How Parents Can Help Kids Make Healthy Choices in Middle School

 

Recently, 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, rather than reactionary approach. Our health program has always followed that model, but that’s for the students. The 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 taught by myself and the counselor on making healthy choices. Since I teach students in grades 6-8, I enlisted the help of my 8th graders- seasoned middle school vets that they are- and asked what they wish they would have known when starting 6th grade, and how their parents could have given them extra support.

 

The struggles and concerns they wrote about fell roughly into four categories, and their thoughtful responses can offer some insight into parents who might need some tips.

 

Issue #1: Sleep and time-management

 

What the kids had to say:

“Technology was the area that I struggled most with. When I was a 6th grader, I would sleep really late thinking I was cool because I was staying up late gaming or texting all night. 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
  • Charge the devices outside of the room at night
  • Allow 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 for what they want to do.

 

Issue #2: Friend drama and social changes

 

What the kids had to say:

“Friend drama and social changes were probably the hardest thing. When entering middle school you get a new look at everyone again, 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, other times your peers get mad/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 even to go through some challenges. This is normal, natural and necessary.
  • When issues arise, listen, stay calm, help your teen process the situation and help them 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 the way people grow during puberty isn’t always even (and it’s definitely not the same!)
  • Make healthy choices at home- and send healthy snacks to school.
  • Encourage play and give teens time for physical activity!
  • Model positive body image and a healthy relationship with food

 

 

Issue 4: Stress and over-scheduling

What the kids say:

I struggled with stress and over-scheduling the most as a 6th 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 my homework and all the 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.
  • Help them make choices that include their passions and give them opportunities to grow and explore.
  • Respect their needs and differences and check in regularly to adjust their schedules as needed

Making the shift from elementary to middle school can be exciting and scary all 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 that doesn’t mean they don’t need the support of their parents along the way.

 

Looking for more advice on how to support your growing teen? Check out the tips and links on Puberty Resources & Advice for Parents of Preteens.

 

Amy Lauren Smith teaches Middle School Health at the Shanghai American School and has a passion for curriculum that is current, relevant, adaptable, and shared. This post originally appeared on Choices.scholastic.com.  

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