By Amanda C. Symmes, LICSW
Note: While it’s uncertain what the next school year will look like, soon-to-be middle schoolers are still making the transition to a new environment. Whether students are in the classroom or learning from home, the OKAY acronym can help ease their anxiety.
Hey all you soon-to-be middle schoolers out there, I see you! And I see your parents too. You are the folks with lots of questions, worries, and excitement. The main thing I want you to know is that you are not alone—everyone has to transition—and that adjustment brings up a variety of things.
And that’s okay.
Parents, indulge me in a brief guided visualization of sorts. Take a deep breath and, if you want, close your eyes. Allow your mind to gently float back in time to see yourself as a young person transitioning into middle school. See if you can really remember.
What did you look like? What did it feel like to be in your body? What were your thoughts, worries, and fears? Did you have acne? Were you self-conscious? Were you confused about who to be friends with? Did you feel apprehension related to new systems at school that left you feeling even more unsure?
Chances are, at some point during middle school, you experienced a sense of uncertainty. Perhaps in reflection, you notice that your middle school woes are mirrored in your worries for your own child? That’s okay. Awareness of this will assist in not inadvertently projecting your own stuff onto kids. Their experiences will be their own.
Next, I invite you to reflect on whether you think it is ever okay to be uncomfortable.
Naturally, this may not be our favorite feeling. However, growth lives on the edge of discomfort.
In middle school, your child’s body will physically grow and change, at times so rapidly it will seem as if you are looking at a different person each day. Your children will learn how to organize themselves and build important executive functioning skills. They will be moody at times. They will also explore how they wish to express themselves. Sometimes this will mean looking around at how everyone else is expressing themselves and following the crowd to fit in. But sometimes it will mean daring to be different. These processes will not go perfectly. And guess what?
Some things that may bring excitement during this transition to middle school include:
- I can’t wait to have a locker!
- I get to see kids from other schools!
- I can switch classes throughout the day!
- There will be a whole new schedule to follow!
- I don’t have to be stuck with just one teacher!
- They’ll treat us like we are older!
- The schoolwork will finally be more interesting!
- I’ll get to make new friends!
- Everything will be so new!
- I will get more freedom!
- I can be whoever I want to be!
Interestingly, the inverse of these things can bring feelings of angst as well:
- What if I can’t get my locker open?
- What if I don’t have classes with anyone I know?
- What if I don’t know how to get to my classes?
- What if the schedule is too confusing? Or too hard?
- What if my teachers are mean or hard or don’t like me?
- What if they expect too much from me?
- What if the schoolwork is too boring or too advanced?
- What if I embarrass myself and no one likes me?
- What if it all feels too new?
- What if I feel pressure to do things I am not ready to do?
- What if by just being me, I get bullied?
As you and your child navigate this transition, consider the OKAY acronym and share these ideas with your child.
You will have a lot of options. You will get to choose some of your classes. You will meet new people and get to choose who you spend your time with during the school day and outside of school as well. Beyond this, you will have the option to work hard, get extra help, join activities and clubs, and build connections with teachers and staff.
You will not be able to control other people or all situations, but you will always have the choice in how you respond to people and situations. Know that it’s okay to think about things before making a decision. Just because someone else chooses to do something, that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily the best option for you. You can draw healthy boundaries for yourself. Now is the time to step into trusting yourself.
(Also, it’s more than okay to change your mind when considering options.)
Kindness can be tricky in middle school. But it doesn’t have to be. As you navigate the social landscape, there will be times when kids manipulate relationships to obtain social power (sometimes virtually through phones or social media and sometimes in face-to-face interactions). Being aware of these behaviors is essential.
When my two oldest started middle school, it was then that I began saying to them, “Try hard, have fun, be kind”—often. I said it before school, sports, or other activities. Of course, they rolled their eyes and brushed me off, but they grew used to me saying it. And at times when I forgot, they’d ask if I would. Fortunately, it has served as a foundation for many dialogues along the way.
Kindness as a core value will lead you all the way through middle school. Consider this: if your friends are all talking meanly about someone else, and you notice one friend who is not joining in, chances are you will respect and trust that person. If you don’t feel you can challenge the mean behavior of peers around you, you can always change the subject, say something random, or do something funny. You will never regret being kind.
(And being kind is more than okay.)
You will fail. The amount of brain development happening right now is immense, and the area of your brain responsible for decision-making is still underdeveloped. It is especially compromised when in the company of your peers. So it is inevitable that you will get pulled into something you should not do or you will say something you wish you hadn’t. You will be less than fully prepared sometimes, and sometimes you will forget to do something.
There are infinite ways to “fail” as you transition to middle school. When failure arises, sit with it. Some of your biggest growth can come from sitting with it, owning it, and understanding the value of the experience.
One day, when I was in middle school, I accidentally grabbed the wrong notebook, and I was horrified when my teacher came around to check that we’d done our homework. She simply said, “Today or tomorrow?”—meaning which day would I choose to stay after for detention. I recall feeling all sorts of unpleasant feelings.
But ultimately, that failure shaped me. I became a bit more organized after that and I realized that having a detention wasn’t the worst thing in the world either. It really wasn’t. And this helped me release a lot of judgment about myself and others. Failure can be one of your best teachers in middle school.
(As long as you listen to the lessons it offers, failure will be okay.)
Yield means to give way, allow, surrender. It’s okay to yield and give way to your feelings. Middle school is a time of change. It means that you should expect to have mood swings and big challenging feelings. You will want more independence while still wanting and needing boundaries to help you feel safe.
You may feel good about yourself one day, and the next feel completely confused and lost. This is a time where things are supposed to feel messy. But yielding and giving way to your unique inner voice at this time is extremely important. We all have one, and if you listen closely, you will hear yours.
Growth happens when you simply allow yourself the chance to feel what you feel, name it, and then search for your own inner truth and wisdom. If you don’t want to go to that party, don’t go! If you want to try out for the play even though your friends made fun of it, try out! Raise your hand if you have something to say. If you feel embarrassed at some point, remind yourself that everyone feels this way sometimes.
(And if things get really hard, find that voice inside and invite it to remind you: This is going to be okay.)
It can be helpful to remember this old saying: “Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind don’t matter, and those who matter don’t mind.”
You’ve got this. You’re almost there. And I promise, it’s going to be okay.
Amanda Symmes, LICSW, is a social worker and mental health provider who also serves as a school adjustment counselor at an elementary school in Salem, Massachusetts. Amanda loves working with young people of all ages and enjoys meeting kids “where they’re at” and helping them unpack the things that weigh them down. She utilizes mindfulness and meditation as much as possible to stay balanced. She lives in Massachusetts with her husband and three children (ages 18, 16, and 8) and enjoys walking, listening to music, journaling, and knitting. More of her writing can be found on www.amandasymmes.com.
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