We all remember our middle school years, and many of us wouldn’t choose to relive them. Hormones are running rampant, puberty is in full swing and social pressures are magnifying. Simultaneously, your children are gaining independence, forming social circles and adjusting to other transitions.
The best thing mom and dad can do is develop trust and offer children a secure place to land no matter what happens in their world. Dr. Kerry Van Voorhis , a pediatrician with Novant Health Pediatrics Symphony Park, offers some advice to parents of preteens.
Spend quality time together
With social media, friends, extracurricular activities and homework demanding your child’s attention, it can be tough to get that quality time. Van Voorhis recommends setting aside uninterrupted time to check in.
“Ask how things are going and actively listen,” Van Voorhis said. “‘Is anyone stressing you out at school or saying things that are disrespectful?’ Some kids will come right out and say it, but others are going to need to be asked.”
It’s important to give your child your undivided attention, meaning you’re not texting or working at the same time. This not only improves your relationship, but teaches your child important interpersonal skills to use with others.
Have ‘the talk’
Sex is something they’ll naturally be curious about, Van Voorhis said. They may joke and talk about it with their friends, but somewhere in that 10 to 13 age range, parents should cover what’s safe and appropriate as far as talking, looking and touching.
It’s important for parents to be open with the topic of puberty and to talk about healthy physical relationships. Children are going to go searching for answers on their own, so it’s important for adults to talk to them openly and address questions about sexuality.
Van Voorhis recommended stressing the importance of waiting to enter into a physical relationship and leaning on the child’s pediatrician to reinforce that message.
“As pediatricians, we want to be available to help share some of that information if parents feel uncomfortable,” Van Voorhis said. “Invite your child to come back with questions as they hear or see something new. Sometimes we forget that we need to reinforce and recommunicate the boundaries of what’s appropriate and what is not.”
Teach them to stand up for themselves and others
The hope is that any child would stand up for their friend or classmate and say, “Hey, that’s not right, don’t do that,” if they witness discrimination or bullying. These character traits should be taught just as much in the home as they are in school.
“Even if they’re not directly involved, we want to encourage our children to take a stand or to get help for the person that’s being mistreated,” Van Voorhis said. “They’re going to see things on a regular basis and we can help talk through those scenarios before they happen.”
Ask children what they would do in certain situations. Who they would tell, how they would handle it, and what they would say. Prepare them to handle conflict on their own, but let them know that you’re there if they need help .
Encourage regular exercise
At this age, some preteens are more apt to sit on the couch binge-watching Netflix than they are to play outside. Van Voorhis said 30 to 60 minutes of exercise a day is important not only for their physical health, but their mental health, too.
“Exercise is a great way to reduce your stress level, have fun and get some fresh air,” Van Voorhis said. “It’s a great coping mechanism and way to burn off some steam. They’ll also sleep better if they’ve had a chance to exercise.”
Parents should set the example by leading the way and exercising with their child. This is a great way for the whole family to get active and to spend some quality time. If the weather is bad, Van Voorhis recommends going online and finding exercises you can do indoors.
Talk about mental health
Middle school brings about a lot of uncertainty. Whether it be when you’ll hit puberty, who is hanging out with whom, who said what or who started that rumor on Facebook, there are many things for preteens to worry about.
Van Voorhis sees a number of middle schoolers who suffer from anxiety. “Sometimes kids have a general anxiety about something bad happening, and sometimes it’s specific to circumstances,” Van Voorhis said.
Parents would be wise to check in with their kids and ask if there are things that are making them anxious or nervous. Anxiety will often manifest as physical symptoms, such as stomach problems, so pay attention to your child’s complaints.
If anxiety is interfering with school attendance or sleep, it might be time to take the problem to a counselor or psychiatrist. Most of the time, Van Voorhis said, parents can help by teaching proper coping skills.
“Getting enough sleep, exercising, paying attention to how we’re breathing, and being mindful is important to keep our anxiety under control,” Van Voorhis said. “But sometimes you have to develop skills beyond those things.”
He recommends the book “What to Do When You Worry Too Much” by Dawn Huebner.
To find a Novant Health pediatrician near you, click here .