One of the best things that happened to me in my early educational career was that I only had to go to Middle School (or Jr. High as it was known back then) for two years - not the typical three years. I spent a hellish 6th and 7th grade at the Middle School in my home town and then our 8th grade class became the first class to start the 8th grade year in the High School. Woo hoo!
If you were anything like the Middle School version of me, then 6th and 7th grade probably were awful for you too. You couldn't pay me enough money to relive those years: the constant physical, mental, social and emotional changes; teasing, bullying and general drama; boyfriend/girlfriend issues; and overall awkwardness. I'm fairly certain that 8th grade me flipped my Middle School the bird and yelled "Peace Out!" on my last day in that nightmarish period of my life. When they knocked the building down a few years ago, I felt no sadness. None at all.
Thank God we don't have to ever relive those years.
I have come to realize over the past few months that we never really do leave Middle School for good. For those of us that become parents and get to experience the super awesomeness of parenting tweens and teens, it's like going straight back to Middle School. It's like a time machine that sends you back to the worst period of your life. Totally cool.
Middle School is no different the second time around. Actually, I think it might be worse the second time around. Instead of ME being the target and the one going through all of the changes, drama and awkwardness, it's my child going through it and I feel it all. All of it. When he gets made fun of, I feel it. When he struggles with complex emotions and difficult decisions, I'm there with him. When his heart gets broken, so too does mine. (The psychotherapist in me wonders if maybe this means I'm too connected to him. Probably. But, I'm still standing on The Bridge. I need a little more time.)
So, aside from diving head first into a nice bottle of red and some Netflix bingeing, here are some tips to help you survive your second go round with Middle School:
1. Monitor screen time
Today's tweens and teens are growing up in a society where there is instant gratification and complete interconnectedness. While these technological advancements can be exciting and certainly quite useful, they also make it a bit of a challenge for social skill development. Monitor your children's use of social media. Read their texts, tweets and posts. Tweens and teens have become very skilled at bullying over social media and their parents often have no idea that it is happening. Spend some time researching secret apps that teens are using now. In this instance, Google is your friend.
2. Create space for honesty
It's fairly unlikely that your 12 year old is going to come home from school everyday and pour his heart out to you. But, you can consistently send your children the message that you are there for them. You want to hear them. You want to support them. Sometimes the end of the day/bedtime is a good place for these conversations to take place organically. Sometimes, though, it's places like the car where tweens and teens open up with their parents. Something about staring straight ahead at the road and not into their parent's eyes seems to make them more comfortable. So, make some time to just drive around and see what comes up in conversation.
3. Model appropriate behavior
Full disclosure here. Adults acting like Middle School students is one of my pet peeves. It's hard to explain how wrong bullying and teasing is to our children when so many adults in their lives have themselves become skilled at bullying others on social media. Think twice before posting that passive aggressive meme about a peer. Would you condone your child posting such a meme about his peer right now? How would you feel if someone posted it about your child? Watch how you talk about other parents and peers in front of your children. They pick up on way more than you think.
4. Think twice before getting involved
There are many times when I want to march myself into my children's school, bus or sports teams and give one of their peers a piece of my mind or sit them down and mediate a discussion for them. In the vast majority of those situations, getting involved would only be about me and wouldn't do anything to help my children or their peers learn how to successfully and responsibly handle conflict. Take a step back and let your tween and teen figure it out. Role play scenarios and conversations with them and support their efforts to problem solve on their own. And, of course, advocate when needed and consult with other parents when able to do so.
When all else fails and you find yourself cursing these Middle School experiences, take a deep breath and remember that this is temporary. Before we know it, they'll be out of Middle School (and we'll be out of Middle SChool again too!) and they'll be young women and men. Just as quickly as they went from being helpless babies and toddlers to tweens and teens with their own personalities and lives, they'll be out of our house. So, even though it just plain stinks at times (literally and figuratively if you have boys), lean into the discomfort of these times and be grateful that they let us come along for the ride.
P.S. In case you were wondering, we get to experience Middle School one more time in life - when we become residents in nursing homes and long term care settings. Oh boy. It's Middle School all over again. But, that's a whole other Oprah...
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If you have ever been on social media, you surely have seen those bright and cheerful memes reminding you that "Happiness is a Choice," instructing you to "Be Happy" or "Choose Happy" and sharing insights such as "Mind Over Matter." Often these memes are helpful, serving as a way for us to reframe our outlook and view our lives through a more positive lens. We've all had those days (or weeks) where nothing seems to be going our way and it becomes very easy to focus on the negative. A bright and simple meme may catch our eye as we scroll through our Facebook feed and somewhere deep inside our brain the message resonates with us. Suddenly we begin to consider the things that are going right. Sometimes we can "Choose Happy." Thanks, Facebook!
