Finishing Touches – Middle School Makeover: Improving the Way You and Your Child Experience the Middle School Years

Finishing Touches

Your Middle-Age Construction Project

As we near the end of your Middle School Makeover it’s time for the finishing touches. Last, but definitely not least, let’s talk about you.

While your middle schooler is busy working on the three major construction projects of adolescence—building a new body, brain, and identity—you’re doing the same thing, whether you realize it or not.

Parenting middle schoolers is unique in that parent and child are on similar developmental tracks. You’re both undergoing major changes in body, brain, and identity at this time of life.

An important piece of being a good parent is being good to yourself first. It helps your child develop good self-care habits to see you modeling this kind of behavior and it recharges your batteries so you can have happier relationships with your family. As every good flight attendant will tell you, you must put on your own oxygen mask before putting one on your child. Let’s look at some ways you can appreciate and take care of yourself first throughout this complicated phase of your life.

THE TIMES THEY ARE A-CHANGIN’

In the first chapter of this book, I referred to my survey of one hundred parents of third, fourth, and fifth graders about their expectations around parenting middle schoolers.

A quarter of the parents I surveyed had a distinctly bad middle school experience and half of those could think of nothing to look forward to about their kids going to middle school.

The parents who could identify something positive to anticipate most commonly answered with a version of “new opportunities” (both social and academic) and “more independence.”

It’s true that heading to middle school brings your child all kinds of exciting new opportunities and independence, but … enough about them. What about you? This isn’t just an important time in your adolescent’s development. You’re going through a lot of changes now, too, and having older kids means you get to enjoy more independence and new experiences as well.

In some ways that can be exciting, but in many ways the changes you’re facing now are more daunting than delightful. You may be starting to care for your aging parents, worried about your own body’s changes, considering a career change, struggling with divorce and single parenting, or facing a myriad of other issues confronting people our age. It would be difficult enough to tackle these lifestyle adjustments at any stage, but while you’re trying to parent a middle schooler—yikes. That’s a lot of emotional imbalance and uncertainty, all at once.

This year, I have both a sixth and eighth grader in middle school. It is also the year I had:

  • Shoulder surgery
  • Five root canals
  • Neuroma: a nerve condition in my foot causing pain and killing my ability to wear heels (waaah!)
  • Recently divorced parents
  • A mother who lives alone and has had several surgeries during the year
  • A husband who started traveling extensively for work
  • A close friend who entered rehab and needed my support
  • A growing business with all the usual demands on an entrepreneur and working mom
  • A book published!

I have had a front-row seat in the theater of stress, chaos, grief, expectation, loneliness, anxiety, excitement, reinvention, doubt, helplessness, and hope that this stage of life can bring. As a parent, especially a parent to kids in a uniquely egocentric phase of life, it can feel unnatural to put yourself first. It’s been said a million times before and in a million better ways, I’m sure, that being a good parent is only possible when you take care of yourself, too. If you aren’t aware of some significant way in which you put yourself first, I guarantee this will come back to bite you, your relationships, and your kid.

YOUR CHANGING BODY

A few years ago, a friend and I started working out together three times a week with a trainer. Neither of us had exercised this routinely or with such effort since high school. We would encourage each other, talking about how proud we were, how good it felt to have increased strength and stamina. On a shopping trip to Target one day, my friend noticed guys were actually checking her out. What a cool side benefit! She walked through the store with a little extra confidence and swagger. Then, in the checkout line, she saw a guy do a double take her way and she followed his eyes … right to her eighth-grade daughter’s butt.

Her daughter, though just thirteen, is very tall (taller than her mom) and was faced away from the guy, so I’m not calling him a pedophile. I’m just saying, it is a weird day for a mom when she realizes that her daughter now looks old enough to draw men’s attention. Take that in as you ponder this: even though we sometimes feel like it’s only been a minute since high school, the world sees us as our current age, and for women, that means the world sees us less and less. As our daughters become increasingly attractive, we start to become increasingly invisible.

