You were handed your baby and the world responded in fireworks and soft, cuddly warmth. Sure the baby cried and you spent hours, days, and weeks trying to decode what cry meant what, but in time your baby smiled at you. That smile made your heart melt, you were forever theirs, and you swore you would do anything for a smile like that. Then baby developed language and tantrums and food throwing. Those were special times. Trying times, but the chaos was contained.
First introduction to the larger world
Baby goes to school and meets others that were also once like them and the center of someone’s world. Now they figure out they are in competition for attention from the teacher and figure out how to socialize and compromise. Your child starts sharing things with you that you don’t feel that your child is ready for and you start to feel yourself resist this speed of growth. You sigh, listen, keep your thoughts to yourself, reassure your child that tomorrow there will be more learning and he’ll be able to dust himself off and forge through any difficulty thrown his way. You also really want to intervene with the frustration your child experiences, but you don’t because you know this is how growth works.
Then, middle school
Your child then leaves elementary school and walks inside the doors of a MIDDLE SCHOOL. I feel that “middle” – just like a “middle” child – comes with a special significance. This developmental period has been the most trying for me as a parent. However, I also work in a middle school and seem to be just fine interacting with other people’s middle school children. Alas, to my own – I am an alien. I am often looked at like I have 4 eyes on my head, a greenish tint to my skin, and antennas that pick up all the boundary pushing, rule breaking, mood jerking activities that are happening. To be fair, I’m sure the middle school children I interact with do not believe I am the coolest cat that walked into their life – but I never feel walked on and gut punched like I do with my own middle school children.
So what is a parent to do? These years will go by fast, I’m sure. They all do. Yet, how do we survive the eye rolling and roller coaster mood swings? We can and we will. I’ve got a few ideas that I want to share with you.
1. They don’t know any better – they have half a brain!
There is so much neuron connecting, grey matter forming, crazy brain development that is happening until the early 20s, but right now it’s happening at a fire-starting rate. Decision making and impulse control is not carved out in the brain yet. While children are ready to take on more responsibility at this age as they become aware of just how different, more mature – understand the world more, than their younger selves, they also don’t have anyone qualified driving their brain around. The prefrontal cortex is under construction. It is being built, constructed, at a wild rate – but it takes time. Be patient. Remind yourself when you get into an argument and your child is completely irrational – their brain is under construction. You’ve got a fully developed brain. Yay you! Try not to gloat this fact to your teen though. 😉
2. Peers (also with half a brain) are the most important people in their life
As much as it hurts to witness how my children’s dazed and confused counterparts are akin to rock stars in comparison to my humble dull drum self, I know that they will return to me in time. We need to accept that we are going to be backstage for a while. We still have control over when the curtain is pulled back and what props are on stage, but we are pretty much resigned to chauffeuring these half brain humans around for a bit, watching mistakes, and being close by to catch the tears.
3. Whether they will admit it or not (and they won’t) they are still watching us
Even though peers have more prominent roles in our children’s lives at this stage, it does not mean that we should disappear altogether and show up again when they hit 25. They are watching us. They appreciate that there is someone driving their brain around because they are struggling with all the moving pieces of social life, school obligations, extracurricular activities, family time, and the big life questions also making an appearance. It’s a lot to understand and make sense of. They need to see what we are doing as adults with fully capable brains, making decisions, working, paying bills, making meals, and running a household. We need to invite them into these activities so that they have a front row seat to our thought process and why we make the decisions that we do. One activity that we do in our family is sit down and talk about meals for the week. We discuss events on the calendar and manageable meals that fit into each night of the week. Through this intentional activity, our children see that we have to be realistic and plan ahead. If necessary we make meals ahead of time and warm them up on nights that nobody has adequate time to prepare a healthy meal. Without being part of the discussion they wouldn’t be able to connect the dots themselves and conclude that we work magic. The sooner they realize that they have to work to make things happen, the better.
4. Reach out to other parents with children the same age
As in all areas of our life, a support system goes a long way. You are not alone, nor should you feel that your teen/tween is worse than others so it’s embarrassing to admit what you’re dealing with. I assure you, we understand! Nobody is walking around with the perfect guide to raising children – it does not exist. Each child is unique, just as we are, and we should be thankful for that. These children of ours are going to be something great as adults, but we have no way of knowing what greatness they will lead. In many ways we are feeding, clothing, supporting these little seeds but we do not know what type of tree they will grow into. The seeds did not come out of a package marked “carrots” or “peas”. Our children arrive in this world as small mysterious packages that we adore. Don’t lose sight of that adoration and deep commitment that you sang to your child when she was first in your arms. This is love. Unconditional and deep in our bones of who we are as parents. We need to support each other in this journey.
Give yourself a pat on the back, a hug around the middle, and take a deep breath – you’ve got this.