(I would like to thank Olivia for granting me permission to write about her middle school experiences and how we have navigated through middle school together. Thank you, Olivia!)
She is 13 years old and finishing Middle school. She gets straight A’s, point guard of her basketball team, part of a close knit group of friends, active as student senator representing her school, and center of her parent’s universe. She is pretty, respectful, friendly, kind and compassionate, and wise beyond her years.
Sounds like a parent’s dream, right?
Irrespective of how well Olivia is doing in school and at home, she faces the same issues that ALL middle schoolers face including issues around body image, academic and social pressures, bullying, dating, and just fitting in.
I know this because I was there with her all throughout the ups and downs and all the time wishing that I could put myself in her shoes and bear the problems for her.
Alas, as parents, we cannot. Believe me, I tried. From the time she felt overwhelmed with academic demands and expectations to the time when some Mean Girls were just plain that…mean, I couldn’t do anything but watch and trust that everything will turn out just fine.
I found that this is where my mindfulness practice really pays off. I found that not jumping to conclusions, being able to curb the impulsive knee-jerk reactions and actually taking a deep breath (or maybe a few more) were all it took to give me that sense of balance, that sense of perspective that things were not all that bad.
So for parents out there that may need a little help with dealing with middle school, here are some of my tips that helped me (and Olivia) get through it.
1. Listen…and no judging.
This was the hardest thing I think I have ever done…to really listen and not succumb to acting on all the thoughts that were streaming through my head. When I mean “really listen”, I mean being “fully present” and not partially thinking about the laundry that needs to be done, or the clean dishes that need to be put away, or the grocery list, or the trip to the dentist…
You have to be quite adept at holding your tongue so that you don’t say anything that might make things worse than it is.
Even when you think that what your middle schooler is worrying about is really silly and that you would love to tell her to “snap out of it” (like the time when David blocked Olivia from his Instagram account because he didn’t like one of her comments or the time when she was stressed about “what if I don’t get into university”) do not, I repeat, DO NOT judge.
I found that most of the time when I stay silent, neutral, objective and I am honestly curious about why she thinks or feels the way she does, Olivia realizes that the whole discussion was ridiculous to begin with and she finally shrugs it off.
I generally restart the dialogue with “Hmmm…Interesting.” and move on from there. Sometimes, it reminds me of Spock in Star Trek. Personally, I think you cannot get more neutral than that and it sets the stage for fact finding.
However, there are times when listening is just not enough. This brings me to my tip number 2.
2. Mindfulness is not just for grownups.
I had my first major anxiety attack when Olivia was 9 years old. That was the turning point of my life since it made me realize that I had to make some changes to be happy. That was also the start of my mindfulness journey. While these past years have not exactly been easy and I have had some recurring minor panic attacks, my mindfulness practice always seems to bring me back in balance.
For Olivia, seeing me struggle through anxiety must have been confusing and scary at the same time. However, she has also seen the benefits of mindfulness in how I view the world when I am firmly grounded and balanced. Intrigued, she learned to practice mindfulness on her own.
Her first book on mindfulness was “Sitting Still Like a Frog–Mindfulness Exercises for Kids (and Their Parents)” by Eline Snel. It shows simple meditation practices that everyone can do–even parents. Sometimes, when Olivia is stressed or having a tough time at school, she would put on her headphones and listen to the accompanying CD and somehow it helps her get back on track. Check it out. It is Olivia-approved.
I know that her mindfulness practice helps her when she would regale me with stories about how she kept her cool when dealing with a bully, or whenever she starts to sense doubt on what she is doing, she knows that it is just a thought and it will pass…
So, my point is, mindfulness is not just for us stressed out, panic stricken, anxiety filled grownups…our kids will also benefit from being mindful while going about their day.
3. Trust your instincts.
Olivia once told me that one of the Mean Girls recently said, “Oh, you have one of those Tiger Moms”.
Tiger moms are known for being pushy, strict, and adheres to the traditional Chinese discipline and tough love so their children succeed.
I’m not here to say whether being a Tiger mom is good or not but my word of advice is that there is no right way of parenting and don’t believe in everything that you read or hear (not certain why the Mean Girl thought I was a Tiger mom…but, whatever.)
I’ll tell you a good example. When Olivia was born, every book I read and everyone who thought to give me advice said that “the baby has to learn to sleep on her own. Let her cry and she will learn how to soothe herself to sleep.” Another advice I got was that “Just close the door and don’t give in to your kids’ cries because if you do, they win.”
Garbage. It may work for some babies and some families, but it certainly did not work out for me. In fact, Olivia never cried herself to sleep (possibly because after 20 minutes of incessant crying, I could not bear another second. In hindsight, I think it was harder on me than Olivia!) After that, I threw those words of advice out the window.
My suggestion is believe in yourself and actually do what you feel works for you and your middle schooler. Trust your instincts–if it feels wrong, then don’t agree with it.
