10 Ways Moms Can Bond With Middle School Daughters
Know when and how to communicate
Middle school can be an exciting time for a girl. New friends, new school, new body, new crushes. Your baby is growing up — and that’s a good thing! But it’s not always smooth or easy. As she straddles childhood and teenage years, it’s hard for Mom to know where she fits in or what her new role is in parenting. As you navigate this new emotional territory, it’s important to give your daughter some leeway. Allow her to grow — and even make mistakes.
However, as I tell mother/daughter pairs in my Right in the Middle workshops, it’s not only important to keep the lines of communication open and to be willing to have the difficult conversations, but to know when and how to communicate. Here are a few tips to get you started:
1. Develop a “Botox Brow.” Beginning around fifth or sixth grade, your daughter will start to assume you’re angry with her, even when you’re not. A teen’s brain uses the amygdala (the brain’s emotional center) to read people’s facial expressions, whereas an adult brain uses the more rational prefrontal cortex. The amygdala often misinterprets facial expressions. To avoid miscommunication during middle school, pretend you are a celebrity who has been over-Botoxed. In other words, if you keep a neutral expression when talking with your daughter, she’s less likely to think you’re angry and more willing to talk to you about sensitive matters.
2. Give each other space. Middle school requires resilience from mothers and daughters as they figure out who they are when they are apart from one another. Don’t freak out if your daughter pulls away from you, or if you find your daughter more aggravating than in the past. This is not an indication that you’ll spend future holidays apart, or end up not speaking to one another. It’s merely a normal part of growing up.
3. Encourage your daughter to try new things. As your daughter figures out who she is on her journey toward independence, she will want to explore lots of new things. Of course, you’ll be all for her trying new clubs, sports and foods. But she will also want to try out new fashions, friends and personality traits. This is all part of the process.
4. Maintain rituals and traditions. So much will be new for you and your girl that it will be comforting to root yourselves in customary routines and traditions. Don’t pass on your annual holiday viewing of “The Sound of Music” just because you think she has outgrown it. She may not admit it, but she’ll appreciate (even with an eye roll) knowing there is stability with you.
5. Never talk about clothes in the heat of the moment. Your daughter is adjusting to a new body, teen identity and confusing social trends. There will be many times she shows up for breakfast or emerges from a dressing room in something provocative or inappropriate. If you try to talk about it then and there, she will likely crumble. In a happy moment together, discuss some concrete guidelines for clothing. This should vary depending on the activity and company so she still has some space to experiment. You could say, for example, “You can wear ripped jeans to a birthday party, but not to your orchestra concert.”
6. Get a hobby. Just as your daughter is grappling with her emerging teen identity, you are likely pondering your own mid-life identity. There is no better time to dive into something outside of your family. Give some thought to what brings you joy that has nothing to do with your kids, then do it.
7. Negotiate and contract. Your daughter’s brain will be going through some amazing changes during middle school. One is the ability to begin thinking more hypothetically, instead of so concretely. This is when magical thinking will begin to get annoying. She will try to negotiate her way through all kinds of scenarios because, “maybe,” … “yeah, but,” … “it could.” Don’t resist her need to negotiate. Teach her how it’s done respectfully by engaging without emotional bias. Give her some small wins to build her trust and confidence in the process. She’ll be more likely to give you some, too. And after a good negotiation, write it down. A written contract will serve you both well as a reference point if things become heated in a misunderstanding later.
8. Become an assistant manager. Your daughter needs practice learning how to do the things that will make her a successful adult; such as managing time, keeping a calendar, cleaning up after herself, negotiating conflict and advocating for herself, for example. This is a long, messy process. Don’t expect success overnight. On average, adolescence now lasts about 14 years — from age 10-24 — according to a study published in January 2018 by The Lancet, a child and adolescent health journal. So give it time. Mostly, don’t try to micromanage your child or she will never learn. Allow her to try things, mess up and have an opportunity to fix it. Rinse and repeat.
9. Dust off the baby books. Things get very complicated for girls in middle school. Pull out your baby books and put them in a more central place in the house. From time to time, look at old photos or family videos together. Your daughter will relax seeing how loved and adorable she is in a time when she may be full of self-doubt.
10. Don’t get involved in the friend stuff. The best way to help your daughter navigate painful friendships is by being a good sounding board. Let her know you can listen without doing anything. Most girls just want to download their emotions onto someone they can trust, and then they can move on. Pretend you’re listening to a co-worker or friend. You wouldn’t call her boss or husband to report how she’s feeling. Just show her the power of being a nonjudgmental friend and listener.
Michelle Icard is the author of “Middle School Makeover: Improving The Way You and Your Child Experience The Middle School Years.” She hosts Right in the Middle, a conference for girls entering middle school and their moms. Her next event is at The Glenwood in Raleigh on April 28, 2019, and registration is open online. Sign up at michelleinthemiddle.com/mother-daughter-conference/about (click on “conference” then “dates”).
Photo of Michelle icard courtesy of Kate Weaver Photography