Middle School Misery

Today’s Question My son is finishing up 7th grade and had a terrible year. He is BEGGING me to homeschool him next year. He’s always struggled with reading but got through elementary school with help and support. He’s a bright kid, knows everything about every type of animal, habitats, loves turning over rocks and finding bugs of all kinds. My joyful nature-lover has turned into a miserable, despondent lump.

We made him stick it out all year, hoping things would get better but he struggles with just about everything school has to offer: sitting in a classroom, listening, learning, doing homework. He makes friends easily but I’m worried about how homeschooling will limit his socializing and mess up his opportunities for college and future. What should I do about my miserable middle schooler?    -Lynnette

Parent Educator Answer – This “middle school misery” is more common than you might think. Kids who have undiagnosed learning disabilities can get through elementary school just fine, but middle school magnifies problem areas. The work load creates a bottleneck for kids with attention problems. Too much information comes in (that she is NOT interested in) causing attentional fatigue. This mental fatigue causes kids to zone out and miss critical instruction.

Kids who struggle to pay attention at school do not have a focusing problem when it comes to things they WANT to be doing.  Some kids have the ability to HYPERFOCUS on things that fascinate them but having too much uninteresting information at school, doesn’t leave much time left over for ones passion. When there isn’t time to learn about things that truly lights her up, you’ll end up with a grumpy, zombie child.

Kids without learning disabilities can struggle with traditional school also. Highly sensitive children can soak up the insecurities on a middle school campus so much that they feel lost and drained of their own energy.

 

With so much pressure put on kids to perform, and the fast pace of society, the mental and emotional health of students is of high concern. Any kid who has a pre-disposition toward anxiety may find their symptoms ramping up during these sensitive years. 

Our brains are not designed for the amount of input we are currently taking in. I’ve even noticed a change in my ability to focus my attention.

I used to read all the time but now my mind wanders more and struggles to keep attention on the page. I have to be really selective about what books I read because so few will grab my attention. 

Life Coaching Answer – Let’s start by accepting reality as it currently is today. You could argue that society is too fast paced. Perhaps schools should be designed to nurture the whole human being, not be so focused on college and the workforce. It would be great if our educational institution were able to meet the unique needs of all children. Could your child should learn to adapt better to the system he is in? Maybe.

For clarity and peace, let’s just accept the schools as they are, and your child’s brain and personality as it is. Your son has an easy time making friends, let’s assume that will continue wherever he goes. He has an appetite for learning subjects he is interested in which will probably rekindle once he has some free time and mental space.

We don’t know what the future will bring. If he stays in school, he may enter such a depressed state that he can’t handle high school, let alone college and beyond. Same thing if you pull him out and homeschool.

All we know is that right now, he is struggling with school and he thinks he has found a solution.

An easy way to increase happiness is to offer contrast. When you are blazing hot and you jump in a cold pool, it feels fabulously refreshing. If you are cold and jump into the same pool, it feels terrible. Trying to drink 8 servings of water a day is boring but when it’s hot and I’m thirsty, water is the best beverage on the planet!

I’m wondering if you could increase your child’s happiness by offering a contrasting experience?

I’m going to tell you a few different scenarios of other moms who were in your shoes and found homeschooling scenarios that worked for them. I can’t tell you what is right for you or your child. Only you know what’s best for you and your situation but perhaps these stories from others will help you access your own wisdom.

My son incurred a head injury when he was 11 and could no longer function at school. His hormones were completely out of whack (cortisol through the roof). He couldn’t sleep at night, couldn’t get up in the morning, and felt easily overwhelmed and overstimulated. He accrued many absences the first quarter of sixth grade and trying to keep up with assignments was stressing him out. By November, it was clear, he wasn’t getting better. We pulled him out and finally treated the concussion we should have treated back in May. He enrolled in online school, I worked from home, and he continued to play soccer. By April, he was well enough to go with his class to 6th grade science camp for a week in nature. The more down time he had, the more he could recuperate. Life at home with mom made him appreciate his classmates and the structure of school. He returned to school for 7th grade and stayed.

Sheri pulled her son out of middle school at his request. Her job allowed her to work remotely so she enrolled him in a Shakespeare theater program where he read, studied, performed, fund raised, learned set design, etc. He got to study every aspect of theater with others who shared his passion, while she worked on her laptop and phone. For the other subjects, he worked online or with a tutor at the kitchen table. It’s been a few years and he has no interest in going back.

