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Focus on the Family Broadcast

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

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

Original Air Date: August 8, 2014



Cynthia Tobias: 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 – there’s so much angst in the middle school years.

End of Excerpt

John Fuller: If you’re a long-time listener to Focus on the Family, you might recognize that calm and assuring voice that has some authority to it. That’s education expert, Cynthia Tobias, and she’s talking about children in the middle school years. Your host is Focus president and author, Jim Daly. And I’m John Fuller.

Jim Daly: John, you and I were both taking notes when this aired last time. We were really into the conversation I think because our boys were in the thick of it.

John: Right there, yeah.

Jim: And now, as summer is winding down and a new school year is about to start, let me remind you about our latest podcast titled “Thriving Student: What Your Child Needs for School Success”. It’s available on iTunes, and you can listen at our website here at Focus on the Family. In it, we’re covering lots of topics with some great parenting experts that will give you the boost I think that you’re looking for to kick off a great year of school.

It’s true, the middle school years can be a delicate time where parents have to maintain a tight relationship with their children, but they also have to start letting go and fostering that independence that kids need. Today, we’re going to be diving into that season of life – the middle school years – and how you as a parent can step up and really make a difference in your child.

Cynthia Tobias so brilliantly helps us to understand exactly how to do that. Today’s conversation with her and my lovely wife Jean is based on Cynthia’s book titled Middle School: The Inside Story…What Your Kids Tell Us, But Don’t Tell You. And if you missed the first part of this program, call us for the CD or go online or get the broadcast app to listen or download it.

John: And you can find all of these resources and also that podcast that Jim mentioned, “Thriving Student” at, or give us a call and we’ll tell you more – 800, the letter A and the word FAMILY – 800-232-6459.

Let’s go ahead and continue now with Jim Daly asking Cynthia Tobias about the different learning styles.


Jim: Uh, Cynthia, you’re really the guru when it comes to learning styles for children and you’ve written about it. Summarize for us what the learning styles are.

Cynthia: Well, and you – you really notice these when – in middle school, ‘cause you’ve noticed ‘em when they’re younger, but you can really see them start to be amplified.

Jim: So, the patterns.

Cynthia: The patterns. You can start to see the amplification. You know, you have the auditory learners who need to talk. They just need to talk. They’re gonna ask you questions. They’re gonna interrupt. They’re not gonna understand or remember something unless they talk about it. The upside is, they’re gonna talk to you about what’s happening and that’s encouraging. The downside is, if you’re not an auditory person, you’re gonna get tired of hearing them talk. Um, there’s the visual ones who – they don’t talk that much. “Trent, how was your day in school?” “Fine.” “Well, why don’t you talk to me? Why won’t you communicate with me?” ‘Cause I’m – I’m much more visual and maybe I’ll write you a little note or maybe I’ll sit down later and – and look at some things…

Jim: Draw you a picture.

Cynthia: I’ll draw you a picture. I’ll – I’m more visual. I just don’t talk as much and that’s difficult if you’re an auditory parent, ‘cause you want him to talk.

There’s the kinesthetic um, learner and remember, we’re all pieces of this puzzle. We have all of the pieces, but your kinesthetic is – is restless and wants to do things and hands-on and deal with things. So, the first thing they’re gonna want to do, they get into a new situation, they’re gonna want to touch and experience and – and do things.

You have the – the learner who’s really analytic, like you, Jean. I – and one of the – I love the analytic part of you that – that says, I – I need to focus on specifics. I need to figure this out. I need to figure out what the plan is and I need to follow the plan and I’d like to have some predictability. This is difficult in middle school, ‘cause predictability isn’t really what middle school is known for. And your whole life has suddenly become totally unpredictable. And – and yet, you’re an analytically-wired kid, who’s tryin’ to figure out, “Why is my life in chaos? I need order.”

And the other half of the world, which is much more global and intuitive learners, who – we don’t need the predictability. We’re kind of “go by the seat of your pants”, kind of “get the big picture”, get the context. Let’s just go over all and see what’s going on. So middle school for us as global learners, we’re goin’, boy, I’m just kinda absorbing and – and I want to learn from a lot of kids. And my analytic sister is going, wait, wait, wait. I need to write this down and I need to know what room I’m supposed to be in. And I’m going, some kid’ll tell you. Don’t worry about it.

So – so you’ve got – you’ve got all these mixtures of things of how your mind works and what you’re like. And in the book we go through and when – when you’re trying to teach your middle schoolers study skills and other things, it’s very important to know who they are, to know what those strengths are, ‘cause now more than ever, those strengths will be important to help them cope and give them strategies.

Jean Daly: Cynthia, we’re very fortunate. Our boys go to a school that has the seventh graders, which is the first year of their middle school, come a day before anyone else and I love it. They walk through the halls. They find where their classrooms are. They have their schedules printed out. They go to their locker. They practice opening their locker with their combination. So the school walks them through all those very practical situations that I can remember.

Jim: It’s a good idea.

Jean: I remember being a junior higher and so worried about forgetting my combination. I think those are very common fears. So, let’s speak to the parents whose schools don’t do that. What are some of the practical ways that parents can help their students before that first day of middle school?

Cynthia: We actually have a little checklist in there like that, ