The first, biggest battle when becoming the parent of a middle-schooler is this: wrapping your mind around the fact that your baby (emphasis on baby) will soon be flung to the wolves -- or at least the surly bunch that seems to populate your child's future school. Since when did sixth-graders grow sideburns?
OK. Stop breathing into that paper bag. Your child will be fine -- it's you we're worried about.
Survival Strategy One: Mind Games
We know that, as a parent, it can be hard to see your "baby" grow up and become his or her own person. Watch them pile on the pressures of a new school, peers, sports and homework, and it's enough to make you want to turn back the clock to simpler days -- the ones that involved cajoling an intrepid toddler into eating broccoli. But that, my friend, is your first mistake. It's time to get your mental game moving. If your child's foray into middle school is going to be OK (and it is), then you've got to get your head in the game. And that means realizing your child is growing up and charting a strategy to deal with it before the first day of school arrives.
Survival Strategy Two: Independence Day
Sweet freedom. Middle-schoolers long for it but can't handle too much of it, and you might not be ready to start letting go. The key is striking a balance that's healthy for both of you. One way to do this is by fulfilling your child's desire for freedom (which is a natural developmental occurrence, by the way) by allowing him or her to participate in a variety of approved activities. Playing on the basketball team, for example, offers your child an outlet for many things: camaraderie, physical activity and even peer pressure. Yes, peer pressure can have a good side. Just ask any tween who has flunked pre-algebra, been benched by the coach and let down her teammates. That won't happen again. Better still, organized extracurricular activities offer your child a (supervised) chance to get away from your watchful eyes. But you still get to participate by cheering at the games, applauding a two-act play or going to an art show. Whatever interests your child, give him or her an avenue to explore it.
Your role is to offer boundaries, limitations and support. One way you get to practice your role is when it's time for homework. The National Association of School Psychologists says that homework teaches children how to manage time, make choices and solve problems. Help your child set up a system -- a place and time to study with any necessary resources -- then let him or her tackle the challenges of middle school homework without your hovering presence. Stay in touch with teachers, even if your child assures you this is the most uncool thing you've ever done. That's why some smart person invented e-mail -- use it to send the occasional query about your child's in-class performance.
Survival Strategy Three: Oh, the Drama
It's hard being a tween bent on teen-hood. Not only is there heightened self-awareness (thanks, puberty), but there's also a host of new relational situations to encounter. When school turns into a fashion show or popularity contest, all this drama gets a bit dicey. That's because it's hard for parents to know when to step in and when to let their son or daughter work things out alone. We happen to agree with Joe Bruzzese, author of "Parents' Guide to the Middle School Years," who advises parents to play a supporting role as peer relationships form and dissolve. Sure, we've been guilty of dialing the "mean girl's" mom and having our say, but we learned the hard way that it usually doesn't help. Steer clear of the day-to-day friend drama, but be willing to step in if you sense your child is being bullied.
Another minefield to avoid? Fashion. Set a few clear boundaries, like hemline length or a waistband stopping point, but be willing to let your child have some say in what he or she wears. While tweens are clamoring for friendship in the middle school melee, they're likely to "try on" a variety of styles. Personally, we don't start to worry until talk of tattoos and multiple piercings come into play.
As you guide your middle-schooler, remember: Your role isn't one of perfection. Shake off any nagging doubts about your self-worth that may bubble to the surface the first time you chaperone a middle school dance. (Hey, it happens!) The key is to be involved, even as you allow your tween more autonomy. According to a report by Johns Hopkins University researchers, when you're clued in to the middle school scene, your child's more likely to have better grades, attendance and homework skills. Plus, they'll be prepped to succeed in high school. Hyperventilating again? It's OK. You can put down that paper bag. We'll leave our high school discussion for another day.