Katherine’s daughter’s anxiety was unmanageable. She felt pressured and was missing lots of school due to headaches and other vague symptoms. Katherine found a retired teacher on Craig’s List with dyslexia training who was willing to come to her house for 3 hours a day, 5 days a week. Her daughter missed her friends and did not like this new arrangement. She still saw her friends after school and at gymnastics but she relaxed, worked hard to get caught up academically, and learned to manage her anxiety. The next year she felt stronger, more capable and ready to return to school.

Eileen’s 6th grade daughter was sinking into depression. Everything about school seemed like a chore: the work, the social dynamics, being pulled out for extra academic help. Her parent’s pulled her from school and divided up her studies between mom, dad and grandma. They increased her time at her favorite horse ranch to 12 hours a week and watched the light come back in her eyes. They don’t know what they will do next year but they will let their daughter’s happiness and mental health guide their decisions.

I hope these examples of other moms give you support and guidance as you make a difficult decision.

Supermom Kryptonite – information overload 

Information overload occurs when the amount of input to a system exceeds its processing capacity. Too much information causes a bottleneck in the brain, increasing feelings of stress, overwhelm and reducing the quality of our decisions.

The amount of information that we take into our brains continues to skyrocket.

If you think of a typical newspaper being about 85 pages, in 1986 we received about 40 newspapers full of information every day. In 2007, this rocketed to 174 newspapers full of information we are taking into our brains every day.

Having too much information streaming in not only effects our children mental well being. When we are trying to make important decisions, like what to do about our child’s education, it’s easy to get bogged down in information and choices. Be wary of spending too much time online, googling, and gathering information. The world is changing fast. It’s more important than ever that you slow down, focus on your child’s well being and listen your gut intuition.

Which leads me to recommend today’s supermom power boost, Forest Bathing.

My happy place

Supermom Power Boost – Forest Bathing basically means to go into a forest and stay awhile. Breathe. sit. walk. savor. Since I am writing this from my campsite in a magnificent redwood forest on the California coast, I couldn’t help by choose this for today’s power boost. Forest bathing was developed in Japan during the 1980s and is suggested for preventive health care and healing in Japanese medicine. Researchers in Japan and South Korea have gathered significant scientific literature on the health benefits of spending time under the canopy of a living forest.

Forest bathing, or immersing yourself in a forest, is shown to boost immune system function, reduce blood pressure and stress, improve mood, sleep and energy levels. Being in the woods is shown to increase focus, especially in children with ADHD. For moms, trying to make important decisions, there is tremendous value in cutting out all external input and listening to your own gut intuition, voice and values. Let the forest shift you into a relaxed, receptive state FIRST, then notice how your creativity and quality of thinking improve. 

Quote of the Day: “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” Albert Einstein 

Fighting kids – How to get my kids to stop hating each other

Episode #14

Today’s Question:

My middle school kids are constantly fighting. They are close in age (12 and 13) and used to be the best of friends, always playing happily together. Lately, however, it’s been awful. They bicker and are constantly picking on each other, trying to bring the other down. I really want my boys to be friends again! How can I get my kids to stop hating each other? Sheila

Parent Educator Answer:

If your children used to get along very well, that tells me you did a great job of staying out of their conflicts. Children who are at each other from a young age have figured out how to bring mom into the argument and triangulate the issue. When mom is involved, kids can use siblings to fight for power, control, attention, superiority, etc. (If this sounds like you, or you have other issues with fighting siblings, go to www.lifecoachingforparents.com/record-my-question and tell me about your situation).

There is a lot to talk about with sibling rivalry, and we’ll need more than one podcast to cover all the topics. 

For this one, I’m going to assume that Sheila is not getting involved, but is just bothered by having to listen to her two precious babies go at each other.

There are many reasons why pre-teens might start picking on their sibling when they didn’t before. I want to focus on the two most common and developmentally appropriate reasons for this sudden change.

  1. Adolescent angst. Puberty does a number on kids. The hormones cause stronger emotional responses and mood swings, making ‘walking on eggshells’ an everyday situation. Puberty also usually involves hanging out with people who constantly scrutinize and criticize each other’s appearances, performance, speech, and food choices. You name it, some adolescent is judging it. When kids are soaking up everyone else’s negative, insecure emotions like a sponge all day long, they ring it out when they get home. Who is the easiest person to target? Their sibling.

