More Fight than Flight

14 Jul

The Middle School Child


You are just trying to help and you get comments such as “you’re retarded”, “no, not all the time” or “I don’t’ want to talk about it”. Is there a new way in which you are feeling ineffectual as a parent? Perhaps you have a tween or middle school child. In order to help your middle schooler with an anxiety problem, we must first acknowledge that he or she is at a very particular stage of life that is characterized by the physical transformation of puberty and an increased awareness of himself and the world around him. And of course there is a great deal of variability in how children respond to these changes. But, accommodating these changes throws his emotional equilibrium out of balance for a while. Julie Ross has described this age in her book How to Hug a Porcupine: Negotiating the Prickly Points of the Tween Years, as follows:


The essence of our children remains, but they are drawn inward for a period in order to develop properly. Similar to the caterpillar who spins a chrysalis to

protect itself while it changes into a butterfly, our children ‘protect’ themselves with anger, sensitivity, tears, defiance and disorganization. These behaviors are the human chrysalis, the outer shell that protects the delicate, unformed butterfly while it is most vulnerable (P. 5).

This a time in the life of your child where the words “tolerance” “patience” and “forbearance” will be needed in your vocabulary but will be perhaps hibernating in your child’s. Your best efforts to help and engage in a discussion may be met with a very off-putting “Leave me alone!” or “Nothing will help” And this reflects not so much disrespect, but rather the fragile nature of her psyche at this phase of growing up.


 While something different is happening to their bodies which cannot be denied, there a counter pressure to not feel that they different in thoughts and feelings from their peers. As a rule, they don’t like anything that makes them feel singled out and imagining that they get anxious in ways that their peers don’t get the alarm bells ringing. This problem is made more acute because the definition of what is normal shrinks during this time period to what they imagine is typical for their peers. But the operative phrase here is “imagine,” since they often do not have any solid evidence of what their peers may be thinking or feeling. This is an age when having a fear or anxious preoccupation can be terrifyingly embarrassing because it potentially signifies that they are different.


This is also the age where the development of social phobia is frequently reported to begin. As a parent, you will naturally feel some urgency to help, but any help must begin with the understanding that your child is on the doorstep of adolescence, and that this is even more important than the anxiety. The latter will be easier to address if the common pitfalls of communicating with this age group are minimized —and as Julie Ross points out in her book, there are many ways to miscommunicate with tweens. So maintaining, and even reinventing, your relationship with your middle school child is the necessary first step before other issues can be addressed.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: