In sixth grade, Carrie Rountrey’s son Owen couldn’t wait to get to school.
“He used to get up, make his lunch, do everything for school,” she said.
What a difference a year makes because now Owen is in seventh grade and his attitude towards school has changed, according to his mom.
“He doesn’t like school,” Rountrey said. “He loves his math and science classes, and he hates everything else. It’s been pretty frustrating.”
A professor of communication sciences and disorders at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Rountrey also can’t understand how her only child can be so disorganized.
“He forgets his keys on a regular basis,” she said. “He turns a lot of things in late.”
Fortunately, schoolwork comes pretty easily for him. Other seventh grade students aren’t so lucky.
Few kids, no matter how smart, manage to get through seventh grade without some hiccups. And, for many, seventh grade turns out to be the worst of their school years.
“Seventh grade sucked for me,” said Annie Fox, an award-winning author and educator, who has traveled all over the globe talking to teens and tweens.
A trusted online adviser for parents and teens since 1997, Fox said the reason kids — their parents and teachers as well — struggle so much when they are ages 12 and 13 is because there’s a lot happening to them developmentally.
Not only are they dealing with the onset of puberty, with all of its raging hormones, but the pre-frontal lobe of their brain, which manages impulse control, predicting consequences and planning ahead, is not fully wired.
“They are not playing with a full deck,” Fox said.
“Put 500 kids with that kind of insecurity in a group that spends six hours a day together and they are not going to be kind to each other,” Fox said.
Yet, this is exactly the time that their parents and teachers expect more from them.
“In sixth grade, they coddle them. In eighth grade, they are getting ready to go to high school so they are really elevated,” said Jennifer Powell-Lunder, a clinical psychologist and adjunct professor at Pace University in New York. “In seventh grade, no one really cares. You’re thrown to the wolves. They really are in such an in-between age.”
Parents of seventh-graders likely expect their kids to step up, too, and they are usually surprised when they don’t — or don’t even seem to care.
“It’s the age of snarky,” Powell-Lunder said. “They tend to be more irritable, kind of touchy. They don’t believe they are a reflection of their parents, but that their parents are a reflection of them.”
That means the potential for their parents to embarrass them in front of their almighty peers is at an all-time high. It’s because kids at this developmental stage put more weight into what their peers think and where they fit in.
“Their emotional real estate is so fixated on where do I fit into my peer group,” Fox said.
For boys, that can mean how they match up against their more physically developed peers. For girls, it’s negotiating often tricky relationships, aka “mean girls.”
One mom of three, who asked not to be identified, knows this all too well. She says both her girls began cutting themselves in the seventh grade.
The younger one used to complain that she felt sad and empty, she said.
“Nobody likes me. I don’t want to talk to anybody. They are looking at me weird,” she said of what her daughter would tell her.
It got to be so bad, her daughter had to be held overnight in a hospital.
Fox hears many stories such as that one. In a survey she gave to 1,200 tweens and teens, kids said the number one stressor in their lives was their peers, with school and parents following behind in second and third place.
“Every middle-schooler feels different than their peers, whether gay, straight or transgender,” Fox said. “As human beings what we are trying to do is fit in. On a species level this is the most awkward time.”
Given everything kids are experiencing at this age — socially, developmentally and academically — Fox encourages parents to exercise more compassion.
“I want parents to be a safe place to talk about anything,” she said. “They need to talk less and listen more.”
Keep reading for more helpful tips from Fox and Powell-Lunder on to how not make the seventh grade worst year for everyone.
Control your own stress
Parents stress themselves out over what their kids are doing or not doing at this age.
However, parents need to let go of the idea that they have total control over their kids, Fox said.
“You have a remote control for your TV, but you don’t have one to control another person,” she said. “You can’t get them to do anything they do not choose to do. Most of the time, we parents are stressing because we are trying to point a non-functional remote control at our kids.”
Fox learned this when her own son entered the seventh grade, and it was like a bomb went off in his room, she said. After feeling like their relationship had been taken over by her nagging, she said she stopped trying to get him to clean up his room and their relationship improved.
“You cannot control someone else’s choices,” she said. “You can only modify your own behavior.”
Give them autonomy, not independence
At the same time, teens and tweens still crave structure and boundaries, Powell-Lunder said.
They may be looking for more autonomy from their parents, but they are not yet ready to be fully independent. Setting limits, especially when it comes to technology, is important, she said.
“A lot of time parents want to be the ‘nice’ parent, but kids need rules,” Powell-Lunder said.
Boundary-setting starts with knowing your child and what their individual needs are, as well as acknowledging that those needs change as they get older, Fox said.
“Mom and dad have to take a closer look at the children sitting in front of them,” she said. “They are changing so rapidly. If you don’t keep up, you won’t know how to communicate or listen to them.”
Don’t try to fix everything
With rules, come consequences. Both Fox and Powell-Lunder said parents have to let their middle-schoolers fail sometimes.
“Let them take responsibility for being a full-time student,” Fox said. “That’s a contract between student and teacher — unless you’re planning to go to college with them.”
“Be supportive but don’t try to fix everything,” Powell-Lunder said.
“Over-functioning parents will raise under-functioning kids,” Fox added.
Practice what you preach
Kids at this age are also learning a lot by observing the adults around them.
Be careful what you’re modeling to your kids, whether it’s screaming and yelling or being tethered to your smartphone.
“Show you have more self-control than your son or daughter,” Fox said.
Powell-Lunder tells teachers: “Teach by example.”
At a time when kids seem the most disorganized, being organized seems to count the most.
Powell-Lunder, who is a big believer in the “K-8” model because it “smooths out the rough edges,” said educators in middle schools need to be more understanding of seventh-graders and teach them the organizational skills they lack. Posting homework in one place certainly helps, she said.
Fox frowns on too much homework because she said it turns some middle school students off from education. This age group still needs time to pursue passions, she said, be with family and just daydream.
Talk less, listen more
Both Powell-Lunder and Fox encourage parents to show more empathy for what their children are going through.
“Ultimately, you want less stress and tension between parent and child, and more compassion and conversation and understanding,” Fox said. “They are not getting it from their peers or their own internal monologues where they are putting themselves down. We are just adding to the chorus if all we’re doing is finding fault.”