Q: Guess what the best thing about 7th graders is?
A: They turn into 8th graders.
Hah! It's a joke to lighten things up. And chances are, if you have a 7th grader, you will need some lightening up. Remember, this will pass and things will be normal and happy again.
7th grade is a rough time. In my opinion, it is the most difficult age to live through on your own, and also as a parent. Yes, there are exceptions, but in my experience, the vast majority of kids really struggle with this year. Let me offer some generalizations, based on my observations, about the problems and then some possible strategies.
The reason it's so difficult, I think, comes down to one word: change.
First of all, their bodies are changing in ways that may be frightening, confusing, and exciting--all at the same time.
Consider the cliche, "I know something/someone like the back of my hand." We say that to make the point that we know something or someone deeply, thoroughly, completely. The saying draws it's power from the commonly accepted idea that our bodies are fixed points of reference, things we know perfectly and understand.
So, imagine how you feel when that point of reference is changing. The way you look, the way you sound. One day your voice squeaks or you trip over feet that are larger than they were. Your face begins to break out. You are taller than everyone else. Or shorter than everyone else. You have hair on your legs and don't want it. Or, you have don't have hair on your legs and do want it. You start to smell funny and feel different. Changes come in areas and systems that have traditionally been incredibly personal as well.
Not only is your body changing, but worse, everyone can tell it is! So you go through these uncomfortable changes in full view of your parents, teachers, and worst of all, your peers. It is a humiliating thing. And, not having the confidence or balanced view that comes with a few more years of experience, you assume that everyone notices far, far more than they actually do.
Being a 7th grader is, I think, to feel always on the outside looking in. It is to live each day with self-doubt and a feeling of awkwardness and discomfort. This feeling keeps you always feeling like you are the outlier, the strange one, and so on. You feel insecure and this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you see two friends talking, you assume they are excluding you. And, without maturity and lived experience, you probably act accordingly--snubbing them in return, or at least being deeply hurt.
And this leads to a second major change. Not only is the body changing, but social groups are, too. 7th grade is a social Rubix Cube that is suddenly twisted and turned all over. Friendships that existed since Kindergarten are suddenly over. Your best friend now wants to hang out with a different group. You have different interests. If you mature more quickly, you find the former activities lame and childish. If you mature a little less quickly, you're not sure why your friend suddenly cares about teenage things like boys/girls, etc. You still want to play with Barbies (secretly) or legos--and your friend suddenly has a Facebook account and is "going out" with or "dating" someone you both thought was gross a few months earlier.
And that leads to the third change. Many, not all, and maybe not even most, but many, adolescents will start having romantic interests at this point in life. They aren't totally sure what it's all about but they may become infatuated with a boy or girl. Their friendships with members of the opposite sex may change completely and become more flirtatious, or more awkward. Most of them experience romantic relationships in extremes--the very awkward and the very obsessed. There tends not to be a great deal of middle ground, although sometimes they are savvy enough to pretend that their is and they put on a show. Inside, their emotions are not very stable.
All of this is going on because of the hormones that are flooding through them. These hormones make them unusually emotional. They might be weepy, depressed, angry, and ecstatic within short periods of time. Their behavior will change, often, based on where they are and who they are with. For peers, they will put on a happy face in spite of nearly anything. For parents, it can be the opposite.
On that note, the influence of their peers and a desire for peer approval can become a paramount consideration at this time. You may see your own relationship change as they pull away and assert some independence.
They see things in heightened emotional terms and there may be a lot of drama. If it's not outward, then it's probably still there, roiling below the surface and you wonder what's going on.
Their judgment is impaired and they will make bad decisions. Repeatedly. Simple things you took for granted, like doing their homework or cleaning their room, may become epic battles now.
We had a speaker at school a few years ago who told us something I have found invaluable. He was neuroscientist, and said that with the onset of puberty, the brain ceases the production of serotonin, which mediates decision-making. It just stops. Completely. This, he said, leaves a teen with the functional decision-making skills of an adult drunk driver.
So, a 7th grader might be forgiven for having a rough year. In fairness, there is a whole lot going on that they have to deal with.
So, what do you do?
To be honest, it's not easy. Every year I probably am frustrated more by my 7th grade students than any other group. At the same time, I get a lot of genuine satisfaction and happy surprises from them as well. They can be surprisingly sweet still, and they can do very good work when properly motivated and structured. While not adults yet, they will have glimmers of moments when they can show a lot of maturity.
