The Pivotal Leap to Middle School
Among all the profound transitions in childhood—ranging from the shift from baby to toddler, toddler to preschool, preschool to kindergarten, and kindergarten to elementary school—one transition stands out as particularly influential on a child’s life: the pivotal leap from elementary school to middle school.
As students advance to middle school, academic expectations are usually higher, coupled with the need to adapt to a new school environment. They face the novel challenge of navigating multiple classrooms, and in some cases, interacting with more than one teacher for the first time. Furthermore, they must shoulder greater responsibility in organizing and safeguarding their belongings. For some, saying goodbye to the comforting familiarity of “cubbies” awaits. For others, whether they utilized a personal “hook” in a closet or a basket under their desk, their responsibility for keeping track of their belongings will likely intensify. Socially, adolescents experience new challenges as they learn to manage their social schedules, arrange their own “hangouts” instead of “playdates,” and navigate shifting dynamics in their friendships.
Tweens start to care a lot more about fitting in with peers and about what others think of them. This is the time when bullying (both in-person and cyber bullying) and teasing can start to happen, and when self-consciousness and insecurity can set in. It is also the time when youngsters begin to grapple with identity and try to decode the many cultural messages about gender and what it means to be a boy/man or a girl/woman. It is no wonder that students with mental health problems so frequently point to middle school as the time when their problems began or were exacerbated.
What Causes Mental Health Issues in Middle School?
In his April 2022 article in The Atlantic, Why American Teens Are So Sad, Derek Thompson postulates that “four forces are propelling the rising rates of depression among young people”. Although the article’s focus is depression and anxiety in teens, the forces described are highly relevant for middle school students as well and provide a useful way to categorize what contributes to their distress.
The first force discussed by Thompson is the explosion of social media usage. By middle school many students have access to smart phones and are drawn into the world of social media. Psychologist Jean Twenge, author of the book iGen, has noted that teen sadness and anxiety began to steadily rise in the U.S. and other developed countries starting in 2012, precisely the year when the number of Americans owning a smartphone surpassed 50% and social-media use spiked. Now, in the most recent data, “22% of 10th grade girls spend seven or more hours a day on social media,” Twenge says, which means many teenage girls are doing little else than sleeping, going to school, and engaging with social media.
Thompson noted a new study from Cambridge University “in which researchers looked at 84,000 people of all ages and found that social media was strongly associated with worse mental health during certain sensitive life periods, including for girls ages 11 to 13.” “One explanation is that teenagers (and teenage girls in particular) are uniquely sensitive to the judgment of friends, teachers, and the digital crowd”, and that for some students, social media can exacerbate anxieties about body image, popularity, and fitting in. Of course, it is also important to note that social media per se is not problematic for everyone, and for many young people has facilitated relationship building, social awareness, and learning.
The second force, which is related to the first, is that sociality is down. Dr. Twenge and other authorities have stressed that the biggest problem with social media might not be social media itself, but rather the activities that it replaces. Students are less physically active and are often sleep-deprived because of 24/7 involvement with their phones and other devices. Critically important time with friends has been reduced, decreasing opportunities for practicing social, communication, and self-regulation skills. Many young people are even delaying activities historically related to developing self-confidence and independence, such as getting a driver’s license. Students are still recovering from pandemic-related school closures which exacerbated tween loneliness and sadness by disrupting the protective effects of close social relationships with friends, teachers, and other mentors.
The third force needs little or no explanation: kids today are growing up in a world that is increasingly stressful. Endless news cycles emphasize the increasing threats of gun violence, climate change, racial hatred and discrimination, political divisiveness, financial hardship, and an unrelenting pandemic. As much as we try to shield them from adult concerns, students are confronted with these stressors every time they participate in active shooter drills, are coached about COVID precautions, or are warned/coached about acts of racial hatred. And, not to beat a dead horse, but social media affords 24/7 access to sites that constantly remind us about the things we could/should be anxious or sad about.
The fourth force cited by Thompson is modern parenting strategies. “In the past 40 years, American parents — especially those with a college degree — have nearly doubled the amount of time they spend coaching, chauffeuring, tutoring, and otherwise helping their teenage children.” Many parents start very early putting pressure on their kids to prepare for college.
Similarly, perhaps because of their own anxieties and/or the perception that the world is a more dangerous place, many parents try to insulate their children from risk and danger, and in doing so are inadvertently contributing to children’s heightened anxiety and lower self-confidence. Thompson notes that “children are growing up slower than they used to … are less likely to drive, get a summer job, or be asked to do chores.” The greater the protection, the more children are deprived from learning problem solving skills, from developing a sense of competence, and from learning to tolerate uncomfortable emotions.
Data from the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) indicate that less than a third of children who die by suicide had a previously diagnosed mental illness. Forty percent, however, had experienced family instability such as divorce, parental depression, parental substance abuse, or a school disruption — problems exacerbated, of course, by the pandemic. As parents’ lives were disrupted, so too were the lives of younger children. It has been estimated that 37,300 children in the U.S. lost a parent due to COVID. Poorer communities and communities of color were disproportionally harmed by the pandemic in multiple ways, and suicides among children of color have also been rising disproportionately both before and during the pandemic. Compared to teenagers, preteens and younger children who die by suicide are more likely to be Black and male.
Middle school students, while better able to express their emotions verbally, may hide their suffering for fear of being labeled crazy or different, at a time of life when fitting in and being accepted is paramount. In the absence of direct verbal expressions of distress by the tween, here is what parents can do to help.
