Understanding Your Middleschooler And The Challenges You May Be Facing

  • Child Development
  • Health and Wellness
Cindy Hewatt, School Counselor, LMFT

The following information comes from Scholastic Parents and it is a great resource to understand what is normal, albeit challenging changes, you may be seeing and experiencing with your child. Below I address some of the concepts from this full article

”While tweens and young teens are growing in all areas, in none is it more obvious than their social/emotional development. These changes coincide with the transition to middle school, which demarcates the shift to adolescence as we think of it. Understanding this complicated time will help you best guide your child through it."

I will highlight some of the information about the changes you may be seeing and offer ideas on ways to deal with these as parents.  Please look at the link above for more information and resources. I am also available to offer ideas, support and resources to you as parents. Feel free to reach out to me by email at and we can set up a time to chat. 

Parenting is one of the most challenging things you may ever do and we are all, constantly learning and growing. Sometimes we are floundering, and just like the challenges your child is facing, you may be feeling at a loss of what to do.  With information, patients and support you will come out of this a better parent. 

1.     Does your child seem to be more self-centered?  That is because they are, or better words to describe it are self-conscious or egocentric.  This means that at this stage kids are much more focused on what they think others think of them, as well as believing that their experiences are all unique and no one else is feeling the same way.  This can lead to intense feelings of vulnerability and loneliness.  But at the same time they may experience feeling invincible and independent.  This can be hard to navigate and keep up with as a parent. 

So what can you do?  Explore stories (movies, books, or TV shows) with your child that normalize their feelings and experiences so they see that they are not alone in their struggles and see others successfully navigating these experiences.  Share experiences from your adolescents and ways you coped.  Find ways to allow them to have more independence or responsibilities that are age and developmentally appropriate for them.  This allows them to have safer opportunities to make mistakes, grow and explore.

2.     This leads into you possibly seeing more risk taking behaviors as they feel invincible and powerful.  This vacillates between them feeling they can’t do things and/or wanting to remain young and wanting to be taken care of, to feeling they can do anything and don’t need you.  They are beginning to explore more seriously who they are, what their values are, what they like, how they dress, who their friends are, and what they believe.  Their peers begin to have a much larger importance in their lives.  They want to spend more time with them, and to be in contact with them.  They may begin to challenge specific values you hold or expectations you have for them.  Be curious, ask questions and dont be judgmental, this will keep the lines of communication open.  

So what can you do?  Being consistent, having clear expectations of behaviors, responsibilities, privileges and rules gives you and your child a framework to rely on. Do you need to re-evaluate this as your child grows, yes, but not daily or monthly as they swing back and forth. Here is where patience comes in.  This is where you may want to pick your battles and ask a lot of questions to better understand where your child is coming from.  The more you say they can’t wear certain things, see certain friends, or have big reactions yourself to some of their behaviors, you will probably see more of that behavior.  Your child may be looking for ways to challenge you or get a reaction out of you.  Or it could be they are developing ideas or an identity that is different than what you envisioned.  This is normal, it can be intense, but the more you keep a cool head with your child the less intense these situations may be.  Your child needs space to explore who they are.  

If the battle is around something related to safety issues, then that is another story.  Here it is important to stress consequences related to safety vs punishment.  You are there to help your child recognize unsafe choices and the potential consequences of that.  You have rules in place to help keep your child safe, fall back on those.  Know that the more time you can spend with your child having fun, exploring things they enjoy helps you to know your child and build that positive relationship, and the more effective you will be when you do need to set limits, impose consequences and discipline.  You also need to have someone to vent to, to express your frustrations or worry when you see your child exploring different styles or hanging out with someone you may not feel is a positive influence..  Get to know your child’s friends, having a positive relationship with them will only help.

3.    I’m quoting this section right from the site as it is so important. ” Middle school is when children begin to spend significantly more time with friends over family. While needing to be an individual, they do not want to stand out from peers, particularly same sex peers. They seek group membership at almost any cost, including acting cruelly to others outside the group. The rate of social cruelty and bullying spikes during these years, especially among girls, and young teens are particularly vulnerable to the influence of aggression in all its forms.”   

