Care and Feeding

My Son Is Miserable in Middle School

Is it him, or is this normal?

A middle schooler looks depressed.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Jetta Productions/iStock/Getty Images Plus, Brian Niles/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. In addition to our traditional advice, every Thursday we feature an assortment of teachers from across the country answering your education questions. Have a question for our teachers? Email askateacher@slate.com or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

Is middle school just miserable? My 12-year-old hates school (and he enjoyed a fair amount of elementary school, pre-pandemic). His school has legitimate challenges, and he has ADHD and anxiety (addressed somewhat via meds and a 504). But I wonder if middle school just sucks for everyone, or if him coming home angry, frustrated, and anxious every day is just the norm for middle school in the time of COVID?

Advertisement

—Is This Normal?

Dear Normal,

It sucks for everyone.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

I worked in the top school district in my state for nine years. Teachers and parents loved the elementary and high schools, but the middle schools… Everyone would just shrug in a “we’re all doing the best we can” way.

I also taught in middle school classrooms in two different districts over a decade. I would’ve told you it was a very difficult but good job. Now that I teach high school, you’d have to double my salary to make me go back.

Middle school is tough on all parties. Parents find themselves titrating academic support—do I keep fighting with my kid about homework, or do I let them learn a hard lesson? Teachers are asked to do way too much. (I taught 4½ classes with a “planning period” eclipsed by meetings nearly every day.) And students—they’re changing schools and changing classes, and wanting to be grown up while and wanting to be kids, and getting crushes and getting their periods.

Advertisement
Advertisement

And those are the kids without special needs. Pile on top your son’s ADHD and anxiety, and I’m not at all surprised he’s struggling.

So what do you do?

If you Google “how to help my middle school student,” you’re going to find sunny articles that tell you to “teach your child good organizational skills” and “talk about feelings.” But if you’re the parent of a middle schooler, you’ll say, “Sure, let me just whip out my magic wand.”

Here are my two bullets:

• Empathize. Remember that it sucks… really bad.

• Ride it out. Know that this too shall pass.

In the meantime, take care of your own well-being. At worst, you’ll feel better. At best, you’ll model for your kid good coping skills, which every middle schooler needs.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

—Ms. Scott (high school teacher, North Carolina*)

Slate needs your support right now. Sign up for Slate Plus to keep reading the advice you crave every week.

My 11-year-old will be entering junior high as a sixth grader in the fall, and she is terrified. She worries the teachers will be mean, there will be bullies roaming the halls, the work will be difficult, and everyone will be growing up and she won’t be a child anymore. She attended school virtually for about a year during 2020/2021 but went back in person for fifth grade. She struggled with anxiety around school even then and has been seeing a counselor for about three months. I try to listen to her worries, we talk through them, and her counselor has been a big help, but we can barely mention the idea of school without her being visibly uncomfortable. Is this normal for this age and is there anything we can do to help? She keeps asking if she can be homeschooled but that is just not something we really want/are able to do.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

—Filled With Fear

Dear FWF,

Your daughter’s anxiety sounds more intense than typical new-school jitters; I’m glad she is seeing a counselor and she should definitely continue those sessions. It’s also important to make it clear to her that homeschooling is not an option, but you are here to support her.

Ask her what she likes about school and discuss happy memories from the past. Help her recognize that she will have these positive experiences (for example: art class, friends, etc.) in junior high as well.

Do what you can to help her feel prepared for the new school. Many junior highs have welcoming events for incoming students to tour the building and sometimes even meet their teachers. Help her organize her backpack, learn her new schedule, and get into her morning routine a few weeks before school begins.

Advertisement
Advertisement

I hope that the counselor can offer practical strategies for supporting your daughter emotionally as she begins school in the fall. One of my favorite online resources, A Mighty Girl, recommends this parenting book for helping kids cope with anxiety. They also offer a list of books for kids about dealing with worries and fears (scroll down for her age range). Consider reading one with her and helping her identify strategies she can use while starting junior high.

As the first day of school approaches, do your best to convey your confidence in her. If you are calm and let her know that you believe in her, that will help her to believe in herself. Good luck!

—Ms. Holbrook (high school teacher, Texas)

Advertisement

How can I work on the preschool sight words over the summer without making it a drill? Is there a way to practice with my child in a fun way?

—Reading is Fun

Dear Reading,

I’m of two minds about this question. On the one hand, you shouldn’t. There are more important things for a preschooler to learn—social skills, play skills, social-emotional skills, etc.—and they will not be “behind” if they begin kindergarten without a sight word repertoire. Kids need time off from working because they need to enjoy being kids. That’s their job; to play and explore their world. Furthermore, reading research is increasingly moving away from the concept of a “sight word” and toward a focus on kids learning “high frequency words” which they do not need to decode (think: sound out) but rather recognize quickly because they encounter them often.

Advertisement

On the other hand (and with that sight word/high frequency word shift in mind), it’s good to expose your kids to reading! It’s even good that you’re motivated to practice. I don’t mean to discourage any of that. Any leg up that makes reading easier for your child ultimately will make them more successful in school, which is directly linked to their happiness, self-esteem, etc.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

With these conflicting thoughts in mind, there are ways to spend time with your child, allowing them to play and explore their world and learn non-academic or para-academic skills that will also create opportunities to practice reading high frequency words. Read books with your child! Don’t just read at them but engage them in the book: they do need to learn that in English, we read from left to right, top to bottom (and if you read to them in a language that doesn’t, expose them to that information too)—as you read, point to words. If your child happens to know some high frequency words, pause at those words and give your child a chance to read them on their own. Those opportunities should be frequent since, well, that’s what makes them high frequency words.

Advertisement

Take your child out into the world! There are dozens of signs we pass every day as adults, and every sign is an opportunity for your child to attempt to read. If there’s a sign in the park that gives directions or information, stop and read it. Do the same procedure you would with a book: point to words and pause for the ones you think your child knows. They can practice reading words there as well. Then, do the same for recipes your child likes to make, or directions for building a new toy, or whatever else you do with your child. While you’re at it, let your child read the numbers on the ingredients list. Not only is this extra practice reading, but it gives your child increased independence with cooking/baking, which is really exciting to the child brain. Children learn best through natural experience, so instead of seeking reading activities, just include your child in the reading activities you’re already doing. This will be more fun for them, and probably more fun for you too.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Obviously, try to read your child’s mood while you do this. Kids who like to read are kids who grow up to be strong readers, so if your child is like “ugh, stop,” when you’re doing this, ease up. Forcing them to practice reading will not foster a good relationship with reading. My point here is not that you should turn every activity into a little bit of homework; rather, any activity can be an opportunity for your child to learn, if you allow them the chance to lead the learning. If you’re showing your child that they can make their favorite cupcake recipe with you, and that they even know some of the words in the recipe, that will excite your child. If you’re like “come, it’s now time to do chores AND school with Mommy/Daddy,” that can breed resentment instead. Let your kid be a kid, and if they happen to practice some sight words along the way, all the better.

Advertisement

—Ms. Sarnell (early childhood special education teacher, New York)

More Advice From Slate

My daughter is a freshman in high school, and she recently got an assignment in life sciences that seems inappropriate. The assignment is for the kids to identify someone in their family who died of cancer, and then students are supposed to research that kind of cancer and create a poster presentation to display for the entire school. This seems like a terrible idea, and an invasion of privacy. Should I talk to the teacher?

Correction, July 18, 2022: Due to an editing error, this piece misstated that Ms. Scott is a high school teacher in Texas. She is a high school teacher in North Carolina.

Advertisement