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Focus on the Family Broadcast

Helping Kids Thrive in the Middle School Years (Part 1 of 2)

Helping Kids Thrive in the Middle School Years (Part 1 of 2)

Cynthia Tobias and Jean Daly explain how parents can successfully navigate the challenges they face in dealing with the physical, emotional and social changes their children experience during the middle school years. (Part 1 of 2)

Original Air Date: August 7, 2014



Jim Daly: Cynthia, aside from age, what’s one thing that really identifies a middle-school-age child? I’m smiling, laughing, because I think I know the answer.

Cynthia Tobias: Well, I’d like to hear your answer.


Jim: No, you go ahead.

Cynthia: Well, there’s not just one thing, but I would say one of the biggest things is they don’t know how to identify themselves. They don’t know who they are yet.

End of Excerpt

John Fuller: And if that sounds like someone in your home, then stay with us for today’s episode of Focus on the Family. Your host is Focus president and author Jim Daly, and I’m John Fuller.

Jim: Today, we’re going to explore the middle school years – all the trials and difficulties and joys – looking at the ages of 10 through 14 specifically. We recorded this program several years ago with our good friend and education expert, Cynthia Tobias, right when Jean and I were walking through those middle school years with Trent and Troy. And boy, it was good advice! And I’m pleased to say they’re now 18 and 16, so we’ve gotten through it.

John: You’ve gotten that far, yay!

Jim: The long view is the right thing for parents, that the middle school years – they don’t last forever – doesn’t feel like it when you’re in the middle of it. But things are in a good place.

Cynthia is so good, and you’re going to walk away with some wonderful tools today about how to manage those middle school years. And our goal is to equip moms and dads to do the best job they can do as parents in raising their children. The parenting journey isn’t an easy one, and those of us that have children know that, but we’re here at Focus on the Family to come alongside you and walk with you and help you. If you need us, we’re just a phone call or a mouse click away.

John: And the number is 800-232-6459. And the mouse click is focusonthefamily.com/radio.

Now as Jim said, Cynthia Tobias joined us for this program, along with Jean Daly, Jim’s wife, about helping your child thrive in middle school. And Jean and Cynthia have both been here a number of times; you’ll recognize their voices. Cynthia, of course, an accomplished writer and speaker about learning and communication styles – this broadcast was based on her book called Middle School: The Inside Story…What Your Kids Tell Us, But Don’t Tell You. And we’ll jump in as Jim asks about the kind of changes that parents can anticipate in this season of life.

Jim: What smells so bad?! What stinks?!



Jim: There are so many changes that go on for middle schoolers. I mean, they’re trying to find themselves. They’ve becoming a bit more self-aware of who they are. Uh, they want to be recognized a little bit for their independence and have their ideas heard and expressed. What are some of the things that are going on in the middle school years that we as parents need to be aware of?

Cynthia: Well, one of the biggest things is they’ve started practicing to be adults now, ‘cause they’re – they’re realizing, in elementary school you mom and dad did everything for you and you know, everything was guided and directed and done for you.

But all of a sudden, you’re more independent and you get to make some more decisions or you should or you want to. And you’re not exactly – you’re happy about it, but you’re not exactly sure how that’s done and who do you ask? And what are the – you know, Sue Acuna, my coauthor, she’s a – a full-time middle school teacher. And we got to talk to a lot of middle – middle schoolers ourselves and they’re just bewildered in many ways. And parents will call their middle schoolers “aliens” and you know…

Jim: All the nice names.

Cynthia: All the nice names. And – and – and the middle schoolers are going, well, I mean, they don’t recognize the kid in the mirror either. And…

Jim: Yeah.

Cynthia: …and almost overnight some of the parents go, “Wow, this – just don’t remember this ever being an issue before.” But so I – I think that was one of the things that came through loud and clear when we talked to all these kids is they wanted to stay close to their parents, but they didn’t either. You know, it – they wanted…

Jim: It’s that moment.

Cynthia: It’s that moment where they – they feel like, “I need to start breaking free, but free to where? I’m not sure. And free from what? I’m not sure. How can I do it?”

Jim: And who am I?

Cynthia: “Who am I? What do I do?” You know, it – it’s just a time where it’s – a critical issue becomes keeping that relationship strong enough with them that you can guide them without makin’ ‘em mad.

Jim: Well, let’s explore that a little bit, because what I’m observing in our own boys, um, there’s this great desire to be understood. You – you start reflecting more on the world around you. You’re forming some opinions that may be different from your mom and dad’s. Many are still attached and you can see uh, that those attachments are there. But it is that kind of push-pull situation. Uh, what does God expect of us as parents at this moment? What do you think in terms of what we should be teaching and exhibiting to our middle school kids? What would God want us to do?

Cynthia: Well I think first of all, we – we relax our grip a little, but we never take our hands off the wheel, right? We – we really stay steady in there and relax a little. But I think God expects us as parents to remember, if they’re gonna practice to be adults, you’re the ones they’re watching more than anybody else – you and their teachers. And so you need to put them in situations as – both as a family, fellowship at church, um, in schools, because all the adults around them now become role models for them in many ways, ‘cause they’re tryin’ to figure out, you know, scan the room. Scan their classrooms. It – adults that they interact with, they’re getting a clue from. “Oh, this must be how I’m supposed to act, because I’m not a kid anymore.”

And that’s a sobering responsibility for us, especially because now they – they make us more irritated than they’ve ever made us in their lives – not on purpose. So our reaction to them tends to be sometimes a little unstable.

Jim: Jean, let me as you. I mean, you’re a mom. I’m observing you. You do a great job engagin’ the kids and kind of that line of accountability and your expectations as mom. Um, what do you think’s most important right now?

Jean Daly: I think this is definitely a challenging time for both the adolescent and the parent. I think the most important thing is to realize this is very much a transition period, to try as a parent not to take everything quite so seriously and realize that this is a time when your adolescent is trying to figure out who they are and where their place is in life. And I know for me personally, really trying to keep my mouth shut often and not try to solve their problems – try to be a better listener. I think that is really important during this time and trying to very gently guide them. It – it is very different from when they were younger.

Jim: Um, let me just frame this for us, as well. You and your co-author, uh, did this book, Middle School: The Inside Story. You kinda – you interviewed hundreds of middle school children, right?

Cynthia: Yes, and what we – we zeroed in. Sue Acuna, she’s just a wonderful, incredible middle school teacher. And um, especially with her class that she sees every day, and they loved and followed this book from the beginning. We sent out surveys to other kids in other states and we talked to a lot of middle school kids. But these kids just really got invested in this book.

And it was so touching. I think Sue and I both agreed that one of the most touching things was, in their hearts, they just yearned for the relationship to stay with their parents. But they know with peer pressure and everything else, it’s not really cool. I – I want my mom to still love me and make me lunch and kinda do things for me. But I could never – I wouldn’t be cool and that would be, like that would be too – and – and it’s just – it’s – there’s so much angst in the middle school years.

And um, and what diffuses it so well and – and the kids told us this, too, is just that empathy on the part of the parent, saying, “Oh, I know this frustrates you. I can tell it frustrates you.” Or “If this embarrasses you, you let me know, okay, ‘cause I don’t want to-” I mean, just talking to them and saying – Sue gave a great example when her uh, one of her sons was in middle school, and he would go to his room and say, “I don’t want to talk.” And she would stop at the door and say, “Is this where I’m supposed to leave you alone or I’m supposed to ask another question?” “No I told you, I want to be alone.” And it – so she starts to walk away and he would say, “It’s just that -” And then she comes back in and they start talking.

So, it’s – it’s one of those things where it’s kinda, sort of back-handed and sideways, but I really do want you to kinda ask me again. And it was just incredibly insightful to talk to the kids themselves and have them tell us, “Well, I don’t really feel like my parents really want to know, ‘cause they ask me a question and then I start to answer and they just cut me off and go, ‘Oh, that’s nice.’ And then they go on with their life and they don’t listen to me. And they get mad at me if I don’t listen to them.”

And – and – but they really – they want to be listened to. They want to be understood. And most importantly, they want to be taken seriously. So when they talk to their parents about some little picky problem in middle school that’s big to them and the parent says, “You know, wait till you get older. You’ll have a car payment and a mortgage and let’s see how you feel about it then.” It totally wipes out any possibility I’m gonna talk to you again as a middle school kid, ‘cause you just told me I didn’t matter. And that’s just all I know. This is my life and it’s real insignificant to the parent.

