Surviving Middle School When it Sucks

Let’s face it. Middle school sucks. There is this food chain in middle school, and everyone is in survival mode trying to stay off the bottom of the food chain at any cost. Kids do things in middle school that they wouldn’t do at any other age. They are all pretty terrified of social rejection, and regardless of their popularity status, they all feel rejected at times.
I spent my 7th and 8th grade years in a Russian middle school. I spent the first 13 years of my life in Mexico, so to say it was a shocking change was an understatement. I went from the top of the food chain to the bottom so quickly that I had no idea what had happened or why I was there. I had never been at the bottom of the food chain before. It was a lonely place, and “no one” wanted to be seen with me there. I mean there were a few kids that would cast compassionate looks my way, but they were only a few notches up from me and didn’t dare to stick up for me.
Nothing about me fit in. I had this green Land’s End jacket, while all the other girls had wool jackets with fur-trimmed collars. I had gore-tex hiking boots, while the other girls had sleek, tall leather boots that they changed out of as they arrived at school into high heels. I never owned a pair of high heels until I was in my late teens. They wore short skirts, makeup, and looked like college girls going to a frat party. I looked like a cross between a pioneer and a mountaineer. One thing I do credit my middle school years with is learning Russian pretty well. I learned quickly that Americanka suka means American bitch. I have always had a knack for languages like that.
Just a few months into a truly nightmarish school experience, I decided I was going to start escaping. There was an area where everyone hung their jackets and changed out of their boots that looked like a clothing area from a department store. All 300 kids that attended the school had layers of winter gear that they peeled off at the beginning of the day. There was a custodian who had kind eyes and looked older than Methuselah whose sole job it was to lock the coatroom and mop up the entrance from the constant snow that got trekked in. The entry way was right in front of the cafeteria where my lunch was stolen daily. She was a witness to it all. I asked her to let me hide in the locked coatroom area. She opened it for me every day, any time I needed her to. She was always at the front entrance, right next to the coatroom with the keys hanging around her neck. I ran to the back of the area where no one would see me and waited until the coast was clear. I would hear the keys jingle and the coatroom unlocked, and she would tell me I could leave. I would run. Every day, I would stay at school as long as I could endure, and then I would hide in the coatroom. Some days I never even made it to school because it just felt too unbearable to go. I always left our apartment at the same hour though, so my dad wouldn’t suspect anything. My dad thought I could handle anything which in some areas made me feel undefeatable. He didn’t understand that no child can handle that type of bullying well.
Here is the thing. I was not a kid who avoided school. I loved school, and I loved people, but middle school showed me what children will do when they are at the bottom of the food chain. They will do just about anything to escape. For some kids, that looks very different than what I did. Some kids escape by checking out, some by acting out, and others by pushing every boundary possible. I was fortunate to have a mom who was happy to see me no matter what time I got home and never uttered a whisper of my prison break escapades to my dad. She never lectured me on how I would never make it into a good college if I kept skipping out on school. She knew that I loved school. She saw past my behavior, understood that I was doing what I needed to do, and didn’t give up on my future because of it.
Be patient with your middle schoolers. This is such a hard stage in life. Protect your middle schoolers. If that means taking their phones away, then do it. Imagine a child who is at the bottom of the food chain and who never gets a break from the harassment because he/she has constant access to a phone. I believe this is why the suicide rate for young teens has increased. Pull them out of school if you need to. The damage done can be so much worse than a few years of being inconvenienced by homeschool or trying to figure out how to pay for another school. Individualized Education Plans will not protect your child from other children.

Here are a few rules of thumb I tell parents to consider:

When you notice your child’s behavior changing, do not ignore it.

If your child is withdrawing more, or ending up in trouble all the time, don’t wait to address it. If your child is sulking off to his/her room more, avoiding social activities, or zoning into electronics without moderation, address it. You still have so much control at this age. I have parents say things like, “I really regret giving her a phone in the fourth grade. Now she is on it all the time, and any limits I set lead to huge meltdowns and attitude.” The assumed powerlessness in this statement is very telling. You still have so much control at this age. They aren’t paying their own phone bills or driving themselves around town. Add the structure or nurture that they need, and middle schoolers need lots of each.

Don’t always believe what the school administrators or teachers say. Listen to your child’s behavior and your intuition.

I don’t know if teachers have a training class on what they should all say when a child is failing socially, but since I attend many school meetings for clients, I can say that one thing I hear often is – “This is such a kind class. We haven’t had such a kind class in a while. This child has plenty of friends. We see them having a great time with other kids.” Kids who grow up to be very kind adults can still be exceedingly cruel in middle school. Believe your child. Once I was visiting a classroom where two girls were constantly and cruelly picking on this child I was working with. I was talking to the teacher about it as she assured me how kind these two girls were. Then right in front of us as the child I was working with entered the classroom, these two girls made a beeline for her and said, “You stink today.” The teacher’s jaw dropped. I don’t believe she was lying. She just wasn’t paying attention.

Supervise their electronics appropriately.

Yes, your child might be receiving 100 texts a day, but if you don’t have time to make sure these texts are safe and free of harassment, then your child should not have an iPhone. There are ways to only allow certain numbers to text your child or call your child, and I recommend using these safeguards. I have seen texts that are sexually harassing starting as early as 5th grade. I have seen group texts telling a middle schooler he/she should just kill him/herself already. No child can handle this.

Believe in your child.

Look past middle school and the craziness of puberty, and have hope. They will settle down. They will stop seeing rejection around every corner. Can you remember doing things in middle school that shock you a bit today? You probably can. Have patience. This is such a hard age. They will find themselves.