Why the middle-school years throw nearly all moms for a loop
Remember what it was like on the brink of motherhood? Reading What to Expect. Tracking your unborn baby’s growth from tadpole to kumquat to butternut squash. Studying how to feed and soothe your baby. Mulling over those milestone checklists. Researching the best strollers and toys and childcare.
We’re the best-prepared new moms ever!
Now a question (no matter what your trimester or your child’s age): What have you done to psych up for middle school?
That’s the most stressful, thorniest phase of motherhood, finds a fascinating new study of what’s been, until now, mostly uncharted terrain: women’s development across time as mothers.
Middle school knocks most of us for a loop. And we don’t see it coming because nobody talks about it.
Wait. Please keep reading, even if middle school is still years away for you. This is stuff you really, really need to know, promises Arizona State University professor of psychology Suniya Luthar, who with Lucia Ciciolla is the author of the study in the January 2016, issue of Developmental Psychology.
“In the field of child development, there’s an overwhelming emphasis on infancy and early childhood, which makes sense—it’s critical. But a whole set of formidable challenges comes at ages 12, 13, 14 that nothing has prepared you for,” Luthar told me. (She’s also a mother of two in their early 20s, so she’s been through it personally.) “We need as mothers to begin to understand the enormous complexity and weightiness of what lies ahead in this developmental stage.”
What lies ahead for us.
Wait! The newborn years aren’t the roughest?
Given sleep deprivation and the steep learning curve of adjusting to taking care of a helpless creature who can’t even talk, you might expect—as Luthar and Ciciolla did before their study—that infancy would be super-tough on moms. They surveyed 2,200 mostly well-educated mothers with kids from infancy to adulthood on a range of matters having to do with their own well-being, parenting, and perceptions of their children.
Babyhood, it turns out, brings lots of positives for new moms that help to offset what’s mostly the physical exhaustion of caregiving. And differing from earlier research, this bigger-picture study found that the conflicts and strains of new parents tend to rebound by kindergarten. In fact, moms tend to fare better during the baby stage than they do during any other stage (preschool, elementary school, middle school, high school, or the adult years).
Taking care of tweens and young teens? Hands-down the most challenging season of a mother’s life.
A “perfect storm…”
The phrase “perfect storm” of anything now borders on cliché. But you don’t have to be a meteorologist, or even a psychologist, to get that during the middle-school years, moms face a superstorm of gale-force factors all at once:
First, our kids are grappling with the wonders of puberty. Hormones, physical changes (like acne, breasts, muscles, changing voices), and still-unfinished brains deserve their reputation as havoc-wreakers. Developmentally, adolescents are driven to sort out who they are, and shift their focus from parents to peers and popularity. They’re also driven naturally to test limits, and—as their freedom grows—they start to take risks.
“From the perspective of mothers, there’s a great deal of truth to the saying ‘Little kids, little problems. Big kids, big problems,’” Luthar says. What makes it especially tough: Moms know that the fall-out from bad decisions and missteps at this age is potentially enormous.
Meanwhile, their world is getting more complicated, fast! In a big developmental mismatch, kids are grappling with puberty as they transition to bigger, more impersonal schools. Supportive 1:1 connections with teachers often go down. Competition and jockeying for social status amp up.
The pressure to achieve and accomplish also appears in full form at this time. Luthar cites data showing that’s it’s now in middle school, not just high school, that kids in upper-class communities confront intense pressures to take advanced classes and get involved in college-app-burnishing extracurriculars to secure solid futures. (Luthar isn’t saying this zeal is a good idea. But it is a new stress-driving reality for many tweens and early teens.)
“Middle school is the new high school. Preadolescence is the new adolescence,” she says. And as preteens and young teens struggle to adjust, we moms feel their stress.
At the same time, we’re struggling to find new ways of mommying. Moms, more than dads, tend to be the “first responders” to our kids’ stress, Luthar says. But our kids outgrow our comforting bedtime stories and often shrug off our hugs in the tween years. Our once all-knowing advice gets dissed as “lame”—or satirized in YouTube videos with titles like “How to Survive Middle School: A Car Ride With Mom.” We can’t even be sure who’s sitting down to dinner: our sweet baboo or Darth Vader. We want to seem supportive, but we don’t want to condone bad or dangerous stuff, either.
Even for the most confident moms among us, it’s a time of second-guessing ourselves, self-blame, and twinges of guilt or feeling rejected.
“There’s profound confusion for mothers,” Luthar told me. “We’re constantly finding ourselves walking a tightrope and having to make judgments about how to shield, support, and protect our kids. But what we’re thinking is, WTF am I supposed to do here? I have no idea!”