The biggest thing that helps me is to manage expectations, to remember who I am dealing with. I have to constantly remind myself that they look like adults--but they are far, far from it. I need to manage my expectations accordingly. I have to remember how much they are dealing with. To them, most of their daily energy is consumed on surviving and not becoming a social outcast. They spend inordinate amounts of time worrying about this.
I've found it helpful to think of them in these terms. I'm simplifying, this is not supposed to be medically valid. They basically have the bodies and hormones now of adults, with none of the life experience, practice, or self-discipline that adults have developed.
Their job now is to learn how to be an adult, just as a toddler's job is to learn to walk. And the only way a toddler can do that is by trying and falling. Many, many times.
Your 7th grader is going to try to be an adult and they will be about as good as it as a toddler is at running marathons. It will take practice and time and patience.
You can help them, I think, by doing a few things.
1. Consistent limits. As the world goes crazy, they will value (although they won't tell you until years later) a firm, consistent grown-up in their life. They need stability, structure, consistency, and order more than ever before. Set limits, say "NO." They will rage and fume, but will appreciate it deep down. They are like engines with no brakes and no steering. Your job is to be the steering wheel and brakes. You might also think of them as little saplings. The winds are fierce and you don't want them bent. So, you get some rope and a peg and provide stability to keep the tree straight. Once it's a little stronger, it can stand on it's own.
2. Pick your battles. Within the limits you set, preserve the relationship. The ups and downs will end, the tempest will cease eventually. But your relationship, and the quality thereof will still be there. Sometimes you have to beat a strategic retreat in order to save the relationship rather than winning a battle and losing the war. This might come with expectations about homework, about cleaning a room, whatever. Save your ammo for the things that are really important. Let the rest go. Pick a few priorities, hold to them with adamantine firmness, and then let the rest go.
3. Allow them to experience the consequences of their actions. Babies don't learn to walk without falling. You wouldn't catch your toddler every time they fall. Let your teen fail. Let them flounder. This is how they learn to be an adult. If you intercede for them, you rob them of growth and you weaken them later in life.
4. Don't let them waste their childhood by growing up too fast. They are not adults yet. They don't have maturity or judgment. They have very little perspective or emotional resilience. Our culture is pushing kids to do things that used to be adult behaviors earlier and earlier. At a minimum, this spoils the fun later. I think it also damages kids, robbing them of critical time to grow and learn about themselves, and bringing them into situations they are not yet prepared to deal with in healthy ways. Protect your child's childhood. I know of no adults who wish they would have grown up sooner. I know quite a few who wish they could go back to those innocent, carefree years. They will have plenty of time to act, dress, talk, dance, and have relationships like an adult. Their days of being able to do those things as a child are fast leaving.
5. Be the adult. Know where they go and who they go with. Tell them when they will be back. Don't descend to their level. Don't try to be cool. Cool parents are fun for a little while, but at some point, your child will need an adult to guide, comfort, or help. Insist that they treat you with respect, not matter how upset. Their professors, coaches, and bosses will not be tolerant with rudeness and they need to learn that now. Or they will later.
6. Don't be bullied. They will try to coerce you into letting them do what they want. They will say, "Everyone else's parents let them..." or "I'm the only one who doesn't get to...." Ignore it. There are an astonishing number of bad parenting choices in our world today. It is almost breathtaking how misguided some people are. The fact that they have made bad choices is no reason for you to do the same. It's easier to give in. Don't. Your kids will thank you for it later. If you want them to resist peer pressure (and you do) then you have to model it.
7. Laugh and have fun. Laugh with them when they do laugh, and when you are frustrated, laugh at them behind closed doors. Gallows humor can go a long way for your sanity during this time. Try to have fun with them. This might be hard because they might not want much to do with you. Or, their idea of fun might not be yours. Pizza and snacks will go a very long way, especially late at night.
8. Reward them when they do something good. If your'e a good parent, you will have to be on their case a lot during this time (unless you have a perfect child). So, reward them with as much gusto as you discipline and correct them.
9. Love them. Look for those glimmers of maturity. Hold on. Don't confuse their behavior for who they are. They need to know you are on their team. Don't allow yourself to say things like, "Don't be a brat" or "Stop acting like a baby." You will be amazed at how deeply those things can cut, even when they don't admit or show it.
And, above all, remember: it will end and they will become 8th graders. More on that next week.
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