect: While it is a difficult transition for parenting style, preteens need to begin to be allowed some opinions that differ from yours, especially those ones that even adults differ on, like politics or insignificant approaches to daily life. This will help their brain develop the ability to perform abstract thought, a key for this stage. It also provides an excellent opportunity to teach them how to converse respectfully with someone who has a differing opinion.

  • Choices: Allow your preteen to make guided choices like picking the movie for family night or choosing between two predetermined options. During this stage, they will likely challenge your rules in an attempt to make their own decisions and find independence. Balance giving freedom with providing structure and oversight. If you do need to make an executive decision or discipline a bad one, make sure to explain the why. They may not understand it yet, but you still need to show that you respect them enough to trust that they can understand your reasons.

  • Bonding time: Probably more than ever, your child needs bonding time with you, even if they act like they don’t want it! They desperately want your approval and love, and bonding time spent exploring their interests builds trust that will make discipline significantly easier. Show that you believe in them! Provide guidance but demonstrate love, trust, and joy in seeing them succeed. They are developing their interests and passions, so help encourage them!

  • Learning: This is a key time for your child to develop essential work habits. Show them that it's ok to struggle to understand something; show that a proper response to challenges isn't to get frustrated or insecure, but to follow through and complete the task. This will translate into a hardwired reaction to work or challenge, which will set them up for success in college and the job market.

  • Peer Pressure: Preteens fear social rejection so peer pressure is felt deeply in their hormone-infused brain. This will cause them to want to follow the crowd. For this reason, it is vital to delay social media. You're not just limiting screen time, you're limiting their fear of social rejection. They also fear rejection from you. Show them how making better choices is better for them, not just you and attempt to guide them into the long-term thinking they are developing. Remember, the best way to stop them from believing lies is to teach them the truth! Read that again. Take sex for example. If we spend all our time warning against an unhealthy relationship to sex, they will only see and respond to the unhealthy view. Cast a vision for the positive and reinforce its value frequently.

  • Friends: Your child's peer group is obviously very important to their development and health. Ask intelligent questions to discover why your child enjoys their friend group and keep an open mind, but be watchful. Their friends may be positive influences but they're still developing their own decision-making skills. Allow your child to build a social life with your scaffolding as a guide, and when they make mistakes, be there to help them through it.

  • Space: One big change in your child's behavior is their desire for space. As we discussed, a preteen's brain can quickly become overwhelmed with information. They may need an environment to unwind and refocus after a full day at school. Many preteens are developing anxiety disorders due to the pressures of increased involvement in school and sports, so allowing personal time to unwind will help their brains develop and grow while fostering an atmosphere of trust and respect. This time may include watching one episode of a tv show, but we can also push for screen-less options like listening to and playing music or reading.

  • Guidance: The most important key is to provide firm guidance with grace and love, as too much scolding fosters a sense of inadequacy and too much freedom reinforces negative behavior. This type of parenting includes consistent, compassionate, and clarifying direction. Your child knows they should make good decisions, so giving clear guidance builds self esteem by helping them make those good decisions consistently.

The Middle School years aren't easy, but it is an incredible opportunity to #investinyourchild because you will see amazing results in only a few years. You won't see a mature, sensible, well-thought child immediately, but I promise you will eventually, if you can manage the middle school years by parenting with purpose!


This week's Purposeful Parenting Action

1. Print out these keys and put them somewhere you will see them daily. Purposeful Parenting during the middle school years takes daily reminders!

This week's Ron Clark rule

Rule 52 "Learn from your mistakes and move on."


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