Not least…we’re changing, ourselves. That’s another thing What to Expect When You’re Expecting never tipped us off to. Many of us enter midlife about the time our kids enter middle school. (This is especially true as the age for having a first baby keeps rising.) That can mean everything from being at the most demanding point in a career to the weirdnesses of perimenopause and bifocals. Somewhere along the line, we stop feeling immortal. Marital satisfaction is also often at a low point, other research has shown. All while we’re trying to cope with all of the above.
Still, the tumult of middle school catches mom after mom by surprise.
So what can we do about it?
Expect it. Expect it. Expect it.
Just like when you reached for that first week-by-week pregnancy guide or app, knowledge is pretty powerful. Luckily, Luthar has some constructive advice to offer all of us:
If you have a baby or preschooler….
It’s almost impossible to imagine your sweet baby or preschooler with pimples, breasts, facial hair, or back-sass. So it’s hard to relate to the challenges of middle school.
But changes will happen, just as the first word and first step do. Simply knowing this helps reduce the later stress, Luthar says.
Try this: Dig out pictures of yourself as a baby, a kindergartner, and a 14-year-old. Or think about a younger sibling at these different stages. Yup, puberty happens to all of us, even your baby. It helps just to recognize early on that the challenges of mothering increase steadily from infancy through high school, as Luthar’s study shows. Instead of thinking you’ve climbed aboard the carousel of parenting, it helps to know there’s a rollercoaster in your future.
Or to use another analogy: “Think of it like taking prenatal vitamins or saving for college,” Luthar told me. “Don’t you want to be prepared?”
If you have a grade-schooler….
This is a great time to circle your wagons, Luthar says. Even if your kid is doing great and your relationship is strong, unexpected shifts will happen. So shore up your mom network with friends you can trust to be honest and compare notes about all you’re going through. Friendships now can be tricky, because our friends are often the parents of our kids’ friends, and when young buddies fall out, the grown-ups might, too. Be persistent about finding and—just as important—keeping strong a reliable circle of mom friends.
There’s no What to Expect When Your Kid Hits Middle and High School, but it helps to read as much as you can about adolescence to discover what’s coming. Though there hasn’t been much written about this subject until recently, that’s beginning to change, with books like The Teenage Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Survival Guide to Raising Adolescents and Young Adults and Age of Opportunity: Lessons From the New Science of Adolescence.
If you’re at or near middle school now…
Above all: Don’t beat yourself up. It turns out that it’s developmentally natural to feel like the only mom whose kid does really stupid, reckless things. Or to be hurt to the bone when your son sharply brushes away your hug at the soccer field or unexpectedly bummed when your daughter throws over your movie-night tradition for her friends. Feeling unsure of the right way to do things or second-guessing your decisions is often less about you than about this stage of mothering itself.
Reading about what kids are experiencing at this stage can help you see what’s normal and common now. But knowledge is only part of what moms need. Equally key is having steadfast support from your partner or friends—especially during this busy stage in life when we tend to drift from our friends.
Moms can’t overestimate the need for having “authentic connections” in their everyday lives during the middle school years, Luthar adds. You get the twin benefits of refueling yourself and giving your adolescent some of the separateness he or she needs now as you both transition and redefine yourselves at really important phases of each of your lives.
Earlier research by Luthar and Ciciolla found that mothers feel better and cope better with the demands of motherhood when they feel unconditionally accepted by loved ones and friends and receive the same degree of emotional comfort they dish out to their children. “As children must be tended to, so must we,” Luthar says.
The happiest moms
Here’s the good news: These years aren’t one endless slog. Tweens and teens—even middle-schoolers—can be a delight, at least sometimes! Luthar’s research paints a broad-strokes picture of how we all grow and change. Eventually, middle school slides into high school and then adulthood. We all adjust and get through.
And like that proverbial rainbow after the storm, the happiest phase of motherhood is still ahead—when kids are grown, the Arizona State study finds. “The empty nest syndrome is largely a myth,” Luthar’s research shows. Mom stress lifts, and life satisfaction looks pretty good again. And because motherhood is a job for life, this phase lasts longest and is often the easiest. That’s something to look forward to when the doors are slamming and you haven’t figured out how to clone yourself yet so you can be at a recital, the market, and a meeting at the same time.
It helps to remember: We’re not just our kids’ caregivers. We’re people too.
—Content chief Paula Spencer Scott is a mom of 4 and step-mom of 2—and the author or co-author of more than a dozen books about parenting, health, and eldercare, including Bright From the Start; The Happiest Toddler on the Block; Like Mother, Like Daughter; and Surviving Alzheimer’s.