Again, this is where being mindful gives a parent an edge as it teaches us to be more attune with what is going on with our little darlings. In my experience, it helps in opening communication lines since we are not bogged down with a set of expectations and rules that just hinder us from moving in the right direction. This is especially critical in the tween and teenage years when they are going through a tremendous amount of change including changes in self-identity, peer pressures and greater academic demands.
Last but not least, my fourth tip maybe the easiest one to apply as it just requires some education in our part.
4. Still under construction.
For this tip, we need to understand how our brains develop.
You probably have heard about the two hemispheres of our brains–the left brain and the right brain. If you are left brain, you tend to be more logical, loves lists and veer toward facts, analysis, and strategic thinking. On the other hand, the right brain focuses on the visual side of things and tends to processes information in a more intuitive way. It is often said that the right brained person is more creative and imaginative while a left brained person is more logical and analytical.
There is no right or wrong here–these are just two different ways of thinking. The more important aspect to consider is that we need to integrate both sides of our brains to function.
So, now that we are familiar with our left and right brain, we need to know more about our “Upstairs” and “Downstairs” brain as appropriately coined by neuropsychiatrist, Daniel Siegel, M.D., and parenting expert, Tina Payne Bryson, Ph.D in their book “The Whole-Brain Child”. Check it out–it is also Olivia approved.
The “downstairs” brain has the brain stem and the limbic system with the amygdala (more on this later) and hippocampus. This part of the brain deals with our basic functions that we barely think about like breathing, blinking, our fight/flight responses, and our more primitive emotions such as anger and fear.
On the other hand, the “upstairs” brain is a little bit more sophisticated and it is made up of the cerebral cortex and most importantly, the middle pre-frontal cortex (MPC) just behind your forehead. This is what makes humans unique. This part helps us regulate our emotions, pause before making a decision and think about consequences, and consider how others are feeling (empathy).
Again, as with the left and the right brain, there is no right or wrong here. What is important is that both the upstairs and the downstairs brain be integrated and working together.
For example, when you hear something suspicious downstairs in the middle of the night, your primitive limbic system (downstairs brain) immediately goes on high alert; your breathing starts to get laboured and short, your heart rate starts shooting through the roof, and you start to sweat. This is our “fight/flight” response–we are either ready to either clobber the robber or put on your slippers and climb out the window ready to dial 911 on your iPhone.
However, when you actually pause to engage your “upstairs” brain, you then remember that you had forgotten to take Chester out in the backyard to do his little business and when you hear the little bark downstairs, you realize that everything is going to be just fine–that there is no robber in the premises after all.
We are still not quite done. Remember the amygdala (uh-mig-duh-luh)? Let’s talk about the last piece of the brain puzzle.
The amygdala is the size and shape of an almond that is part of the limbic area (“downstairs brain”). We have one amygdala on each side of the brain and it is responsible for emotions, survival instinct and memory.
One word that comes up when talking about the amygdala is fear. It is much like our natural alarm system and lets us react almost instinctively to any danger. It is our brain’s way of keeping us safe. Therefore, it is understandable that it is already fully developed when we are born.
It is also the gateway between the upstairs brain and the downstairs brain. When the amygdala gets fired up, it blocks the message from getting through to the upstairs brain which leads to “act now and think about it later.” In essence, this is what happens when you say “I lost my mind for a second.”
So, as you can see, if there is real danger, then we are grateful that we have the amygdala to keep us safe (like when you accidentally touch a hot stove, you immediately draw back and say “ouch!” in a blink of an eye).
Things are not so swell when there is just perceived danger like public speaking, for example. The situation gets a bit more unpleasant when previous public speaking engagements did not go as well. Hear of the phrase “butterflies in your stomach”? The amygdala is part of that response. I would also like to say that we can also thank the amygdala for storing this unpleasant memory.
Putting this all in perspective–we need integration of the left and right brain as well as the upstairs and downstairs brain, with the amygdala as a gate keeper.
Sounds easy enough if we think about it (pardon the pun!). Unfortunately, one other unique puzzle piece is that the adolescent brain is still under construction–specifically, the upstairs brain. The prefrontal areas do not mature fully until the mid-twenties and therefore, emotional self regulation, empathy, and moral judgement are unpredictable at this stage in their lives. This explains why sometimes, teenagers are prone to big swings of emotion and unpredictable moods and some parents do a double take (“a minute ago, there were smiles, and now, you get angry one word responses…”).
So, as parents, we need to be more patient and give them some breathing room when we foresee big emotional outbursts or dramatic mood shifts–it is the amygdala and the unfinished upstairs brain in action!
So there you have it, some tried-and-true ideas for you to consider. I wish you well on your journey through middle school…and beyond!
If you have other helpful tips, please leave a comment!
Have a good weekend, everyone!