There is no question in my mind that, on average, the most challenging years to parent screen time is in middle school. It can take a caregiver on a brutal emotional rollercoaster ride.
Three years ago, researchers at Arizona State University published a study in Developmental Psychology where they surveyed more than 2,200 mothers with children of all ages about how they were feeling about their lives. The researchers then compared mothers who only have children in one age group.
You’d think the moms of babies missing out on sleep would be the most stressed. Not so. It was the mothers of middle school age children who reported the highest levels of stress. But we do not need a survey to tell us this. Those of us with tweens and new teens are living it. I just want to take this moment to validate how freaking hard it can be for some of us.
Why is it so hard? In middle school kids bodies start to change, the hormones start pumping and their brains begin firing impulses, urges and strong emotions. Our kids start being exposed to risky situations and behaviors. The video games are more violent, the YouTube content is more illicit, the social media turns into an emotional landscape, and peer pressure is more prevalent than before.
How we interact with our middle school age kids changes too. The sweet, loving kid who loved to hug and listened to everything you said now flinches when touched and fights many of our rules and expectations.
Here are some things that have been helped me:
Reaching out When my kids were in middle school, I reached out to friends and family who have gone through the teenage years and was always very open about where I was having a hard time emotionally. Also, I would set up times to be together with my friends and their kids to have screen-free days or nights all together. Two girlfriends and I created something we named Change Makers with our tween daughters. Once a month moms and daughters would meet to discuss a TED talk we all had watched beforehand. It was a way to reaffirm good things in life, the world, our girls, our relationships, and to take a break from worrying energy.
A good book on this topic is Laura Kastner’s Getting To Calm or Lisa Damour’s Untangled. People also really like How to Talk So Kids Will Listen by Adele Faber and Queen Bees and Wannabes by Rosalind Wiseman.
Reframe The Situation Six years ago when my son was in middle school, he had a phone that allowed him to text. When I saw all the swearing kids were doing in their texts, I felt so incredibly emotional. But, I learned that that swearing is a “third language”—so much of it is about feeling grown up. I do not at all excuse it, and it warrants many discussions, but seeing it as such, really helped me to calm down. That way I could have conversations that were not laden with my emotions that would work against such conversations.
Relax—deep relaxation That is something very hard for me. I find using tools to help has been great—such as Headspace, and later the app 10% Happier. With it, I listen to a short lesson on different aspects of mindfulness and then I am guided through a very short mindfulness-based meditation. This helps me so that when I feel like I am about to blurt out something to one of my kids, I work to find that micro space between my reaction and my response. I stop in that space, take a breath and decide what my calm response should be. If I am too emotionally charged, I literally bite my lip, leave the room and do more deep breathing. Do I always succeed in these approaches? Absolutely not. But when I fail, I give myself a little compassionate pat on my heart and say “just begin again.”
Recognize Differences I am so fascinated with how some of us parents feel so intensely emotional over the things our kids are being exposed to and doing while others seem to have so little reaction. Take my husband, for example, who is so much less emotionally triggered by the things that concern me about our kids. At times this really irritates me, but I have learned to value that we come to the table with different views and the goal is to take the best from both places. Also, I can go to him to hear his perspective to help me off my emotional cliff.
For this Tech Talk Tuesday, let’s talk about how to smooth out the emotional rollercoaster ride of parenting middle schoolers. Engage your middle schooler (or send this TTT to a friend with middle schoolers) or ask the same question to any age child.
Share what things are going well in all of your lives at this moment in time.
See if you use calm curiosity to ask about their feelings about swearing and other things happening in middle school time.
Ask them, what is helpful and what is not that we, as parents, do or say when you seem irritable or withdrawn?