A Stab to the Heart: Mothering Middle Schoolers
Research helps us understand why parenting middle schoolers can be so painful.
Posted Jun 19, 2019
When my first child was an infant, I had a conversation with a group of well-intentioned, seasoned mothers who gave me some parenting advice I will never forget: “Enjoy your child now because by the time he is a teen you will feel like he has stabbed you in the heart—and if you don’t feel that way, then you’ve done something wrong!” After recovering from the hurt I experienced as my new-mother bliss-bubble was punctured, I thought to myself, “They are wrong. That will never happen to me.” Despite my years of training as a licensed therapist, I truly believed I was unique and that my children could not ever possibly grow up and reject me.
Fast-forward 13 years. My son is now 15 and my daughter is 13. As I’m sure you have guessed, those seasoned moms could not have been more correct! The silent treatment and eye rolling. The total irritation with everything my husband and I do. Total embarrassment at our every word. Wanting to be left alone and communicate only in one-word answers (e.g., My conversation starter: “What happened at school today?” Their answer: “Nothing.”) In what seems like an instant, they have gone from running to greet me at the door with an exuberant “MOMMY’S HOME!!!” to barely acknowledging my presence (except for the finding out when the next meal will be). Where have my adoring children gone?
If you parent middle-schoolers, this might sound all too familiar. It’s jarring, painful, humbling … yet completely predictable and normative. What I am experiencing is typical among American mothers, according to a study by Luthar and her colleagues[i]. She examined parental satisfaction and other measures of well-being in mothers across the parenting lifespan. Their team found that compared to mothers of children of other ages, mothers of middle-schoolers have the lowest parental satisfaction, parental well-being, and poorest mental health levels. Mothers of middle schoolers struggled more than even parents of newborns.
In my book, Swimming Upstream: Parenting Girls for Resilience in a Toxic Culture[ii], I wrote about some of the reasons why this might be the case:
Developmental Pull for Independence. In adolescence, kids are driven toward separation and independence, with the goal of one day becoming adults who are capable of surviving on their own in a few short years. So when a young teen pushes us away, we need to remember that this is normal and to be expected. At this age, children are struggling to prove they are not just miniature versions of us, so they may sometimes insult us or try to humiliate us in order to create this separateness. Of course, they are using the wrong tactics to achieve their goal, but the goal itself is understandable–to become independent. Their brains are wired to develop an identity, to test limits, and to pull back from parents, all in an effort to learn how to become a competent adult[iii].
Emotional intensification. Your child’s limbic system (the emotional center of the brain) is developing rapidly and is highly activated during adolescence. Research shows that teens experience their emotions more intensely than do adults or children, are more easily excited, and are more responsive to stress and anger cues. Their brains are being pruned and rewired, their bodies are changing rapidly, and they truly don’t understand what is happening to them. They feel bewildered and out of control much of the time, all while having to manage the social stressors of middle school. So when our kids are at home, they often take their relationship with us for granted for a time, because they have so many other stressors they are facing[iv].
Taken from this perspective, that’s quite a handful for adolescents and their parents to grasp and to manage. But what makes this period even harder is that this time in our kids’ lives happens to coincide with difficult developmental shifts occurring in mothers’ lives as well. Biologically, moms might be experiencing the onset of perimenopause, with common symptoms of fatigue and increased irritability. Culturally, many moms are exhausted from “intensive parenting”–in other words, parenting has become “all joy and no fun” (as written by Jennifer Senior in her book of the same title[v]). In middle school, moms are still engaged in all of the activity planning and driving around town that occurs during the elementary years, but it is increasingly becoming more of a tiring and thankless job. Mothers start to become weary of the frenetic pace of their lives. As our children are staring into their phones and responding to us with grunts instead of conversations, there is less of a sense of warmth and connection.
So our kids’ development and our own needs collide in a perfect storm of rejection and conflict during the middle school years. I’d like to share some specific recommendations that can help us cope:
1. Understand. For middle-schoolers to separate from parents and to grow up to become independent adults in just a few short years, they have to figure out their unique identities, apart from their parents. As our kids push us away or take on a new opinion, they are learning, “This is who I am, this is what I believe… or this is not me, this is what my mom or dad values." We have to learn to respect this process–and they have to learn to practice these new skills in a way that is respectful in return. They can disagree, but they need to be polite[vi]. Just knowing what is–that it is normative and eventually leads to positive outcomes—is empowering and helps us respond better during this tumultuous time.
2. Defuse. We benefit when we develop a thicker skin. We have to stay mindful and not to take our kids’ actions and words so personally. If we get upset and react, we are just contributing to the conflict and confusion, and we are behaving no better than they are. They need us to be the adult who sets the rules, boundaries, expectations, and who keeps words of wisdom short and to the point. We are still involved, we are still around when they want to talk, but we can learn not to expect any beaming gratitude or any insights such as, “You’re right, mom! I never thought about it that way before."
3. Recalibrate. As we are immersed in an “intensive parenting” culture, many of us have been encouraged to define our identities based on our children’s structured activities and performance. We can inadvertently become overly invested in their lives to the neglect of our own. This is why the middle school years are so difficult as our kids pull away. We start to become aware of obvious gaps in our lives that have been filled with our children’s needs and wants. So this is the time to recalibrate and to find ourselves again, apart from our children, who no longer need (or want) us to define ourselves through their successes. We can start pouring time and energy towards creating a fulfilling life that isn’t dependent on our child’s moods or performance on any given day. We are now freed up to have interests of our own that we can enjoy. We can take the time to reconnect with friends or our significant other and to rediscover hobbies that we might have neglected along the way. We can define a sense of self that is connected to but yet independent from our children’s identities.
I try to remind myself daily that these early teen years represent only a brief chapter in the book that comprises my life. Perhaps it is not the loveliest chapter, but it is an essential one. Middle-school children have a lot of developmental tasks to accomplish. So we must all remember the bigger picture—and slowly the wounds will heal.
[i] Luthar, S.S., & Ciciolla, L. (2016). What it feels like to be a mother: Variations by children’s developmental stages. Developmental Psychology, 52, 143-154.
[ii] Choate, L. H. (2015). Swimming Upstream: Parenting girls for resilience in a toxic culture. New York: Oxford University Press.
[iii] (Steinberg, L. 2014). Age of opportunity: lessons from the new science of adolescence. New York; Eamon Dolan/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
[iv] Ginsberg, K. (2011). Building resilience in children and teens: Giving kids roots and wings. Elk Grove, IL: American Academy of Pediatrics.
[v] Senior, J. (2014). All joy and no fun: the paradox of modern parenthood. New York: Harper Collins. (Levine, M. 2012). Teach your children well. New York: Harper Collins.
[vi] D’Amour, L. (2017). Untangled: Guiding teenage girls through the seven transitions into adulthood. New York: Ballentine Books.