This phenomenon certainly isn’t restricted to women. Men, too, feel the dreaded march of time as their bodies begin the process of sarcopenia, a typical 3-5% loss of muscle mass per decade for inactive adults. As middle-aged men naturally become older and softer their sons are simultaneously ascending toward the peak of their physical strength. For some men this poses a conflicting source of pride in their sons’ masculinity and depression at their own loss of strength and stamina. Decline in testosterone can also increase feelings of depression around middle age.

Fathers can also feel conflicted watching their daughters become young women. Many fathers retreat as their daughters’ bodies begin developing. Not wanting to be perceived as inappropriate, they stop making physical contact. Girls in middle school still crave affection from their fathers, though. Hugs, cuddles on the couch, and good night kisses remind a girl that she’s still special to her dad even though she’s growing up.

Dads should also know that they start having an equal or more profound impact than moms on their daughters’ body image once girls hit their late teens. Older girls begin to look to their dads for cues on how women should be treated, what men value in women, what men find attractive, and what will help them be successful in the world. Body bashing and an emphasis on physical attractiveness is especially damaging coming from dads. The flip side is that dads have a tremendous opportunity to affect a positive self-image in their daughters by remarking on successful women for their non-physical attributes, refraining from making any comments—positive or negative—about women’s bodies, and showing their daughters how to be treated respectfully by the opposite sex.

PLASTIC SURGERY

For some women, plastic surgery offers a way to beat the clock. I live in Charlotte, North Carolina, where you can’t pick up a magazine, turn on the radio, or drive down our city streets without being hit by a barrage of ads, one after the other, for plastic surgery. Charlotte is the second-largest banking capital of the United States, after New York City. Expendable income + growing cultural pressure = lots of women paying to look like they are immune to the passage of time. It’s called getting the “mommy makeover.” It begins to mess with your idea of what’s normal when fewer and fewer women around you have wrinkles, or belly fat, or real breasts.

I’ve tiptoed close to the cosmetic surgery cliff before. Once, I made it as far as the surgeon’s free consultation, in which he told me I could try losing weight to get rid of my belly fat but “then my face would look like hell” so instead he recommended four or five procedures that could help out all around. I shared my conflicted feelings with my best friend on a visit to Boston, over wine in a hotel lobby, where she looked at me sympathetically and said, “Don’t do it. That’s just not who you are. You’re smart and funny and pretty, and your body is just doing what bodies do.”

Well. That was liberating. I had heard that sentiment many times before from self-acceptance gurus, but hearing it from my friend in such a matter-of-fact way was joyful. I think it was her telling me, “That’s not who you are,” that liberated me from my anxiety because the plastic surgery thing really isn’t me but my culture was making me doubt it.

Clearly, we don’t shed all our insecurities when we leave middle school behind.

Men, too, are getting in on plastic surgery trends in rapidly increasing numbers. According to the American Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgery, a study revealed that male patients had 750,000 cosmetic procedures in 2010. That may represent a mere 8 percent of total procedures that year, but the more staggering statistic is how quickly the popularity of plastic surgery among men is rising. Since 1997, the number of cosmetic procedures performed on men has increased by 88 percent.

If you find yourself struggling with getting older, what it does to your body, your brain, or your spirit, I understand. I’m definitely not here to judge anyone who has made, or will make, the personal decision to have plastic surgery. It’s not for me, but that doesn’t mean it’s not for you. What I hope we can all agree on, though, is that our girls, even as young as elementary school, are already beginning the work we have started at comparing our bodies and doubting our relative beauty. Because girls feel cultural pressure younger and younger to be perfect, we should look closely at what it means to be in middle school and have your parent get plastic surgery.

The most common cosmetic surgery procedure for people ages thirty-five to fifty is lipoplasty (liposuction). The most common nonsurgical procedure is Botox.1 I have friends who’ve done both. I have done neither. It’s neither here nor there, in our friendships. But kids in the midst of puberty and identity development are not so immune. One of the reasons I’ve always been personally conflicted about plastic surgery is that I have a daughter and I didn’t know how to teach her to love her body any better, especially on the days she told me she wished she didn’t have a fat belly, than to stop worrying about mine. After all, there are more important, certainly much more fun, places where I can devote my energy, time, and money.

