Updated: Nov 17, 2020
What we do during these years will shape them way more than you think and can lead them to becoming a healthier adult
Middle school. You probably remember it right? You could go to Orange Julius and grab a drink before heading to Record Town or Camelot music where “My Prerogative” or “Every Rose has it’s thorn” by Poison would be blaring through the stores tinny speakers beckoning teens and preteens through it’s doors. For most of us, parents were lingering nearby or off in other parts of the mall oblivious to our whereabouts until the predetermined time to “meet back at the foodcourt.” We were discovering “who we are” and “who we WANTED to be.”
It was a time of discovery. For many of us, mouth full of metal (aka train tracks, brace face) and slurry speech occurred during these middle school years making it even more difficult to NOT stand out and to “fit in” with who we perceived to be the cool kids. If memorizing the lyrics to “We didn’t start the fire” didn’t kick start your path to fitting in, then you could recount the latest episode of Friends or Seinfeld.
Things are that easy anymore for today’s tweens emerging into 6th-8th grade and even though flannel, mom jeans, and crop tops are back in style, that’s about the ONLY thing we can relate to when it comes to our teens entering this most difficult stage of life. It’s just hard.
One of the greatest gifts you can give to your kids, regardless of their age, is sharing your own personal failures and struggles during your teenage years. As we have mentioned before teens crave authenticity, sharing your story encourages them that you don't expect them to nail it every time. We assume they know we aren't perfect, but you'd be surprised that the perception of perfection will keep them from wanting to disappoint you. Why does this happen and where does all this struggle come from?
First, there is the onset of early adolescent change (around ages 9-13) when they start detaching and differentiating from parents in order to start developing more independence and individuality. Growing up requires giving up, and so some cherished old childish attachments to self and family must be let go. We sometimes even pushback on this fearing they are “growing up too quickly” but not only is it normal, it’s very healthy.
Remember when our 2nd grader loved having us show up at school? For the 6th-grader, they can find this public parental presence painfully embarrassing: “Mom, Dad! What are you doing here?” It’s a vulnerable time, the young person knowing that they can’t go back home again to that simpler, sheltered, more secure period of early life. Adolescence begins with insecurity from loss.
Secondly, there is a need amongst many teens to form a social family outside of the home comprised of friends who are all going through similar phases of growth and change. Thy are not only looking to belong, they are looking to feel “normal” among those who don’t. But peer group membership does not come free of charge: To belong one has to conform. The unstated but well understood requirements are, “To be one of us, you have be like us, believe like us, behave like us, go along with us, look like us, like us best, and not do better than us.”
Third, usually during the early middle-school years, puberty begins as hormones drive growth to sexual maturity, altering physical appearance in maturing ways the young person does not control. They have to wait and see how their changing body is going to “turn out.” Now parents notice how our teen is more self-preoccupied with personal appearance, needing more privacy at home, for girls, taking more time to get ready to go out with friends, and showing more particularity about dress. They may also get easily upset by any questioning or critical comments about their looks. If you don’t like something remember, there is a BETTER way to handle it other than yelling and turning it into a tug of war for control. Check out our BLOG on that. (https://www.shbcyouth.org/post/how-to-keep-your-teen-from-fighting-with-you)
Taken together, these three factors create a level of insecurity that can play havoc in peer relationships at school, the major social gathering place in a young person’s life. When you factor in our difficulty “letting go” and things can get a lot trickier.
So what can we do to help them AND try to understand them enough to speak truthfully into their context?
Help THEM to see more clearly who they are becoming
Their bodies are growing and changing, almost daily. For some students, this gives them a boost to their ego, as that skinny boy that started in the 6th grade turns into an 8th grader growing a wispy mustache and gaining muscle.
Students might begin to show interest in the opposite sex, noticing them more as their hormones are going berserk. Parents, don’t miss this is an opportunity for students to make a commitment to God to remain pure and holy in their relationships before they fully enter the teenage years.
Then, there are those who literally hate the stranger that has suddenly appeared in the mirror. Their previously perfect skin is suddenly acne-filled and no matter how many times they shower, they still look greasy. Not to mention that their peers are happy to point out the changes in their appearance.
This is the time to remind students who they are as a person is much more than just skin deep. Focus on building good character. Help them find their identity in who God says they are and teach them how to deal with criticism from others, and from themselves.
2. When they feel accepted, rejected, or alone.
Watch a teen walk by themselves into a room full of their peers. As soon as they hit the door,
As adults, we know that popularity is overrated, but middle school students often find their self-worth in their circle of friends. In fact, research shows that teenagers who have one close friend, rather than a big group of friends, have higher levels of self-worth and lower levels of social anxiety and depression as adults compared to their peers who were more popular as teens. (Published in the journal, Child Development.)
Students look for acceptance and inclusion from their peers and it can be completely devastating when they don’t receive it. We have to continue to encourage them to take risks when met with difficulty but careful not to push them to take risks when bullying is involved. Building these important social skills during this time can ease tensions as they head to high school. Additionally, they will build friendships that will often extend into their HS years.
As leaders, it is difficult to watch our students encounter rejection and loneliness. And while our affirmation is valuable, a personal understanding of God’s unending love can fill the void that their heart is searching for in relationships with others.
3. Remind them “You Have Purpose”
Our middle school students are not mini-adults nor are they children. It’s an awkward in between stage deserving of our attention and encouragement. We can even capitalize on that trust they may still give us to speak strength and truth into their lives. It’s worth the time and effort. God can use your words and voice to make a huge impact in students’ lives. It’s not easy and it often takes time, but if we are willing, they will be better equipped to lead in high school.
You have the opportunity to help students recognize their God-given strengths – they are there, but maybe they haven’t become obvious to them quite yet.
Help remove some of the pressure they start to feel at this age by reminding them to trust God to show them what decisions to make for their future.
On the outside, your middle school student might either look like they have it all together or they are a complete mess.
On the outside, your middle school student might either look like they have it all together or they are a complete mess. They might seem hungry for the deep things of God, or can’t even quote John 3:16 to save their life, but despite what you see, remember that God can speak to your students in a way they can understand, at their age.
Your students need someone to believe in them and encourage them in their relationship with God. Whether you ever see it or not, you are making a difference.
Look for those pivotal moments and watch your students follow God’s voice in their lives. Take them out, one on one, speak encouragement to them, and most importantly, have no other agenda than to encourage them. You can find SOMETHING positive to say to your teen. You will find the more you speak positively over them, the easier it will be to find “good things” to talk about. Another benefit to practicing this is, you are training yourself to see the good, while another benefit is, they WANT to please us by doing well. Be blessed.