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Help your new middle schooler tackle challenging transition

Teenagers walking in hallway at school

In this article, you’ll find answers to questions like:

1. How to coax my child to open up?
2. How to head off trouble?
3. How to offer support?

You can expect some changes in your children’s behavior when jumping from elementary to middle school.

The promotion “has a huge impact on emotions and academics,” says Terri Mortensen, former Child and Family program manager at the Faulk Center for Counseling in Boca Raton. “It’s one of the most difficult ages. There is pressure for academics. There are cliques, friendships and social relationships.”

The key for parents is to tune into your child. “If they seem withdrawn, sad or stressed out, if they used to be in sports but don’t want to do that anymore, there may be an issue with their peers,” she says.

Your best skills? Watch your children, talk to them, act quickly when they change and support their independence. These skills, with a few adjustments for age, should serve you well until graduation, says Deborah Newell, program director of Positive Parenting Program, known as Triple P, at Community Partners of South Florida, which serves families and children.


It takes patience and persistence to pry information from a child, Mortensen says. Ask your child specific questions on the ride home or while preparing meals.

“You might ask, ‘Who did you sit with at lunch? Or, did anything funny happen today?’ ” she says. You also can ask about your child’s favorite activities, such as anime or music, rather than just academics.

Don’t give up. If a particular subject doesn’t work, try another, Mortensen says. “Just being interested in them can open them up,” she says.

It’s hard not to judge your child, so you must hear them out when they feel like talking, even if you don’t like what you hear. “They will come to you if they don’t feel they’re going to be judged or punished,” Mortensen says.

Besides the transition points in school, changes at home can stress your child, such as moving, marital or financial problems, says Dr. Sarah Siciliano-Hartt, a former child psychologist in Boca Raton. 

Another cause that can affect behavior is problems with friends, Siciliano-Hartt says.

Ask your child what’s going on but also consult the teacher, parents of your child’s friends and the friends themselves, she says.

Look at the pictures your child may be drawing, as they may offer clues. Art is another way your child expresses anger, fear or frustration, Siciliano-Hartt says. When stressed, children are more likely to act differently rather than talk about it, she says. Attentive parents will notice changes in behavior, ask questions and take action.

Take every opportunity to listen to your child. Eat together and talk during breakfast, dinner and even snacks before after-school activities. “You might not be talking directly about issues you or they are worrying about, but if something is going on, you’ll know,” Newell says.

An important talk doesn’t necessarily need a lot of time.

“If your child needs you, give them two or three minutes now,” Newell says. “If you constantly tell them, ‘Later, not right now,’ that’s when they develop patterns of interrupting, or they start acting up to get your attention. I wish I had known that when I was raising kids.”


Take every opportunity to communicate with the teacher before a problem arises. If your child uses an agenda, check it for homework assignments and notes from the teacher, she says.

 “The minute something starts going wrong, the teacher will focus on that, and it can be downhill for the child,” she says.

Don’t wait for a crisis like that. Text or email the teacher to ask what your child is doing well and build on that, Newell says.

“Parenting is 24-7. It’s exhausting,” she says. “You have to take care of yourself too. You have to build your stamina.”

Children in middle school already may be experimenting with drugs, sex and alcohol, or with self-harm, such as cutting, Mortensen says.

It’s important to know your child’s friends and ensure their activities are supervised, she says.

 “In middle school, they’re too old for some things and not old enough for other things,” Newell says. “Parents should encourage sports or clubs or whatever the child is good at. It keeps them with other peers that are involved and doing something productive.”

This isn’t the time to check out, as many parents think they can do. Quite the contrary.

“If they’re involved in a sport or club, get involved,” Newell says. “They’re starting to pull away from you, but they know they’re still loved. It’s easier to conquer something if you know somebody loves you.”

Tweens are learning how to take care of themselves. “If they know how to communicate to others, manage their feelings, to be independent and solve problems, they’re going to be more successful out in the community,” she says.


The introduction to middle school can be intimidating. “Get them as prepared as possible. Take them to see the school, get their schedule, find out where the lockers and bathrooms are, when their breaks are,” Newell says.

The positive side? Middle school stimulates your children. “They get a lot more independence, and if you’ve prepared them emotionally to problem-solve, they usually like that part, the social element with their peers,” she says.

For children who recently immigrated, going to school here is a transition itself, says Sara Selznick, former senior director of programming at the Achievement Centers for Children and Families in Delray Beach.

People who grew up in different cultures don’t always feel comfortable with seeking help from outside the family, Newell says. “It can be a stigma, so we concentrate on whatever is working,” she says. “We are geared at making very small changes that make a huge difference, like talking about the positive things the child is doing.”

Language barriers can make it hard for parents to communicate with teachers. Enith Similus, for example, took English lessons at night to monitor the work of her two daughters at Village Academy in Delray Beach.

The Palm Beach County School District offers English classes at more than 30 locations throughout the year. For registered students, there is additional help with career counseling, family literacy and students with disabilities. Call 561-649-6010.


• Sara Selznick, former senior director of programming, Achievement Centers for Children and Families
• Terri Mortensen, former Child and Family program manager, Faulk Center for Counseling
• Deborah Newell, Triple P program director, Community Partners of South Florida
• Dr. Sarah Siciliano-Hartt, former child psychologist in Boca Raton

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