If you decide that plastic surgery is the right choice for you, consider how it might impact your child’s perceptions of his or her own body. Amy Combs, PsyD, founder of the Charlotte Center for Balanced Living in Charlotte, North Carolina, specializes in body acceptance and treating eating disorders, as well as other issues affecting women and girls. Dr. Combs offers the following advice for talking to your tweens about the changes they’ll see in your body:

The decision to have plastic surgery is both personal and contextual. Adults may not be entirely clear on their reasons for having the procedures, but they must convey clarity to protect their children both in terms of their personal body images as well as how they view others. Not acknowledging your personal feelings and circumstances around the decision to have surgery may set up your teen to be waiting for the day she can alter x or y about her body, without first working on developing self-acceptance.

“Ideally,” says Dr. Combs, “if you decide to have plastic surgery, you will convey the following messages to your children, both male and female, about elective surgical changes.”

  • This is a want not a need. You want to have this procedure. You do not need to have it to have a better, happier, more meaningful life.
  • You are having this procedure because of _________ (cancer, breast feeding, aging, overeating, or physical insecurity). You need to own this. One of the most difficult procedures to explain to an adolescent might be lipoplasty. You will need to acknowledge that you are having this because you are dissatisfied with the way your body is aging/changing/not responding to diet and exercise.
  • Within these discussions you should acknowledge a feeling of discomfort or insecurity with your body.
  • Communicate that you are not hoping or imagining that by having this procedure other areas of your life will improve. You aren’t imagining that people will like you more, your friendships or marriage will be more solid, you’ll have more confidence in the workplace, etc. This is a purely aesthetic procedure. If you do believe these things will happen, be very careful how you communicate to your children. Eating disorders often start with highly restrictive attempts at dieting, which is a teenager’s version of lipoplasty.
  • A conversation about values is also essential. It might go something like this: “This decision to have elective surgery reflects my values. These do not need to be your values. You can make that decision when you are an adult. Many other women that we know have not had this type of procedure, which is reflective of their values.” With this you want to make sure you choose an admired adult as a model of the decision to forgo elective surgery.

Hoping your child won’t notice isn’t a good plan. Once children are in middle school they become very aware of bodies and they internalize what they see in others into personal messages about themselves. The goal of being so direct is to protect your child from potentially viewing himself or herself or others as flawed and eventually defaulting to plastic surgery as the solution. Just realize that by not talking about it or assuming your teenager won’t notice, you open the door to him or her relying on a teenage interpretation of a decision you yourself may have struggled with as an adult. Kids this age may not be equipped with the wisdom or life experience to successfully navigate this without your guidance.

Whatever your choice, I hope you have a level of gratitude for your body and all the things it does for you on a daily basis.

BODIES BEYOND AESTHETICS

Of course, not all the body changes we face these days are aesthetic. Many of you are embarking toward, or battling through, menopause or andropause. Some of you are fighting serious illnesses of the body or brain. These circumstances only complicate this phase of life, and the best we can do is to stay optimistic, diligent, and to be kind to ourselves, and each other, through this tangled mess of being human together.

YOUR CHANGING BRAIN

Okay, what was I gonna say here? Something about the thing?

Most of us can empathize with each other these days in the slower recollection of vocabulary and names, even our kids’ names, among our set. I call my son the dog’s name all the time. This slow draining of vocabulary reminds me of an episode of The Simpsons in which Homer and Marge have a typical middle-aged exchange:

HOMER: Marge, where’s that … metal deely … you use to … dig … food …

MARGE: You mean, a spoon?

HOMER: Yeah, yeah!

Sound familiar?

I laughed recently when a friend told me she was trying to get her husband on board with her idea for a home improvement project in the downstairs bathroom but she had so much going on inside her brain she couldn’t recall the word for bathroom. She kept calling it the “tiny kitchen” and hoping he would understand. Needless to say, they became quickly frustrated with each other.

We all know time takes its toll on the middle-aged brain, but this wouldn’t be much of a makeover if I didn’t also point out a couple of great things that are happening to your brain these days. In fact, my brain is doing one of them right now.