So what can you do?  Having clear expectations of behavior is a great place to start.  Helping your child think about how they feel when they are with certain people, how they feel about themselves doing certain things is helpful.  Their peers group should lead them to feel good about themselves and how they treat others overall.  Help them examine social situations, problem solve and think about how this may impact themselves as well as others.  This helps build their metacognition…speaking of the brain, did you know that during adolescence the brain is changing and reorganizing more than any other time in their lives except for during infancy.  It is literally getting rewired.  Throw on top of this the hormone changes of adolescence and no wonder you will experience your child having mood swings, crying, isolating, yelling, needing a lot of comfort, wanting nothing to do with you.  Helping your child find ways to cope with these intense feelings is key.  Yes, it’s ok and normal to have mood swings, but if these impact their ability to have effective relationships with others or impact their quality of life that’s a problem.  They need to develop ways to cope and manage their feelings that are effective and allow them to be successful interpersonally.  

You can be a model for them. Narrate challenging situations you experience, name the feelings you have, share how you are going to cope and how your body feels better after doing something to help manage your feelings.  

You should set boundaries about how you are willing to be treated, and that there are consequences both positive and negative to how your child interacts with you.  This helps them learn how to set boundaries for how they allow others to treat them. 

The more your child can experience natural consequences to their actions it helps prepare them for the world outside of the home, and that is the goal of being a parent.  To raise a child to adulthood that is an effective and competent human who will contribute to this world.  The journey may be messy, scary and painful at times.  Don’t forget to take time to enjoy the joys and adventure of seeing your child grow too.

Other things to consider: 

Is my child getting enough sleep? With all the changes to their brains and body adolescents need more sleep.  Make sure that they are off screens at least :30 before bed time, and that they have a decent, regular bedtime. 

Is my child eating healthy?  Make sure they are eating healthy foods and get them involved in menu planning and cooking so they can have those skills going into adulthood.  Food is the fuel for all the changes they are going through.  High amounts of caffeine and sugar are going to mess with sleep and can affect their moods in ways that are not helpful.  Good proteins, whole grains and vitamin and mineral rich veggies will fuel their bodies and minds.  

A regular exercise routine and/or active lifestyle are great ways to build body confidence as well as great ways to cope with stress.  

Taking time off of social media is important for all of us, but the influence and impact that it can have on kids struggling with comparing themselves to others can be brutal and they can have access to it 24/7 if it’s not checked and monitored. 

Finding and giving your child more responsibilities that meet them where they are developmentally allows them to feel competent and more grown up, which is exactly what they crave.  This allows them to explore more independence with the safety net of home and family.

So be prepared to be challenged during this time, prepare to be in awe of how much your child matures and grows. You will be angry and worried. You will have some of the most fun you have ever had with your child as they can have amazing conversations about themselves and the world. Keep those family rituals and family times, and be prepared to share your child with the world and their friends more. Find support and share your experiences because you are not the only ones feeling this way or struggling with your child.  It’s all normal, it does settle down, and before you know it they are going off on their own and that’s a different challenge all its own. 


For other recent blogs by Cindy Hewatt or about child development, click here.

About the Author

Cindy Hewatt, School Counselor, LMFT

Cindy holds a Masters Degree in Clinical Psychology and is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist. She has been a practicing clinician for over 20 years, with almost all of that being in non-profit/alternative school settings. She has worked with children from preschool to high school and enjoys each developmental stage for its own strengths and challenges. Aspen Academy drew Cindy with its small class sizes and custom learning approach for each child. With the understanding that each child has their unique talents, strengths and struggles, it is our privilege to help each student find their best selves by providing a safe, creative and enriched environment.

Outside of school Cindy enjoys spending time with her daughter, a new Aspen Academy student, Ellie. Cindy also enjoys creating art, cooking, reading and exploring the outdoors.