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A Nervous Parent's Guide To Surviving Junior High (Again)

My strongest memories of seventh grade are isolation, shame, anxiety, and a boy named Chad teasing me about my flat chest.

by Edan Lepucki
Originally Published: 
Ready Or Not! It's Back To School Season

The day before my eldest child’s sixth grade culmination, I passed a group of new mothers out for coffee with their babies. These women appeared deeply engaged in conversation with one another, swapping advice, solace, and humor as they held or nursed their infants. Oh those infants! So tiny and beautiful — and so safe in their mothers’ arms.

Of course I burst into tears.

My son, whom we call Bean at home, just turned 12. It seems like only minutes ago I was palpating his fontanelle and stressing about day care, and now, suddenly, I’m preparing for that most dreaded of transitions: junior high. Most elementary schools end at fifth grade, but his went to sixth. The extra year was like a stay of execution, offering him (and me) a longer childhood. But now that’s over. Into the maw of seventh grade he goes.

Bean isn’t neurotypical, and he struggles with attention and sensory issues. He hasn’t exactly sailed through the public education system, though in elementary school, with the dedication of his teachers (and daily parental involvement), he ultimately thrived. At 12, he’s the Simpsons-quoting, D&D-playing, paper-eating type; sometimes he wears a vintage leather fringed jacket I scored in college. He’s got a knee condition that affects his gait, and even in elementary school, a few peers made fun of his walk.

Don’t get me wrong, I think my kid is cool as hell, but I don’t think he’s junior high-cool, which, historically at least, places an emphasis on sameness and blending in. I can’t help but imagine him at his new school, lost on his way to one class or another, or failing a course because he can’t keep the work straight, all the while fielding the cruelty of his fellow students and grappling with a new pressure to fit in. Combine that with the vicious cocktail of puberty and contemporary horrors like mass shootings, Fentanyl overdoses, and the thorny forests of social media, and, well, I can’t fall asleep at night.

For a long time, Bean was as afraid of junior high as I was. Everything he consumed about the topic, from books to television, portrayed it the same way: copious bullying and endless body horror, maybe a gruff idiot for a PE teacher. And who’s to say those representations aren’t accurate? My strongest memories of seventh grade are of isolation, shame, and anxiety — and a boy named Chad relentlessly teasing me about my flat chest. My friend Kristen, whose daughter is just weeks older than my son, remembers worrying about her skin and her reading (her dyslexia went undiagnosed for years). Jenn, whose son is close with my own, told me, “Junior high was the most brutal time of my life, socially.” She still vividly recalls “all the nineties bullying and casual racism.” She hopes that things have changed. But what if they haven’t?

On a picnic bench at the sixth grade potluck, another friend, Kim, succinctly summed up her anxieties about her daughter’s junior high future like this: “Vaping and shoplifting.” Her child will be fine academically, I'm sure of it, but that doesn’t mean seventh grade won’t be challenging for her too.

Kim, who’s in her mid-40s, told me a harrowing story of slut shaming from her own junior high experience that was at once spine-chilling and enraging. The specifics aren’t really important since everyone has — or has heard — a tale like it. It made me think of something Jenn said: “I’m afraid of the internet and social media use, and of everything else I don’t understand. And I’m also afraid of the heartbreak I do understand: friend drama, break ups, cliques.”

“It’s the time you most want to feel wanted and connected with people, and also the time when you're the most awkward,” says psychologist Nathan Greene.

Junior high is the devil we know — and the one we don’t.

“It’s the time you most want to feel wanted and connected with people, and also the time when you're the most awkward,” says Dr. Nathan Greene, a psychologist in Oakland, California who leads a therapeutic surfing program for adolescent boys.

Despite this tension, Greene assured me it can also be a beautiful time, precisely because kids are wrestling with big, important questions like, “Who am I? What matters to me? Where do I belong? What are my gifts? How do I stay safe? How do I connect with others and how do I manage this environment?”

We, as parents, get to be present for that becoming.

Dr. Greene divided his guidance into two categories, the academic and the socio-emotional. The former seemed more straightforward. For the academic piece, he suggests going into the school year with a game plan, and reminded me that, especially for neurodivergent kids, parents must essentially function as the child’s “external frontal lobe.” I laughed; I’ve gotten quite good at being a lobe these last twelve years.

If your child has an Individualized Education Plan (IEP), Greene recommends meeting with the school’s resource specialist ahead of time to open that line of communication. For all parents, it might be a good idea to sit down with your kid before school begins to discuss how they’re going to stay organized with so many classes and a larger workload. Share what strategies have helped you.

My friend Lexie, who teaches seventh grade English (and has a toddler, lord help her), advised me and my friends to stay engaged in our kids’ learning. She said many parents become overwhelmed with the number of classes, and the complexity of the material (hello, math), and just check out. She urged parents to prioritize stuff like back-to-school nights, parent-teacher conferences, and school events. “If your child has an advisory or homeroom teacher,” she said, “make that person your primary point of contact.”

Greene urges us to not gloss over the challenges when we’re talking to our kids. “Name how hard it is,” he told me.