The question I would want to ask my kid is, “Does it work?” If they feel yucky when they get in the car, do they feel better after putting their sibling down and pointing out all their flaws? Maybe it does, maybe it doesn’t, either way, teaching your child to reflect on their own words and actions is super powerful. 

Whether the answer to the question is yes or no, I would then ask, “Is there another way you can purge the yucky-ness of your day and feel better, that doesn’t involve picking on your sibling?”

Some kids purge verbally, by venting and getting it all off their chest. Some purge physically by hopping on their bike or shooting hoops. Spending time alone, taking a shower, writing in a journal, hanging out with friends, reading a book, are all ways pre-teens have found to feel better after being surrounded by negative people all day.

 2. The other reason why you might see an increase in sibling rivalry during puberty is your child (usually the older one) is wanting to create a bigger separation between himself and his sibling. This desire to be seen as older, wiser, different, and more mature grows really strong between 12-15. (This can be seen with twins as well). Adolescence is all about figuring out who you are and who you want to be? When kids are trying to figure out what their interests and skills are or which friend group they feel most comfortable with, they need to wiggle out of their child self like a snake shedding it’s skin. It can be hard for a pre-teen to know who they are if they maintain the tight relationship they’ve always had with their siblings, parents, or close friends. The pre-teen years are a time of rapid and massive growth and they need space to figure it all out.

It’s pretty common for kids to “cocoon” as they transform themselves from a kid into an adult. Cocooning can look like being in the bedroom or bathroom for long periods of time with the door closed, wanting more alone time, or cocooning with a best friend and excluding others. The sibling relationship connects to who they were as a child, some kids need to separate from it in order to become the adult they are meant to be. Fighting and constantly putting down a sibling is an effective way to separate.

It’s nice to know why things happen, but what the heck is Mama supposed to DO about it?

Parent Educator Tips for Sibling Rivalry 

  1. Stay out of it. As much as we would like to, we don’t get to decide what kind of relationship our kids are going to have with each other. Their relationship is their’s to figure out and we need to let go of any preconceived idea of what it’s supposed to look like. If your sister is your best friend, you might have expectations for your girls having the same close relationship and get really bothered when they “hate on each other”. 
  2. Protect their SAFETY. Wrestling and “horse-play” are great ways for kids to learn boundaries. When kids grow up “rough-housing” they learn about remorse, apologizing, inflicting pain, boundaries, and saying no like you mean it. Generally kids will stop on their own, right at the point where their sibling might get hurt. But, if they have triangulated a parent into it, or are using sibling rivalry to serve themselves in an unhealthy way, they may harm their sibling. Then, it is absolutely the parent’s job to protect the sibling.
  3. Treat your children as fairly as possible. If they sense favoritism, they may take it out on their sibling. Don’t compare: “Why can’t you be more like your brother?” Don’t label: “She’s the aggressive one, he’s the smart one,” and spend quality time with both.
  4. Let them see you resolving conflicts in a calm way with other adults.
  5. Establish house rules like “no hitting or hurting” or “no name calling”. Post them where everyone can see and have consistent consequences when those rules are not followed.

Life Coaching Answer –

Learn all you can about how to responsibly manage sibling rivalry but when it’s not working for you, life coaching comes in handy.

Kids fighting with each other is a circumstance. As much as she would like to, Sheila can’t make them change without the kids wanting to change. Wishing they would stop is like going outside everyday and yelling at the weather, telling it that it needs to be different. It might be true. You might be sick of the cold or rain, but feeling annoyed everyday because the weather isn’t they way you’d like it is fruitless and only causes suffering for YOU.

Sheila wants them to stop because she doesn’t like how she feels when they are fighting.

She’s probably thinking thoughts like…

“I want them to get along like they used to.” (arguing with reality)

or “They shouldn’t be so mean and hateful with each other” (too much negative emotion)

or “I don’t know what to do” (causes confusion).

These thoughts or similar ones cause negative emotions for MOM. It’s time to figure out what you have control over and focus on that.

How do YOU want to feel WHEN your kids are fighting?

You get to choose!

Do you want to feel confident? Think the thought “I know what to do here”.

Do you want to feel calm? Then think “I can trust them to work it out”.

Do you want to feel content? Think “This behavior is normal and temporary”.

When you are feeling a positive emotion, you will be more likely to implement the recommendations parent educators have to offer.

