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Middle School Health: How Parents Can Help Kids Make Better Choices

By
Amy Lauren Smith

Editor’s note: Choices teacher-adviser Amy Lauren Smith is a sixth to eighth grade health teacher at the Shanghai American School in Shanghai, China, and the brilliant mind behind our Teachers Guide each month.

 

Last week, my principal had a great idea. Rather than scramble to help parents deal with issues as they pop up throughout the year, he decided we should take a preventative approach. Our student health program has always followed that model, but parents are often left to navigate this new world of middle school on their own.

So we had a mandatory parent night. All of the students were required to come and bring at least one parent to rotate through three workshops—one on balanced technology use, one on managing academic pressure, and one on making healthy choices (taught by me and a counselor).

Since I teach students in grades six through eight, I enlisted the help of my eighth graders—seasoned middle school vets that they are—and asked what they wish they would have known when starting sixth grade and how their parents could have given them extra support. Their thoughtful responses can offer some insight for parents who might need some tips.

 

 Issue #1: Sleep and Time Management 

 

What the kids had to say:

“When I was a sixth grader, I would sleep really late, thinking I was cool because I was staying up late gaming or texting. I think that a strategy for parents is to take technology out of the room when it's bedtime. However, I think you should eventually give technology back as they grow older and explain to them why you shouldn't stay up all night.”

 

What parents can do to help:

  •  Set healthy boundaries. (A tech curfew can help!)
  • Have kids charge their devices outside of their room at night.
  • Give them a little free time. Try the 45/15 rule: Kids work on things from their "have to do" list for 45 minutes and then take a 15 minute break to relax and do whatever they want.

 

 Issue #2: Friend Drama and Social Changes 

 

What the kids had to say:

“When entering middle school, you get a new look at everyone. It's like you snap out of the trance and realize how 'uncool' you are. You start to do stupid stuff to try and become popular/liked but it only makes you look worse. Sometimes it gets you in trouble with the teachers, and other times your peers get mad or annoyed at you and leave. I wish my parents could've not pestered me about my social life all the time, as it made me more aware about how disappointing it was and made me feel even worse.”

 

What parents can do to help:

  • Model good friend behaviors. Avoid gossip and be inclusive!
  • Help your teen explore and develop new friendships, but don’t put too much pressure on them.
  • Expect friendships to change and to go through some challenges. This is normal, natural, and necessary.
  • When issues arise, try to listen, stay calm, help your teen process the situation, and help find solutions.

 

 Issue 3: Body Changes and Healthy Choices 

 

What the kids had to say:

“I struggled with my parents comparing me to my older siblings and my friends too much. They expect me to be as intelligent/tall/thin as them, but I wish they would have known that sometimes people have different strengths, and during middle school, we all grow at different rates. How fast I grow isn’t something I can control, so it’s always super frustrating to hear about it.”

 

What parents can do to help:

  • Understand that puberty doesn't affect everyone in the same way.
  • Make healthy choices at home and send nutritious snacks to school.
  • Encourage play and physical activity.
  • Model positive body image and a healthy relationship with food.

 

 Issue 4: Stress and Overscheduling 

 

What the kids say:

I struggled with stress and overscheduling the most as a sixth grader because of how busy I was and all the things that I had to remember to do. I was often stressing out because of homework and tutors and extra classes that I had to take. I wish I could have known to manage my time better but also have had more time to play outside.”

 

What parents can do to help:

  • Help your teen manage their time and plan a realistic week. Ask questions and work together to set goals.
  • Encourage them to make choices that include their passions and give them opportunities to grow and explore.
  • Respect their needs and differences. Check in regularly to adjust their schedules if necessary.

 

Making the shift from elementary to middle school can be exciting and scary at the same time. With increased freedom and a longing for independence, young teens are still learning how to control their impulses and make good decisions on their own—but it's still crucial that they have the support of their parents along the way!

 

 

 

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