BEING POSITIVE

In chapter 2, when I wrote about the developing middle schooler’s brain, I explained that the amygdala, the emotional center of the brain, takes over brain management while the prefrontal cortex goes on its extended lunch break. In adolescence, the primary emotion of the amygdala is anger, which explains why teens are quick to snap. In older adults, the amygdala becomes less responsive to negative input and more responsive to positive input.2 Collectively, we are at a glass-half-full stage of development. This is good news, given all the potential you have for reinvention at this stage of your life.

BETTER COGNITION

Our generation may laugh off our declining abilities—it’s laugh or cry, right? Glass half full! But research shows that our cognitive abilities actually improve through middle age. Our ability to memorize and quickly process information will decline leading up to and through middle age, but our ability to reason and solve problems improves.3 You’re not becoming dumber than you were in college. You’re becoming different. Better. In middle age, your brain engages both hemispheres for analyzing and solving problems, a much more well-rounded approach. So give yourself credit for your excellent, ongoing brain development.

YOUR CHANGING IDENTITY

For some of you reading this book, your child’s transition to middle school is difficult because it signifies that he’s heading toward greater independence, and that leaves you wondering, well, wondering where that leaves you. Assuming your child will go to college (or on some other similarly respectable pursuit) at age eighteen, you can look at your child at age ten and think, “You have now lived with me for more than half of the total time you will.” At the same time, you can look yourself in the mirror and think, “With luck, I’m at the midpoint of my life today.” After you scoop up your jaw, you may find yourself pondering some of life’s larger questions.

  • What do I do with myself now?
  • Am I living the life I wanted?
  • How do I make an impact?
  • Have I sacrificed too much? Not enough?
  • Where do I go from here?

It isn’t just your middle schooler who’s working on a new identity these days. Many parents reinvent themselves at this stage of life and it can be an exciting, if trepidatious, task. For many of you, the past ten-plus years have been spent giving, planning, and preparing for your child to be an independent adult someday. Yet, when your kid begins to get his social and emotional needs met elsewhere, it can leave you feeling stranded. Many parents find themselves out of the habit of taking care of themselves. It feels selfish to prioritize your own interests, especially when your child is developing so many new ones, but it is essential to your happiness, and your kid’s, that you do.

In chapter 3, I wrote about Identity vs. Role Confusion, Erik Erikson’s stage of psychosocial development that most middle schoolers find themselves in, during which they must begin to form an identity outside of their parents. Most parents of middle schoolers find ourselves in Erikson’s seventh stage of development, which he called Generativity vs. Stagnation. During this middle adulthood stage of life, spanning from ages forty to sixty-five, we prepare to leave behind a legacy when we die so that we don’t feel as though our existence has been futile.

In a biological sense, our kids, and their kids, and theirs, are our legacy. But even though our little legacies are preparing to leave us, we’re not done. We’ve still got plenty of energy, ambition, and desire to do more. Some of you are launching new careers, rediscovering old passions, or perhaps even reinventing yourselves entirely at this stage of life. If you position yourself to give something back to the world—a message, an inspiration, or an act of service that in some way will leave the world a better place—you’re bound to feel less in crisis and more satisfied during this phase of your life.

If you find yourself wondering what’s next for you, here are some things to consider:

  • Use social media, or the good old-fashioned telephone, to connect with people outside your regular circles to get inspired.
  • Find other people doing things that interest you and ask them if you can help.
  • Attend a seminar, workshop, or conference. You’re sure to find a breakout topic that inspires you.
  • Contribute your time, talent, or treasure to a charity that moves you.
  • Travel by yourself. Visit a part of the state, country, or world you haven’t seen. Time alone in your head, and then in community with people you don’t know, will inspire new thoughts and actions.

CARING FOR AGING PARENTS

I recently posted a question on Facebook asking what unique challenges people in their forties face outside of parenting. There were lots of answers from a variety of angles, but “caring for aging parents” was clearly the top lifestyle concern among my peers. Though we’re not quite the sandwich generation, at around age forty we do begin caring for our parents at the same time that we must tend to the new and developing needs of our adolescent children. This leaves many of us feeling run down, overcommitted, and stretched thin, so much so that we often give up on taking care of ourselves.

