I am a teacher-librarian at the same middle school my daughter attends, and yes, that is as much fun as it sounds. We actually do pretty well together, though. I try to give her enough space to have her own middle school experience, and in turn, she completely ignores me. Most days I don’t see her until I pick her up from a practice or a rehearsal at 5pm.
Sometimes, though, I will catch a glimpse of her in the cafeteria, in a classroom, or on the way to an activity, and I am struck by how easy it is for me to forget how demanding a middle school day can be for kids– both academically and emotionally.
As a teacher, I know that on any given day, kids are expected to be subject experts in topics as varied as algebraic word problems, igneous rocks, French verb conjugations, Shakespeare plots, and the Supreme court. At lunch time, they walk into a crowded cafeteria that is fraught with the shifting sands of adolescent friendships, potential eating disorders, and romantic crushes. Then, at the end of their academic day, they head to sports fields, or rehearsals while also finding time to post pictures of a thriving social life.
Finally, at the end of all that, they come home, eat dinner, and do several hours of homework before collapsing into bed and doing it all again the next day.
It’s a demanding routine, and some days can just get the better of them. Sometimes the social drama becomes too much, or that equation, or test is just too hard, and they come home emotionally spent and physically exhausted.
What can we do when our kids come home defeated and weary?
When I was in sales, I learned that the most important thing to do with an unhappy customer is to let them talk. Let them tell you why they are unhappy. Many times an angry customer would talk themselves into being calmer and more rational. Just the act of being heard was enough to get them to relax.
The same is true when we have kids who have had a bad day – just listen to what they have to say. Don’t argue with them, interrupt them, or minimize their feelings about why everything is awful. Go ahead and acknowledge that school can be unpleasant – because it can be.
School might be hard because they have an undiagnosed learning issue. Sometimes we need to meet with our kid’s teachers or a school counselor to get another perspective. As kids get older and the school work becomes more demanding, it isn’t uncommon for learning issues to emerge that weren’t evident in the elementary years. Plenty of smart kids have learning issues, so don’t automatically rule it out.
If it’s a social issue, we should acknowledge that the pain is real, and we will have to help them work through their feelings. It’s hard to watch a former best friend or a former first boy/girlfriend with someone else. Sometimes the emotional turmoil is enough to make a kid hate school. That seems reasonable to me, and we should acknowledge that pain as legitimate.
My favorite book for attempting to not screw-up my teenager is Untangled: Guiding Teenage Girls Through The Seven Transitions Into Adulthood by Lisa Damour, PhD. (amazon affiliate link). I was lucky enough to hear her speak to both adult and teen audiences, and I can tell you that she is the real deal. She gets teens, and they love her, plus, she knows how to talk to parents. Her book is the best in the parenting genre in my opinion.
When kids have had a bad day, the situation can feel hopeless to them. In their minds, misery looms ahead forever, but we can remind them that nothing is forever.
With luck, maybe we can help them work through what specifically is bothering them, but we can’t make everything all better for our kids. We can’t make life easier, and according to the experts we shouldn’t.
Hopefully, though, our kids will feel better just knowing that we’re on their side and that we understand.
Even for adults, everything seems worse when we’re tired, hungry, and burdened with a long to-do list. Sometimes a good dinner, a good nights’ sleep, and a plan is all our kids need to recover from a bad day. It amazes me how often the old platitude – everything will look at a lot better in the morning is true.
Sometimes, I’ll get a fleeting glimpse of my daughter when she is laughing or chatting with friends. Those are the best of all. They remind me that no day is all bad – not even for middle school girls!
Maureen Paschal is a freelance writer, a teacher-librarian, and a mom of four almost grown kids. She blogs at Raising The Capable Student where her goal is helping parents to keep family life a priority and school success in perspective. Her work has been featured in On Parenting from the Washington Post, Grown and Flown, Perfection Pending, and Today Parents.
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