Jim: Well, what you’re really saying is, “You’re irrelevant.”

Cynthia: Yeah.

Jim: Your – your experiences are irrelevant to me, ‘cause I’ve got bigger issues than you have.

Cynthia: And it’s so easy. Don’t you think it’s easy to communicate that they’re not that convenient? Have you noticed that, Jean? They’re really not that convenient at this age. They’re just so much trouble.


Jean: Yes, yes. Uh…

Jim: They’re not livin’ the way you want ‘em to live.

Jean: Yes, exactly.

Jim: Let’s talk for a second about discipline. Uh, you know, through elementary school years, you had control or at least you thought you did. And you could do a variety of things to get their attention – whatever that discipline might be. Junior high now, they’re goin’ through their developmental issues. You’re goin’ through your parental issues, ‘cause you’re not quite sure how to manage that. They’re too big to spank. Uh, you know, they’re not driving yet. I can’t take that away from ‘em. What do you do to discipline a child in that middle school phase when they’re outside the boundaries of – of the home rules?

Cynthia: Well, you know, again, there – there aren’t real simple recipes and answers, but I know you’d like that, right, Jean?

Jean: Yes, I would.

Jim: She’s got her notebook ready to go.

Jean: I want the manual.

Cynthia: I love Jean; she’s the opposite of me, but she’s just a planner person. “Well, just give me the recipe!”

Jean: Yes!

Cynthia: Just tell me what to do. Um, my boys are real different. I’m sure your boys are very different, too, so you know, but again, at that age, it has to shift. You know, you’re not gonna spank. You’re not gonna do time out necessarily. You’re not gonna send a seventh grader…

Jim: To the corner.

Cynthia: …to his room for time out. So again, this is where they’ll – they’re learning from you, so this is time to be honest and time to be transparent and saying, “You know, I think you and I both know that, that is totally inappropriate. Do you understand how inappropriate that was?” “Yeah.” “So we’re gonna need to figure out what to do here. And you know, you can get their input on – on some punishment. Um, if they don’t have smartphones or a computer, you could take away computer time. You could take away some social time. But I would encourage you to at least involve them a little bit in the process of how you determine what a punishment is.

The other thing I like is Jim Fay, when he does Love and Logic. One of the things, if you want to get kinda even with them in a way, ‘cause they’ve made you so frustrated anyway. And – and you say, “Well, you know there’s gonna be a punishment.” “Okay, what’s my punishment?” “I’m gonna pray about it overnight and think about it and let you know tomorrow.”

Jim: And let ‘em stew.

Cynthia: Drives ‘em crazy, yeah. But it’s just – you know, involving them in the process when you can, even just a little bit makes a difference. And you’re gonna have to experiment a little with what works. Don’t ground them for life.

One of the things we talk about, you – you tend to make these grandiose statements, right? That, “You’re grounded for life and you can’t have any electronics.” “Well, how am I supposed to do my homework assignments, then?”

Jean: Right.

Cynthia: Well, okay, all but tat. And then…

Jim: That usually is my thing. I like to make those grand statements and then Jean quietly, as we’re alone will say, “You know, that probably isn’t very practical.” You’re not gonna…

Jean: But you’ve gotten so much better about that, Jim.

Jim: Well, you’ve helped me in that way though.

Jean: You really have.

Jim: ‘Cause I – I would usually – I’d pull out the, you know, the ultimatum.

John: The nuclear option.

Jean: Yes. The nuclear option.

Jim: Yeah, that’s it, you know. You are never gonna do that again and…

Jean: ‘Cause it’s just off the top of our head.

Jim: …They’re kinda all lookin’ at me like, that’s not true.


I think it comes down to credibility. And then yeah, the next day, I’m goin’, “Nah, that’s okay. I will – I just lost myself there.”

Uh, Cynthia, your two boys, twins, are in their 20s now. And of course, ours are still younger – in this zone of middle school actually. For moms particularly, you know, so often the moms uh, are a little closer in many ways to the children at this stage. Mom fixes “boo-boo’s.” Mom takes care of me. I feel mom’s love. Not quite sure where dad’s at maybe. I – hopefully they feel dad’s love, too, but there’s a bond that’s unique between a child and their mother at this age.