But what about those times when happiness isn't a choice? Are there times when we simply can't "Choose Happy"? According to the National Institute of Mental Health, nearly 10% of the US population suffers from a mood disorder such as Major Depressive Disorder, Dysthymic Disorder or Bipolar Disorder. Nearly half of those cases are classified as severe (National Institute of Mental Health, 2016). Think about that statistic. 10%. 1 in 10. Let's look at it in terms of raw numbers: the National Alliance on Mental Illness reports that there are over 20 million Americans living with Major Depressive Disorder or Bipolar Disorder (National Alliance on Mental Illness, 2016). 20 Million. For these individuals, happiness isn't always as simple as making a choice. Anyone that has ever battled a mood disorder or known someone with such a diagnosis knows that even when everything in someone's life is going right, happiness for them can be fleeting. Sometimes it can feel completely impossible. For many individuals, happiness is often just out of reach and the weight of depression can be deeply debilitating.
For these individuals it isn't as simple as choosing happiness. For many, depression is something that will follow them for many years; always lurking just around the corner. Treatment and symptom management options include medication, psychotherapy, support groups, lifestyle changes and diet changes. In other words, it takes work and lots of support to manage a mood disorder and just when it finally seems to be under control - boom! The bottom drops out and suddenly everything feels overwhelming and hopeless...again.
What is it like for these individuals when they see the bright and cheerful memes on social media reminding them to choose happiness? Wouldn't it be nice to think the memes have magical powers that can rewire the chemical imbalances in some people's brains? Wouldn't it be wonderful if these catchy phrases could do away with the need for anti-depressants, psychotherapy and help to eliminate the need for mental health reform? Wouldn't it be amazing if memes could make those suffering from depression finally break free of the black cloud that is often swirling around inside their head? Sure it would. But, this is the real world. I would wager a bet that for many of these individuals the calls to "Choose Happiness" do far more harm than good and often contribute to the negative stigma surrounding mental illness. In other words, they alienate individuals and reinforce the isolation often experienced with a mood disorder.
For an individual with depression, likely the one thing they want more than anything in the world is to wake up and feel normal. Based on my experiences, very few people enjoy opening their eyes each morning only to be greeted by the heaviness and isolation of depression. There are constant reminders to these individuals that they are different, they are not normal and that it is not ok to feel depressed. Mental illness, such as depression, carries a deeply negative stigma and being diagnosed with a mood disorder is not something most people share with others. Instead, once someone receives such a diagnosis, they often keep it a secret and carry it with them in shame. Yet diagnoses such as diabetes, heart disease, cancer or respiratory disease don't carry that same level of negative stigma and shame. Maybe that's just because things like diabetes, heart disease, cancer and respiratory disease are more common and more dangerous than mental illnesses such as depression, right? Wrong. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Suicide is the 2nd leading cause of death for individuals ages 10-34 and the 4th leading cause of death for those aged 35-54 (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2016). The National Alliance on Mental Illness reports that 90% of those who die by suicide have an underlying mental illness (National Alliance on Mental Illness, 2016).
Let those numbers and statistics sink in. We are talking about individuals with a diagnosis that is very prevalent, very debilitating and can also be deadly. Yet, the message our society often sends these individuals is that THEY are the problem, they are not normal and they simply need to "Choose Happy." Being reminded to "Choose Happiness" over and over again seems to be akin to telling the depressed person to "Get Over it" or "Just be Normal." Maybe, for some people, those bright and cheerful memes are actually quite painful.
Do I think everyone should stop sharing the memes in question? No. Of course not. For many people, they provide a bright spot and a useful reminder to change their perspective. But, maybe before sharing such a meme, take a moment and reflect on the people in your life who may be suffering silently from a mood disorder. Remember that the statistics I have shared are only based on those individuals who have sought treatment for a mood disorder. There are likely far more individuals suffering in complete silence, afraid or unsure of how to access support. Chances are that you personally know at least one of the more than 20 million people in the country who have such a diagnosis. How can you best support them? How can you help to break down some of the barriers for them? How can you help to get rid of the negative stigma associated with mental illness? What if your message to them conveyed that it was ok for them to be themselves? What if your message conveyed total acceptance and unconditional support and didn't put pressure on them to "Choose Happiness?" What if your message conveyed that you still choose them, no matter how they are feeling?
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 10 leading causes of death by age group, United States - 2014. (n.d.) Retrieved July 25, 2016 from http://www.cdc.gov/injury/images/lc-charts/leading_causes_of_death_age_group_2014_1050w760h.gif
National Alliance on Mental Illness. Mental health facts in america. (n.d). Retrieved July 25, 2016 from http://www.nami.org/NAMI/media/NAMI-Media/Infographics/GeneralMHFacts.pdf
National Institute of Mental Health. Any mood disorder among adults. (n.d) Retrieved July 25, 2016 from http://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/prevalence/any-mood-disorder-among-adults.shtml
About Changing Perspectives
I often find myself encouraging people to consider changing their perspective or reframe the way in which they view things. This blog is an extension of that practice and is also an opportunity for me to write from a number of different perspectives including clinician, educator, mother, friend and supervisor. Blog topics are also quite varied and changeable. Topics explored include, but are certainly not limited to, grief, parenting, health and wellness and relationships. Join me and explore a number of changing perspectives!