Nothing is harder for kids to adjust to than the teenage years. Adding to the emotional rollercoaster of puberty and changing bodies and minds, kids have to move from elementary school life to junior high or middle school.
Anxiety, depression and heightened stress levels are known to increase significantly when young teens make this transition.
According to the American Psychological Association, researchers at the University of Michigan found that children's grades drop dramatically, on average, during the first year of middle school and that children become "less interested in school and less self-assured about their abilities."
So how do parents help their children cope during this tumultuous time in their young lives?
“You stay on the ground while the child rides the rollercoaster. You have to remain the adult somebody has to be the parent in the situation," said Marian Fritzemeier, an author, speaker and trainer on child development in Modesto, California. "A lot of times it’s hard for the parent to see kids in trouble emotionally and being available is tough. But you also can’t do everything for them."
Below are some insights from parents and other experts for helping pre-teens with their transition to junior high or middle school:
One in eight children are affected by anxiety disorders, which often negatively affects school and social performance, reports the Anxiety and Depression Association of America.
There are things parents can do at home to help prepare children for a less stressful transition into teenage life, including weekly family meetings to talk about plans and having dinner together, said Leslee Brooks, an academic organizational specialist based in Massachusetts.
“It’s important to keep the lines of communication open,” she said. “You should be making sure there are other adults in the child’s life ... so there are also connections outside of the home.”
When there are other adults who understand what a child may be going through in his or her life — coaches, teachers, advisors, mentors — they can help parents understand what the child may be experiencing outside of the home, Brooks said.
Preparing for more classes
One of the biggest differences between elementary and the middle school is having classes in a number of different classrooms. Young teens will take on a load of six to eight classes, with as many different teachers and a significantly larger amount of schoolwork.
Helping prepare your child by going to the school before classes begin and finding out where the classrooms are located can help ease the anxiety of the change, said Brooks.
"Your child may have toured the school but a lot of times it's a great idea for the parents to take their child around," she said.
Another tip to reducing anxiety is helping preteens organize their school work. Prepare them to use a specific folder for each class and to learn not to rely on parents to bring things to school that they forgot at home, Fritzemeier said.
Before the school year starts, parents can help their children prepare for the independence that comes with responsibility, Fritzemeier said. Together, they can find a system so kids remember to bring their lunch or homework folder or instrument with them to school.
Independence with support
Parents may want to be a constant presence, but part of the transition from child to teen involves the child learning to be independent and to handle things on their own.
Volunteering at school and going to parent-teacher conferences is one way to be involved in a young teen's life without being overbearing or embarrassing for the child, said Shannon Sanford, a radio host and author in New York. It's a way for the child to still be doing much on their own while knowing there is support for them when they need it.
"There's this thing: they really don't want you to be their best friend, but they need you to be their best friend," Sanford said. "Make the house child-friendly. It's really worth it because you'll know where they are. But don't try to be one of them the more you're around them in almost an invisible way, the better you'll feel and the better they'll feel."
And don't wait for school to start to let them know you will be there for them.
"Getting them ready in the summer, talk to them a lot about it, talk about their fears. They probably don't even know if they're frightened or not. Let them know you'll be there, but you won't be too much," Sanford said.
More than just stress
Although most young teens will experience anxiety and stress during this transition and throughout junior high, some will have to more serious emotional issues, like depression or anxiety disorders.
Getting professional help is necessary when the stress leads to more serious emotional conditions that won't go away regardless of the situation. Emotional disorders will not go away, and teens need help to learn how to manage throughout their lives.
"The old (saying) 'this too shall pass,' is true, it does. It does pass. The only thing that's different about that is if you have a child that is seriously depressed or seriously anxious. That's not going to just pass, that needs to be addressed," Brooks said.
Professional help can allow kids to live life to the fullest, she said.
Relating with the kids
"One of the things I tell my kids is that I always acknowledge that I do not understand their world, but I do understand growing up and that it's hard no matter who you are, " said Michelle Morton, a self-proclaimed "mompreneur" who runs her own business in Raleigh, North Carolina, and has three sons.
Letting kids know there are others feeling the same anxiety and emotional changes is crucial so they don't feel like they stick out more than anyone else, Morton said.
Reassuring kids that there is a lot of good in growing up and that everybody faces unique challenges can teach them to cope with the trials of growing up, she said.
For the parents
"The first thing I always say to (parents) is roots or wings, and wings is always the hard part," said Sanford.
The transition from child to teenager is often harder on the parent, said Sanford. Letting go of a child, but still helping them along the path of life, can be one of the hardest balancing acts to figure out.
Often, what kids need from parents is a calm voice of reason when things seem to be out of control. When teachers are demanding, parents can be the understanding mentor putting things into perspective.
“A lot of things at this time will seem tremendously important, and they may or may not be. Even if it is true, your child is probably going to learn how to handle it,” Brooks said. Parents can become stressed watching their children go through the transition, Brooks said, but noted that it is important for parents to avoid passing that stress on to the children.
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