Before you are in the situation of your kids arguing, play it out in your imagination. Picture them fighting with each other, and imagine you are staying calm. Imagine evaluating the situation peacefully and objectively, “Do I need to keep him safe?” “Is he just purging the “yuck” he picked up during the day?” “Is he trying to separate himself from the family?” Observe the fighting with a scientific mind, then practice feeling calm/confident or whatever emotion you want to feel. Picture yourself taking action from that place. Imaging making comments appropriate to the situation like, “You guys sure like to fight” or “You must have had a pretty awful day today to be picking on your sister so much” or “Let me know when you are done fighting so I can make us a snack”.

You cannot control your children’s relationship but you can decide how you want to feel about it. When you stay calm, and model how to resolve conflicts peacefully, you are showing them another way.

Supermom Kryptonite – Mirror Neurons

We have mirror neurons in our brain that help us connect with the other people in the room. Mirror neurons are what make us smile when a baby smiles at us, or cry in a powerful “This Is Us” episode. When kids are “hating on each other” our default is to “hate on them” or “hate the situation.” We default to matching or mirroring the emotions of the people around us unless we do something deliberately different. We think,”You need to stop being so mean to your sister because it’s driving me crazy.” We think our argumentative teens are making us feel annoyed and frustrated, but our emotions are coming from our brain. Taking time to notice how we are feeling and deliberately overriding these mirror neurons is completely possible and a great thing to model to our adolescents. 

Try asking them, “How do you hang out with critical, insecure middle schoolers all day and not let it affect you?” They may not believe you if you tell them how mirror neurons work but this might plant a seed in your teen’s brain. When YOU learn to separate your emotions from your kid’s emotions, you will be modeling for them, how to separate from other people’s negative emotions. 

Supermom Powerboost – little ones

Even though you can override other people’s negative emotions by setting a clear intention for the feeling you WANT to feel, most of us don’t want to work that hard. If you are surrounded by cranky adolescents, go hang out with some little ones. Babies, pre-schoolers or any pre-pubescent kiddo is a joy to be around (especially when you aren’t responsible for their well being). When adolescent angst hit my home, I got myself a part-time job at an elementary school. It’s much easier to deal with argumentative teens when I spent the day with happy children who write me love notes and get so excited when “Mrs. Henderson” walks by. Do you have nieces or nephews to play with? Could you volunteer once a week or invite the neighbor kids over for a holiday craft? You don’t want to ride the emotional roller coaster of adolescence along with your kiddos. Find ways, like hanging out with small children, to keep you separate and balanced so you can be your best self for your teens and pre-teens.

Quote “Siblings: children of the same parents, each of whom is perfectly normal until they get together.” — Sam Levenson

How can I help my daughter make friends?


Today’s question: “My daughter is 9 years old and doesn’t seem to have any friends. There are girls in the neighborhood we carpool with, and kids she goes to school, gymnastics, and temple with, but she doesn’t seek these kids out on the weekends or after school. At recess or on weekends, she prefers playing by herself. Her brother, on the other hand, is always with friends: riding bikes, skateboarding, and generally having an active social life. I’m worried that my daughter isn’t going to have close friendships. She’s very opinionated, strong willed, and doesn’t like to compromise, so I understand why other kids may not choose to play with her. She doesn’t seem as bothered by this as I am. She likes to read and be by herself, while I’m the one scheduling play dates. How can I make my daughter make friends?”  Lea

Parent Educator Answer: It sounds like you are doing everything you can to support your daughter’s friendships. It’s wonderful that you have arranged so many opportunities for her to socialize and become familiar with other kids.

Between the ages of 3-9, most girls develop friendships based on proximity and convenience. They don’t discriminate easily and are usually happy to play with whoever is happy to play with them. Birthday parties can be huge during these years because it’s hard for kids to choose which friends they like best.

Between the years of 10-12 (once puberty begins) girls tend to want a smaller, more intimate group of friendships they can build closer bonds with. Developmentally, they are practicing intimate relationships by creating a more manageable group of girls they feel comfortable with. It’s common in these years to have hurt feelings as girls get edged out and left out while best friends are created. It is normal, however, for some girls not to be interested in forming these intimate relationships. In every class, there’s always at least one girl who is happy to play with whoever shows up. She doesn’t mind hanging with a different kid everyday, or even none at all. These kids are valuable assets for to those who have recently been rejected by their friend group. 