For further wisdom, I also turned to my mom friends with older children. Kate, whose kids are in their early twenties, was once a junior high school teacher herself. She agrees that seventh grade is the worst. She and her teaching colleagues used to call it “the lost year” because the students are changing so much, and so fast, that they lose their minds a bit, and some basic skills too. “They become Yetis,” she said. This experience kept her from having unrealistic expectations of her own children’s academic performance. “The kids staying afloat was my biggest goal,” she says, adding that how your child performs academically in middle school isn’t an indicator of the scholar they may become. Kate’s seventh grade son might’ve forgotten to do an entire class project; that same son recently graduated from college.

In short: don’t spiral about the report cards, if you can manage it.

I also took comfort in hearing about the experiences of my friend Marina, whose three boys are in their teens; the oldest recently graduated from high school. Because parents can’t volunteer or be on campus like they can in elementary school, Marina had to learn to let go — while, at the same time, helping her kids “realize their own agency.” It took trust and communication. Marina didn’t always get it right, but she learned to develop these skills. The process sounded familiar: the on-the-job training that is parenthood.

Dr. Greene agrees that trust and communication are the key to weathering this era. Greene urges us to not gloss over the challenges when we’re talking to our kids. “Name how hard it is,” he told me.

“Just don’t do what my mom did,” Kate said, laughing. “Don’t say Life’s going to suck until you turn 15.” It might be true, but it’s demoralizing. Kate was transparent with her children about her own struggles in junior high, but she didn’t make it sound too grim. Dr. Greene says this helps kids feel less alone. With her son, Kate also discussed schoolyard dynamics from a sociological perspective, which put his struggles in a wider context. With her daughter, Kate was simply present, and let her talk, trying to help manage her emotions when she could.

“Middle schoolers derive a certain amount of power and control by refusing to answer their parents' questions about school, but if their parents don’t ask, they can feel rejected,” says middle school teacher Lexie.

Dr. Greene calls this “opening the door” for our kids — even when they continually slam it shut. He recommends “playing the fool” in conversations, letting kids tell us how it is. “Anytime that we can take ourselves out of the position of expert and put them in the expert position, it opens that door a little bit more,” he said. The stance should be one of genuine curiosity, he said. Ask about what you don’t understand: Are kids in your class dating? What apps are they into?

Lexie, my teacher friend, echoed this sentiment. “Keep checking in with your kid, even if they don't answer your questions,” she told me. “Middle schoolers derive a certain amount of power and control by refusing to answer their parents' questions about school, but if their parents don’t ask, they can feel rejected or like their parents don't care.”

Dr. Greene used the word “boundaries” a lot in our conversation, and he reminded me that kids are pushing them at this age because they want them. “They feel super uncontained in their bodies,” he said. “They feel super uncontained in their relationships with peers.” Parents, he said, should be the consistent aspect of their life, to help them feel safe.

In my notes, I scribbled, BE THE CONTAINER! I’m thinking of making a plaque for myself, or perhaps something wearable, sort of like a medical bracelet.

The task of parenting tweens and adolescents is “to survive being destroyed over and over again.” We just have to withstand the firestorm.

Lexie sees a lot of similarities between her students and her son, who is a little over 2.5: “Both toddlers and middle schoolers crave boundaries as well as space to push back against said boundaries,” she said. As hard as it can be to personally access these intensely emotional phases of life, she said, “I never regret extending understanding and emotion.” I know the feeling: those times I’ve truly allowed my children to express their feelings, without judgment, when I’ve worked to listen to their needs and fears, I feel closer to them, and stronger as a mother.

Dr. Greene’s mentor told him that the task of parenting tweens and adolescents is “to survive being destroyed over and over again.” We just have to withstand the firestorm. And we will.

He encouraged parents to lean on their community, to share vulnerabilities with one another, just like those new moms with their babies were doing. Revealing our uncertainties and frustrations with fellow parents will allow us to be confident and unwavering with our kids.

After all of these conversations, I feel a little more equipped to handle the trials ahead, and I’m assured it won’t all be terrible. Marina said junior high kids might be “rowdy” but no one bullied her kids in any serious way, as she’d initially feared. She described how enjoyable it was to talk to her boys about the books they were reading in those years, and how she sensed them maturing emotionally through these conversations. Despite all the school-related stress, Kate said her kids became more and more delightful as they aged. And just a few weeks ago, my friend Alison posted online about her kid’s first successful year of middle school. She told me that her daughter, who is autistic, had “a Lifetime movie-level great teacher” who “empowered her to be independent and ambitious and unique.” Alison said, “I’m a happy mama.” I felt a flutter of hope.

And if this stage is difficult for Bean — or for me — I’ll remember Dr. Greene’s final lesson: “Sometimes it takes some experiences of pain to be able to grow.”

Thankfully, in recent months, my son has shed many of his junior high fears. Most of his friends will be there, and he’s excited about attending a bigger school.

“It’s a whole new campus to roam,” he told me, gleefully.

I thought of him more than a decade ago, roaming our apartment on all fours, a wild baby who never stopped moving. He would crawl under the rocking chair to reach a piece of lint, to grab the dog. I wanted to protect him from the world. I wanted him to explore it.

Some things never change.

Edan Lepucki is the New York Times bestselling author of the novels California and Woman No. 17, and the editor of Mother's Before: Stories and Portraits of Our Mothers as We Never Saw Them. Her new novel, Time's Mouth, will be published August 1st.

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