Is Middle School Scary?

the 2021-2022 AMS community sitting on the stairs smiling

I still vividly remember my first day of middle school. As the bright morning sun shone through the windows, I sat in a classroom amidst strangers.  I only recognized a couple of kids, but they sat several desks away, too far to talk to without attracting unwanted attention.  Instead I sat with my head down, simultaneously worrying that I got everything I needed out my locker and obsessing whether the my t-shirt signaled that I liked the right things. As my homeroom teacher—whatever that was—tried to explain how a schedule with bells, changing classrooms and seven different instructors worked, I kept thinking how I couldn’t get my locker open after five tries.

Although I never would have admitted it at the time, I was petrified. I was scared of making a mistake and embarrassing myself. I was scared of failing. Years later, I watch a new crop of middle schoolers starting AMS and think they look a lot like I did back then. They are fidgety and nervous. Their eyes dart around to see who is watching them. One look and you know the answer to the question, “Is middle school scary?” Without a doubt, YES!

Supporting Your Middle Schooler

two middle schoolers sitting on the stairs laughingThe transition to young adolescence is a challenging one. Young teens make friends based on their common interests rather than geographic proximity. As a result, they feel pressure to act cool and impress strangers in a way they hadn’t before. They feel excited about a new autonomy to choose their own clothing or school supplies. However, that freedom is loaded as a wrong choice could label them uncool. Their daily structures become unrecognizable and so do their bodies. Everyday can feel like a minefield in which each choice means the difference between being accepted and or feeling alone. Middle schoolers feeling scared isn’t just natural. It’s the norm.

So how do we help our middle schoolers cope with all these new changes? There are several ways to offer middle schoolers support during this challenging and scary time. Having a few structures in place will help young adolescents ease their transition and make middle school a less scary place.

Four Ways to Help Middle School Feel Less Scary

Validate Fears Instead of Distracting Them: As adults, we often want to distract our students from their fears and worries. We recognize this moment as one they just need to get through. Your instinct might be to reassure them that the pressure they feel is not as bad they think or that it’s all in their head. This tactic actually might make your middle schooler double down on their feelings causing the exact teenage tantrum you are trying to avoid. Instead, check in regularly about their experience, listen to them, and validate. Tell them their fears and worries make sense.

At AMS, students have social advisors who meet with them weekly. They talk about what teenage life is like for them. It doesn’t matter what problems or worries they’re having. They feel listened to and heard. These advisor groups also include other students so they don’t just get to talk about their experience, but get to hear others teens’ struggles as well. As a result, students feel like their experience is normal and not something to be scared about.

“Is middle school scary?” Without a doubt, the answer is YES!

Making it Okay to Try New Things AND to Quit: Middle schoolers often make friends when they are doing something. Finding friends with common interests is the best way to ensure that friendship will last. However figuring out what middle schoolers like to do can sometimes be challenging. They may need a couple of false starts before finding an activity that works for them.  Some parents worry that once their middle schooler starts an activity it’s important for them to follow through on it until the end. However, it’s actually important for them to trust their sense of what’s right for them. It’s ok for middle schoolers to try something and quit if they realize it’s not their thing. Instilling this value will help them make friends they actually have something in common with also teaching them to trust their inner voice about what works for them.

At AMS, students spend the first couple weeks opting into different activities. They might go tubing down the river or make artwork on the slab. They could go for a nature walk or play in the pottery studio. Students are allowed to pick different activities each time, allowing them to figure out their interests. They also make friends in the process. These friendships that are formed naturally over interests will help our middle schoolers build confidence and trust their ability to meet new people.

a student talking to a staff member at breakfast tableTalk to our Admissions Coordinator about how to help your student love middle school!

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Signs, Signs, Everywhere the Signs: With all the other fears middle schoolers are facing, one easy way to support them is making sure they know where they are supposed to be and what they are supposed to be doing. Some parents might question whether posting signs everywhere coddles their teenager. After all, young adolescence is a time when we are trying to establish self reliance in our children and making signs just means more work for us caregivers. However signs actually offer middle schoolers lots of autonomy. Rather than depending on needing to ask adults questions, they can find the answer on their own. If they forget, they can remind themselves rather than having to ask again and feel embarrassment. They learn they are capable of taking care of themselves.

Making Cool Free Spaces: Middle schoolers are always going to be obsessed over whether or not something is popular. However, as parents and educators, we can create spaces where less emphasis is placed on what is cool. At AMS, staff and students agree to not engage in body talk as part of their student contract. Students don’t talk about theirs or others’ appearances, even if what they want to say is positive. They don’t talk about their hair styles or clothing choices. This practice allows students to experiment and try new things without fear of being made fun of. They can make choices based on what they like as opposed to impressing others.

Facing Fears

There is no way to prevent our students from feeling scared of middle school. With all the changes and pressures, their fear is natural. All we can do is help support them through it. By putting some structures in place, we set them up for success and provide them with the tools to make middle school less scary and feel like a place where they will thrive.

-by Nicholas Maldonado