Supporting Parents. Fostering Change.

Dear Cathi: Middle School

Dear Cathi,

My 8th grade daughter, Jocelyn is driving me crazy.  If I thought it was bad in 7th grade? Well, 8th is just like 7th except on steroids!  She is so moody.   I would even call it erratic. I never know which child is going to walk in the door.  Will it be my sweet little third grade girl?  ‘Mommy, will you help me pick out my clothes for the first day of school?’ or my screaming maniac of a daughter?  ‘Get out of my room!  And shut the door behind you!’ or my arrogant one? ‘Mom, you don’t know anything.  Can you just leave me alone please?’  I’m not sure if this is normal?  Is this normal?  If it IS normal, can you tell me how I’m suppose to get through the next five years living with this creature?  Help!


Dear J.

In answer to your first question… Yes!  Middle schoolers are notoriously mercurial and moody, making it both frustrating and anxiety provoking for parents to communicate with them effectively.  Please know that you are not alone in this. But, I’m sure the “normality” of your daughter’s angst doesn’t help you with your second question.  How can you maintain a healthy, supportive relationship with your child while she (or he) navigates through this challenging emotional terrain?

For me and many other parents, just knowing what’s happening with my child from a developmental perspective helps me feel more confident with my parenting skills.  During middle school, your child’s entire universe is in flux: her body, her peer group, academic demands, and most importantly, her relationship with you. What you are experiencing when your daughter is one day Dr. Jekyll and another Mr. Hyde is part of her process of trying to figure herself out.  She pushes and pulls you partly because she knows you are not going anywhere.  You are going to love her no matter what. You are her safety net if and when she falls.  Internally, she is having painful self-doubts, constantly asking herself whether and how she fits in, while on the outside she projects that she knows it all and you know nothing.

Staying neutral and supportive in the face of these fluctuations is easier said than done.  Your daughter’s developmentally appropriate urge to spread her wings and fly comes in direct conflict with your need to clip them.  As she naturally moves closer to her peer group and away from you, you can’t help but want to hold her close.  Not an easy balance to strike.  After all, as you well know, your daughter isn’t ready to fly.  She needs boundaries and limits in order to feel safe enough to explore. And, at the same time, she needs your encouragement and faith in her in order to grow and develop into the young woman you know she will be.

Know the difference between what she wants and what she needs.  At this age, she doesn’t know the difference.  Everything is a “need” to her.  “I need you to drive me to the mall.  I need help on my math.  I need you to let me stay out until 1:00 a.m. like all the other COOL parents.”  It doesn’t work that way.  And you must be clear yourself in order to set boundaries and limits.  Encourage independent action.  But be clear on your own family rules and structures.

The tricky challenge is handling the gray area between “wants” and “needs”.  When your daughter says she needs help with her math, she may simply be asking you to be in the kitchen with her while she works on her homework in case she has a question.  She certainly doesn’t NEED you to sit next to her, looking over her shoulder, and correcting all of her mistakes.  Many parents are so invested in their child’s happiness and success that they have a terrible time letting go just enough to allow mini-failures. Suffering the natural consequences of forgetting a homework assignment, getting a poor test grade, or handing in sloppy homework aids your child in taking ownership of her world.  So, give yourself a long pause before rushing in to save, rescue, or fix your child’s problems.  Consistently ask yourself the questions, “What can my child learn from this if I don’t fix it?” and “Which part of the problem can my daughter fix herself?”

J, even if I could wave my magic wand and bring your third grade sweetheart back, I wouldn’t.  I couldn’t rob you of the experience of fully participating in your daughter’s growth (moodiness and all).  But, when you are inevitably exasperated with your daughter’s ups and downs, please remember that her emotions are transitory.  She may feel in the moment that her unpleasant moods and feelings are going to last forever, but you know otherwise.  Your belief  in the credo “This too shall pass” will go a long way in helping your daughter feel more comfortable expressing and experiencing her entire range of emotions: the good, the bad, and even the ugly while simultaneously fortifying you against being sucked into the vortex of her adolescent sturm and drang.

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