I have watched my friends caring for parents who are suffering from cancer and other serious illnesses, which is both heartbreaking and exhausting for them. But it’s not only growing medical needs that demand our attention. Many of our parents don’t have adequate retirement savings, so as we’re sweating saving for college tuition we may also be wondering how we will supplement our parents’ budget, perhaps even housing them, to help them make ends meet.

This phase of life is so hard for me because being a parent puts me at my most vulnerable. Those tender moments of motherliness my mom would provide, from keeping the kids overnight so I could go on a date with my husband to bringing me dinner when I was frazzled, are what kept me from feeling totally alone and helpless many times during my kids’ younger years. Now that I am watching her age, I’m not only adding her care to my responsibilities, but I’m losing my helper at the same time. That makes it twice as hard to cope.

Some friendly reminders:

• It’s more important than ever to take time for yourself. Find a hobby. Exercise. Eat right. Sleep well. Get outside. Read for pleasure. Be nice to yourself.

Enlist help. You don’t have to do it all. Hire someone to help with parents and with kids. Get neighbors and other family involved. Ask, is there a part of you that needs to control this situation or can you give some of that up?

• Don’t make your relationship with your parent all about care. Have fun together. Look at photo albums. Watch movies. Find moments of joy to share.

• Take a look at your parent’s future finances now, before it sneaks up on you.

• Start open conversations. “I know it’s awkward to talk about money but we don’t want to get caught off guard …”

MARRIAGE

When your kids go to middle school, you and your spouse or partner may find yourselves with more time to reconnect, enjoy your favorite activities, and focus lovingly on each other. Or you may find yourselves staring at each other across an empty dinner table, wondering what to talk about.

You’ve been going at a breakneck speed for more than ten years, keeping up with kids’ activities, arranging playdates, volunteering at school, playing games, and answering nonstop questions. Suddenly, it’s gotten quiet. Your kids aren’t talking to you as much. They’re spending more time out of the house or in their rooms. The silence left in their wake can be deafening.

For some couples, switching gears so quickly can be a tough adjustment. I remember when my husband and I were planning our wedding almost twenty years ago, we fantasized about our honeymoon and how we would blissfully kick back with nothing to do but sit still and relax. After the hectic pace of the previous few months, though, when the first day of our honeymoon came we hardly knew what to do with ourselves. We fidgeted. We searched for things to talk about now that making lists and finalizing details were done. We didn’t seem to know how to relax. It was a very odd feeling to have finally reached that glorified landmark and to feel so unexpectedly let down.

This phase of life when your kid heads to middle school can feel the same way. You have been waiting for your kids to be old enough that you didn’t have to do everything for them and you could finally have a little time to yourself, and now … huh. It’s awfully hard to figure out what to do with yourself, but it’s important to make the effort.

DEVOTE TIME TO YOUR MARRIAGE

Like the flight attendants tell you every time you’re about to take off, in case of emergency “be sure to adjust your own mask before helping others.” This is good advice even before you find yourself in a marital emergency. Making your marriage a priority is ultimately beneficial to your entire family.

  • Don’t wait a minute longer. Like exercise, the sooner you start, the better you’ll feel.
  • Figure out what interests you personally, to make life more interesting for both of you. If you’re having a hard time finding stuff to talk about maybe you need a hobby.
  • Have interesting date nights. Don’t just go sit at a restaurant. Go bowling. Take a cooking class. Do CrossFit. Volunteer. Be active.
  • Talk about the future. Dare to make a bold plan together for travel or a hobby you both enjoy.
  • Talk about the past. Bring out old home movies or photos and get nostalgic.
  • Be intimate. Have sex.
  • Get counseling if you need help. A professional should be able to get you connecting more quickly than you likely can on your own; the worst tactic is to ignore the growing distance between you and accept it as the new norm.

DIVORCE

Not all problems can be fixed with bowling … or counseling … or the passage of time. For many of you, divorce is slowly and clearly becoming the best choice. I don’t, for a second, judge that decision and I know for some of my friends it has meant an exponential growth in happiness for their families.