I would think uh, one of the difficulties is for mom to begin to do the very thing you just said is hard, because you’re deriving a certain amount of identity out of bein’ mom. And to begin now to let go in a healthy way at the middle school age could be a challenge. Some moms miss that and what’s the danger of that, Cynthia?

Cynthia: Well, you can go two different extremes. I’ve seen it both ways. I – I discovered when my boys got in middle school that they actually needed me and I’m sure you’ve discovered this, Jean, they actually needed me more than they did…

Jean: Absolutely.

Cynthia: …on – when they were in kindergarten, but they needed me in a whole different way. And – and so, for me to back off too much would’ve left them drifting and kind of flailing. But for me to move in like I did when they were younger was pushing them and was – was making them embarrassed and was smothering them.

So, it was one of those things and I’ll – I’ll say this. One of the things I’ve noticed about Jean that I really like, she does what I recommend, which is just being a little bit self-deprecating and a little bit honest in – even with your boys. Like I’ve heard you say, “Oh, I know I shouldn’t really do that. I – I should be better at this.” And I think that that’s good for the kids to hear once in a while, too, ‘cause they know their mom is trying.

That’s where that, you know your reliance upon God first of all as – as the wisdom in your life and His grace. But just the relationship you have with your children, it changes and – and it’s fluid, but it still needs to be there and it needs to be stable and honesty keeps it solid.

Jim: Cynthia, in your book, you talk about childhood dreams and how junior highers begin to lose those dreams. That was a revelation to me, because I don’t think of a child that age having dreams for their life. Uh, what was that all about?

Cynthia: Well, it has to do with, you know, when you ask a child, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” “I want to be a fireman.” Or “I want to be a police officer.” Or “I want to be a nurse.” And you feel like you can do anything. And parents encourage you. But the middle school level, all of a sudden, you have this overwhelming inferiority complex. And you lose the confidence for a while ‘cause you don’t even know who you are. How could you even think who do you want to be? I – and you have all these issues to work out.

Jim: So, your confidence begins to erode, perhaps.

Cynthia: Right, because all of a sudden, you’re realizing your limitations, which as an elementary kid, you know, you don’t really think about limitations. Right? But now life is startin’ to push in on you. And – and as you’re becoming an adult, one of the first things that happens, unfortunately, is kinda the idea that, “I don’t think I’m that big a deal.” I mean, there’s nothin’ like puberty to – to make you humble, right? And you think, “I’m really not that big a deal. I don’t think I know what to do.”

Jim: But that’s why it’s so important at that point for a parent to give lift to that child’s dreams…

Cynthia: Yes.

Jim: …to help them keep the potential alive. And parents play a critical role in saying, “You’re in the very front of your life. You can be anything that you want to be right now.”

Cynthia: But you know what the middle school kid will reply though? “Well, you’re my dad; you have to tell me that.” I mean, that’s just a predictable response. Don’t let that discourage you. But that will be a predictable response, ‘cause they know you’re supposed to be the cheerleader, yeah, yeah, yeah, blah, blah, blah. And, “You can do it; you can do it.” “Yeah, well, you have to say that, ‘cause you’re my dad.”

John: Practically what does that look like for me as a dad to a son who says, “I’m gonna play in the NFL?” And I’m thinking, “You know, the odds are very, very against you playing football for career.” How do I cultivate that dream within him without, you know, crushing him with reality?

Cynthia: Well, there are many things to do with the NFL that don’t involve playing football, too. And so, even – you can encourage him to say, “You can get to know everything about the NFL, because there are so many opportunities later, even if you didn’t make the cut, ‘cause very few people do, you can try out. And then if you didn’t make the cut, you’ve already studied so many other things about it. You could make an incredible office person. You could make an incredible reporter, sports reporter. There are so many things you could do.

So, I – I think you don’t have to kill the dream. Um, and you want to temper it a little, but also, you know, you’re not gonna pour cold water on it either. But I know what you mean. You don’t want to be unrealistic about the expectation.

John: Well, I like what you said there though. You’re opening up opportunities to them within that field or connected to that somehow.

Cynthia: ‘Cause he just gave you a clue what interests him and what motivates him. So, there you go.

Jean: And Cynthia, you mentioned in the book, having someone who works in the particular career field of your child, let’s say of a child who’s lost or losing their dream.

Cynthia: Right.


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