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Awkward! The tough transition to middle school

By Kelly Wallace, CNN
updated 11:49 AM EDT, Tue October 7, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Many parents, teens are anxious about the start of middle school
  • "Middle school is not agony for all kids," says psychologist
  • Teens want independence but still need parenting, experts say
  • The balance for parents between control and letting go is like a dance, says author

Editor's note: Kelly Wallace is CNN's digital correspondent and editor-at-large covering family, career and life. She is a mom of two girls. Read her other columns and follow her reports at CNN Parents and on Twitter.

(CNN) -- There is a reason why when people post pictures of themselves during their middle school years on Facebook for "Throw Back Thursday," we all stop and take notice.

We recognize the fear or uncertainty or absolutely angst in their eyes.

Raging hormones. Changing bodies. Awkward social interactions. No longer a child but not yet an adult. Those are just a few of the zillion reasons why most of us would never want to go back to that time, and why some parents of beginning middle schoolers are freaking out as school starts.

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After all, studies have shown that the jump from elementary to middle school can be a painful transition for adolescents, whose worries grow to include greater academic responsibility, burgeoning sexuality and complex social structures.

Lori Garcia, creator of the blog Mommyfriend, admitted she's slightly terrified and definitely anxious about her son, 11, going to junior high school and starting the seventh grade later this month.

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"I remember how difficult the transition was and so not wanting to put those fears on my son I try to speak open-ended about it, like it's a positive experience," said Garcia, who experienced "culture shock" moving from a Christian elementary school to a public junior high.

"Oh, isn't this exciting," Garcia tells her son. "It's a new adventure, it's a new school, new people, but I do have my concerns."

Her son has his, too, she said, concerns about moving from a small elementary school to a junior high with over 1,000 students, potential bullying, changing classes and "the reality of six teachers and ... six times the homework and six times the expectations," she said.

Middle school 'not agony for all kids'

Here's something that Garcia and any other parent about to send off a child to middle or junior high school can find comfort in hearing: Most kids survive!

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"I think it's important to understand that middle school is not agony for all kids," said psychologist Carl Pickhardt, author of "Surviving Your Child's Adolescence." "For most kids, middle school is relatively fine."

That said, there are no doubt big changes coming their way, Pickhardt added, including exposure to acts of social cruelty, in person and online, which they didn't see in elementary school, "the teasing and the bullying and the exclusion and rumoring and the ganging up."

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Rebecca Levey, a New York mom of two whose daughters started middle school last year, said her biggest worry was social. "And I was right to be worried," she added, saying the boys were surprisingly meaner than the girls.

"I was shocked. All you think about is mean girls but ... the boys were a thousand times worse," said Levey, who writes about balancing motherhood and her tech start-up on her blog Beccarama.

Pickhardt, who hosts a blog on Psychology Today, said one of the many challenges for parents during this transition time is balancing their child's sense of independence with their continued need for parenting.

Children might feel that they should be able to handle things like bullying, sexual talk and risk-taking behavior themselves now and that if they tell their parents about any of it, it means they are not able to handle their experiences, he added.

Parents should say, "I really want to be there to help you sort out what you hear from other kids," said Pickhardt. "I'll just give you my perception of stuff that you can add to your own thinking to figure out what you believe. ... I'd like to be there to be able to do that for you."

CNN\'s Kelly Wallace writes there is a reason why we all react when people post pictures of their middle school years.
CNN's Kelly Wallace writes there is a reason why we all react when people post pictures of their middle school years.

'They still want to play (with) Barbies'

It's also important for parents to remember that middle school is a time when their children are "toying with adulthood," but they're still kids, said Amanda Rodriguez, a former middle school teacher and host of the blog Dude Mom.

"Understanding that your child is having these feelings and their body is changing and they're experiencing all these new things that an older person should be experiencing but at the same time, they come home and they still want to play (with) Barbies," said Rodriguez, a mom of three whose oldest son is a soon-to-be seventh grader.

READ: The great homework debate: Too much, too little or busy work?

How much independence to give a child during the middle school years is another big challenge for parents, said Pickhardt. Too often, he said, parents might think they should let go completely, especially of their child's academic responsibilities, which he said could be a big mistake.

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Schools might send the message that if the child doesn't do his or her homework, they'll get zeroes and learn from their failures, but Pickhardt said he believes most kids don't learn that. "They learn failure, so that's why parents have to be there."

That means making sure homework is done and turned in, and if the child refuses to bring homework home or turn it in, the parent can offer to accompany the child to school and hand in the homework together -- something most children would refuse.

"You've got to give that kind of supervisory support because this is not a permanently disaffected state, but if that state is just let go the kid can do themselves some long-lasting damage, and that's not right. Parents aren't doing their job."

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The balance between control and letting go

Author Rachel Vail\'s newest book \
Author Rachel Vail's newest book "Unfriended" is about middle school.

Award-winning author Rachel Vail's newest young adult book, "Unfriended," about middle school, comes out next month. The mother of two sons who both survived middle school, Vail describes that balance between control and letting go during the middle school years as an ongoing dance between a parent and the child.

"You have to be very conscious of being aware and following his leads and sometimes what he'll be communicating to you is this is too much freedom," she said.

"If your kid is really needing more independence and autonomy, if you're really paying attention, you'll be able to tell, and if you've then stepped back too far, you'll also be able to tell."

Vail also says the middle school transition is a time to think back to childbirth training -- as crazy as that might sound.

"I always feel like for the parent, here's where the Lamaze breathing actually becomes useful because in labor, it did nothing for me ... but as a parent of an adolescent, yeah, take a deep breath and ... take the long view."

What can parents and teens do to survive the middle school years? Share your thoughts in the comments or tell Kelly Wallace on Twitter or CNN Living on Facebook.

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