What you should know about divorce at this stage of life is that it is particularly hard for middle school–aged kids. Divorce is always painful, but research shows that the toughest two times for a kid to go through a parent’s divorce are during preschool and middle school.4 Your middle schooler is struggling with defining his identity, finding acceptance outside of you, and waffling between the world of adults and children. Your divorce will create more than normal feelings of insecurity and self-doubt in your kid. We all know that classic line from dating breakups, “It’s not you. It’s me.” If you’ve been on the receiving end of this one, you probably didn’t take that sentiment to heart. Even if you could logically process that the other person’s drawbacks were no fault of your own, you probably still had doubts, irrational or not, about what you could have done to save the relationship. The same feelings come up for a child when parents use a similar line of “Our divorce has nothing to do with our love for you. This is about us, not you.” Your middle schooler’s brain is processing everything from the emotional center. His critical thinking and reasoning skills are on hold. His developing identity project causes him to see everything from an egocentric position. All of this causes him to take your divorce more personally and emotionally than he would at other times.

I’m not saying don’t get a divorce while your kid is in middle school. I do believe, however, that if you are in a safe environment, waiting a few years may prove healthier for your child. However, if you decide that it is in everyone’s best interest to divorce now, consider these ways to help your child through this time:

  • Make consistency and stability the number-one priority for your child right now.
  • Create a predictable schedule for coparenting (assuming your ex is a safe parent).
  • Make your house feel safe and cozy with predictable routines around meals, bedtime, visitors, etc. Other kids may be toying with more freedom at this age but yours might benefit from a happy, structured environment a little longer.
  • Provide a counselor for your child.
  • Communicate respectfully and unemotionally with your ex. “Botox Brow” isn’t just for teens! It works well here, too.
  • Communicate respectfully and appropriately with your tween. Explain things without painting either parent as a villain. It may help to pretend you’re explaining the situation to a kid in the neighborhood instead of your own child. Sometimes this can help you sound more reasonable despite your very natural and understandable emotions.
  • Worry less about grades. School performance may suffer now.
  • Answer questions. Kids in middle school will want to question your decision a lot. They’ll also want to challenge you on your choices, in part because that’s what kids this age do as they develop hypothetical thinking skills, and in part because they don’t like what you’re doing and want to change it. Don’t deny your kid the right to ask. Use his questions to get to the root of his fears and address those.

DATING

Being a single parent presents tricky challenges to parents of middle schoolers, but perhaps none as awkward as dating, specifically, dating at a time when your kids are learning more about sex. What they hear on the bus or what they see on TV suddenly becomes, gulp, possibly about you. They may even begin to make judgments about your extracurricular activities (“Gross, you’re too old to date.”), ask you specifically what you’re doing (“Are you two doing it?”), or try to exert some control over your personal decisions, as you do theirs (“You’re not going out with him!”). These responses may have to do with your kid feeling a loss of control, having a desire to be more grown up, and/or missing a basic measure of impulse control. Remember, even if your kid is out of line, you should still respond by modeling empathy, respect, and maturity.

It’s hard to balance your kid’s needs with yours when you’re a single parent. At times you’ll be driven by guilt to compensate for whatever it is you worry she’s being deprived of, yet at other times you’ll be driven by self-preservation in your need to carve out something personal, something not kid-centric, in your life.

If you’re starting to date while your kid is in middle school:

  • As much as possible, your tween shouldn’t see you dating at all. Since you don’t know how she’ll react, interpret, or internalize the situation, keep your private life private. This will create a more stable and predictable atmosphere for your child.
  • If your dating lifestyle is obvious, model the kind of dating behavior you want your child to eventually assume. Your kid will rationalize risky teen behavior by copying what you do, not listening to what you say. This means no sleepovers while the kids are at your house.
  • Communicate to your kids that they are your priority.
  • Have fun! Being restrictive about what your kids experience doesn’t mean you can’t have fun when they’re spending the night at your ex’s, their grandparents’, or a friend’s house.

The bottom line on a lot of these topics is this: you are more than a parent, and you deserve to take time to manage or cultivate other aspects of your life. As your kids grow, they’ll look to you as a role model for living a balanced life. Show them that you appreciate your changing body, brain, and identity and they’ll learn to give themselves the same grace by your example.