What parents and teachers can do to not make the 7th grade the worst ever

ABC News

PHOTO: Middle-school aged boys stand in a hallway in an undated stock photo.STOCK PHOTO/Getty Images
Middle-school aged boys stand in a hallway in an undated stock photo.

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.”

PHOTO: Carrie Rountrey, J.R. Gentle and their son Owen. Morefamousjack Photography
Carrie Rountrey, J.R. Gentle and their son Owen.

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.

PHOTO: Annie Fox, an educator and author, is an expert on teens and tweens. courtesy Annie Fox
Annie Fox, an educator and author, is an expert on teens and tweens.

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.”

PHOTO: Dr. Jennifer Powell-Lunder, a clinical psychologist writes about teens and tweens. courtesy Jennifer Powell-Lunder
Dr. Jennifer Powell-Lunder, a clinical psychologist writes about teens and tweens.

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.

PHOTO: Middle-school aged students sit on a school stairwell in an undated stock photo.STOCK PHOTO/Getty Images
Middle-school aged students sit on a school stairwell in an undated stock photo.

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.”

Organization helps

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.”

What Parents Need to Know About Social Media and Anxiety

Learn to recognize the warning signs of anxiety disorder and help your kid keep social media use healthy and productive. By Caroline Knorr 
What Parents Need to Know About Social Media and Anxiety

From cyberbullying to FOMO to cruel comments, social media can be a land mine for kids. Issues we parents never had to worry about, such as an intimate photo texted to the entire school or Instagram videos of a birthday party we weren’t invited to, are now a risk for many tweens and teens. With kids’ digital well-being a concern, researchers are exploring potential links between social media and the rise in teen suicide ratestech addiction, and loss of real-life social skills. And many parents are wondering: Is social media causing my kid to have anxiety?

It’s an important question — and one that makes for compelling headlines for worried parents. While it’s too early to say with certainty (this is, after all, the first generation of “digital natives”), the reality is somewhat nuanced. Some research has observed a relationship between social media use and anxiety in kids, but it’s difficult to know if and when social media is causing anxiety or whether kids who are anxious are turning to social media as a way to soothe themselves or seek support. How kids use social media matters, too: Social comparison and feedback-seeking behaviors have been associated with depressive symptoms, which often co-occur with anxiety.

Of course, it’s common for kids to feel anxious sometimes. But there’s a big difference between occasional anxiety and an anxiety disorder that requires professional care. If your kid is overly self-conscious, has uncontrollable and unrealistic anxiety, is unable to make it go away, and avoids things, you may want to seek help. (Learn more about anxiety in kids at the Child Mind Institute.) For these kids, social media may act as a trigger for — though not the root cause of — their anxious feelings. There are also kids, who, for a variety of reasons, may be more sensitive to the anxiety-producing effects of social media. For example, kids with social anxiety disorder may prefer online interactions over face-to-face interactions. Bottom line: You may not know the impact of social media on your kid until issues surface.

Unfortunately, simply cutting off social media isn’t necessarily the answer. It’s such a huge part of many kids’ lives that not having access to social media could take a toll. In fact, being connected to friends through social media may counterbalance some of its negative effects.

Without conclusive research to back up claims that social media causes anxiety — and some evidence to show it’s beneficial — it’s up to you to keep tabs on how your kid’s doing. Though it adds an extra layer to your parenting duties, it’s a good idea to get a good sense of your kid’s online life. Ask kids to give you a tour of their social media world. As they’re showing you around, you might hear some of the positive stuff you weren’t expecting, as well as some of the problem areas your kid could use help with. Also, add social media to the “wellness checks” that you already do. For example, when you ask how they slept and what they ate, ask how they’re feeling about social media. Is it mostly positive, helpful, and supportive, or do they want to step back but aren’t sure how? Here are some more tips for keeping social media a positive for kids:

Encourage self-care. Seeing photos of a trip to the beach your friends didn’t invite you to can really sting. If your kid is super bummed or tired of digital drama, suggest they take a break from social media for a while. In fact, if they post a status update that they’re taking a break, their friends might be very accepting because they’ve had similar feelings.

Help kids put social media in perspective. People post stuff that makes their lives look perfect — not the homework struggles, or the fight they had with their dad, or the hours it took to look as good as possible for the camera. Remind kids that social media leaves the messy stuff out — and that everyone has ups and downs.

Encourage offline activities. In a world where kids could spend their days lying around looking at Instagram, it’s doubly important for them to feel as though they’re cultivating their inner lives. Prompt them to balance social media with soul-nourishing activities such as hobbies, exercise, reading, and helping others. Otherwise, what are they going to brag about on social media?

Talk about their feelings. Ask them what it feels like to look at other kids’ feeds. Is there a tipping point from when they feel OK to when they start to feel bad about their own lives? Encourage them to stop before that feeling sets in and do something good for themselves instead.

Let them know you’re there for them. You may not understand everything about your kid’s online social life. But recognizing it’s important to them makes your kid feel valued — and more likely to come to you when they encounter problems.

Get help. If you see any cause for concern, including mood swings that seem to result from social media, not taking pleasure in activities he or she used to enjoy, and having accompanying symptoms such as headaches and stomachaches, visit your kid’s pediatrician for a professional opinion.

The Child Mind Institute contributed to this article. Learn more at childmind.org.