- Communicate openly and honestly, including about their values.
By demonstrating a non-judgmental attitude and active listening, parents can show that they genuinely care about their teenagers’ well-being. Acknowledge their feelings and experiences, even if they differ from your own, as this helps them feel understood and validated. Engage in conversations about their interests, asking questions to learn more about the video games they play or the hobbies they pursue. This demonstrates your willingness to listen and be a part of their world.
Whenever possible, incorporate discussions about mental health into your day and daily interactions, to promote awareness and normalize the topic. By talking openly about mental health, teenagers are more likely to feel comfortable seeking help when needed and understanding that it’s a common aspect of overall well-being. Furthermore, impart your family values regarding mental health, emphasizing the importance of self-care, empathy, and compassion. Encourage your teenagers to prioritize their mental well-being and teach them coping strategies to manage stress and challenges.
- Supervise your adolescent to facilitate healthy decision-making.
The definition of “supervision” varies significantly not only from one parent to another but also between tweens and their parents. This is the time when middle schoolers want more independence from their parents, yet still require a good deal of help from them. A new dynamic begins perfectly encapsulated in the title of Anthony E. Wolf’s popular book on parenting adolescents: “Get Out of My Life but First Could You Drive Me & Cheryl to the Mall?”
Parents often find themselves relegated to the confines of their cars, banished to their bedrooms, or pushed to the shadows during drop-offs and pick-ups as their tweens assert their independence. Although these situations might be uncomfortable and inconvenient, it remains crucial to maintain oversight and involvement in your adolescent’s life during the middle school years, acting as a supportive guide and coach to help them make sound decisions.
- Spend time with your adolescent enjoying shared activities.
Building trust with your tween or teen begins with showing genuine interest in their passions. Even if their activities, like video games, may not naturally pique your curiosity, it’s essential to be honest with your child while remaining open to understanding their enjoyment of them. If connecting with your adolescent feels challenging, consider broadening your choices and actively seeking out opportunities to engage in activities that both of you might enjoy. Whether it’s discovering the best burger joint in town, bonding over a thrilling Marvel movie, or even running a 5K run together, these shared experiences can bridge the gap and create memorable moments between you and your teen. By exploring various interests and finding common ground, you’ll foster a deeper connection and strengthen your parent-child relationship.
- Become engaged in school activities and help with homework.
Helping your middle schooler with homework sends a powerful message that you are invested in their success and are available to lend a hand whenever needed. This engagement also allows you to identify any mental health issues. Sometimes the signs are obvious; did your tween choose something dark to read and write about? Is their artwork concerning? Their academic work might illuminate where additional support may be required, enabling you to address them proactively and ensure your child’s academic growth and confidence.
- Volunteer at your adolescent’s school.
When parents actively participate in school activities and volunteer their time, they demonstrate to their children the importance of community and education through actions rather than words. Bridging the gap between home and school starts to happen with less frequency in middle school (no more birthday cupcakes or lunchroom moms), and most kids get a kick out of seeing their parents at school.
- Communicate regularly with teachers and administrators.
During middle school, communication with teachers may naturally reduce as students develop self-advocacy skills. This period becomes crucial as students learn to seek assistance independently rather than relying solely on parental support. However, it remains vital for parents to maintain regular contact with teachers and administrators when necessary. Attending Back-to-School night helps establish an initial connection. Additionally, completing the “Brag Sheet” provided by teachers offers valuable insights, enabling educators to understand students better and provide appropriate support. Parents can ensure a collaborative and supportive learning environment by staying engaged with the school to foster their child’s growth and success throughout the middle school years.
Navigating A Shifting Landscape
As reported in a 2022 New York Times article, “Health risks in adolescence are undergoing a major shift. Three decades ago, the biggest health threats to teenagers were binge drinking, drunken driving, teenage pregnancy, cigarettes, and illicit drugs. Today, they are anxiety, depression, suicide, self-harm, and other serious mental health disorders.” Sadly, the above statement is readily applicable to middle school youngsters as well.
These alarming changes also take a toll on adults, and the burden on parents has grown exponentially with the changing times.
Parents, too, suffer mental health issues that might prevent them from noticing or acting upon signs or symptoms in their middle schoolers. Dr. Patricia Ibeziako, Associate Chief for Clinical Services at Boston Children’s Hospital and Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Med School, offered her thoughts on July 2023’s Science Friday podcast, “Yes, I would say that parents are struggling, too. A study was just released that shows one in three teenagers has a parent suffering from anxiety and depression, and 2/5 of teens voiced concern about their own parents’ mental health. So, parents are struggling at the same rate as their kids. And talking with their children about their own emotional struggles can help normalize the experience and open the door for more transparent discussions so that the child doesn’t feel alone.”
Parents must stay vigilant, constantly monitoring their tween or teen, and, if they see the signs, broaden their perspective about younger students’ need for mental health services.
What to Do if You Spot Signs of Mental Health Issues in Your Adolescent?
Dr. Patricia Ibeziako suggests actionable first steps, “I typically recommend to families, if they’re concerned at all, they should talk to their primary care providers first. Most people never see a mental health professional. But almost everybody sees their primary care providers.
And then there’s the 988 line. If you’re concerned that your child may be experiencing some suicidality, you’re not sure, you can call the 988 crisis line or text them. And you can talk with someone who can help guide you through some of those questions you might have about whether you need more support.”
Proactively caring for yourself and taking decisive action as a parent can significantly contribute to the prevention of mental health issues in our teens and tweens and ensure timely access to necessary services when needed.