From what I hear in Lea’s question, there are at least 5 perfectly healthy reasons why this kid might not like playing with other kids:

  1. She hasn’t entered the stage yet of wanting an intimate friendship or friend group.
  2. She may be the type of kid who is comfortable with acquaintences rather than close friends.
  3. She is exhausted from being around kids all day long and needs time alone to recuperate.
  4. It’s more important for her to be able to hear and execute her own ideas while playing, than to expend energy compromising and explaining her thoughts to others.
  5. She hasn’t found a friend yet that allows her to be fully herself.

Kids who have strong ideas and opinions often enjoy the company of younger children. Younger kids are so excited to have the attention of a big kid, that they are willing to compromise more than children of the same age are. Little kids love the creative ideas for play that big kids come up with, and don’t mind being told what to do. Older kids can make great babysitters or mother’s helpers because they get to play the role of leader, boss, or director that they were born to play.

 

Life Coaching Answer: When our kids don’t have meaningful friendships, this can be a big trigger for moms who place a high value on friendship. It is really easy to “futurize” and “catastrophize”, imagining that they’ll never have friends and be sad and socially rejected all through adolescence. Moms can worry that their kids will ALWAYS struggle to make friends and believe this is a huge problem that needs immediate attention and intervention. 

First, we have to look at the problem that is CURRENTLY presenting itself. We cannot fix a problem in the future that hasn’t happened yet (and may never happen) and trying to do so will make us crazy.

The circumstance here, is that Lea’s daughter is 9. She hasn’t entered puberty yet. She likes reading books (a solitary activity), she doesn’t seek out playdates, she is surrounded by family members and family acquaintances almost every moment of every day, and she prefers to play by herself at recess, after school, and on weekends.

We want to take a look at what mom actually has control over. Can she make her daughter make friends? No. She can arrange playdates, carpools & neighborhood gatherings so her daughter has exposure to other kids and becomes familiar with the people in her life. She can sign her up for summer camps and gymnastics classes, but how her daughter interacts with the kids while there is not within mom’s control.

One thing we mammas do have control over is how we interpret our kid’s social relationships. Without meaning to, Lea may be communicating the idea that “there is something wrong with her daughter” because she doesn’t have the quality and quantity of friendships that her brother has. Can you imagine that there is an introverted mom out there in the world who loves to read, be by herself, and sees nothing wrong with her 9 year old avoiding social interaction? We have no idea how this girls social relationships will change with puberty, middle school or high school. This is a time of rapid development! After a day of obeying teachers and following their curriculum, she may have a higher need of listening to her own voice, directing others, or dwelling in her imagination.

It has never been easier to find one’s tribe than it is today. If you don’t fit in with the tribe of people around you, meetup, tinder, or youtube will help you find your village and connect you with people who appreciate your authentic self. Rather than thinking, “this is a problem that needs fixing”, try thinking thoughts that make you feel at ease.

“She is surrounded by people who love her.”

“She will find her people someday.”

“She is so true to herself that when she finds someone who likes her, they will really genuinely like her.”

“If she’s ok playing by herself, I can be ok with it, too.”

“I’ve done everything I can think of, the rest is up to her.”

“If she wants better friendships, she’ll be motivated to compromise.”

When you feel at ease around your daughter’s social dynamics, you communicate the message that there is nothing wrong with her the way she is. This gives her acceptance and belonging; the whole point of friendships in the first place!

 

Supermom kryptonite: worrying

I used to think that “good moms” worried about their kids. It seemed the opposite of neglect. When my worrying turned into anxiety, I had to make a change. What I’ve learned is that worrying is terrible for kids and robs us of our ability to enjoy our lives. Worrying is imagining bad things happening. Focusing on everything that can go wrong drains our energy and keeps us from appreciating when everything is going right. Once I stopped worrying, I was floored at how much more productive I was throughout my day, how much more energy I had, and how relaxed I was able to feel.

 

Supermom power boost: yoga

All exercise is good for us but yoga seems to be especially beneficial for overworked mammas. My theory is that yoga turns our attention inwards. With kids around, your attention is constantly being pulled outside of yourself. Even when we aren’t with them, we think about them, talk to our friends and partners about them, and get annoyed with them for leaving their mess all over the floor. Yoga brings your attention into your body, focusing on the subtleties of movement, muscles, positioning, and breath. This forced self attention and flowing movement re-energies us in ways beyond a typical workout. In my opinion, yoga is a quick and reliable energy boost.

 

Quote of the Day – “Do not anticipate trouble, or worry about what may never happen. 
Keep in the sunlight.” ― Benjamin Franklin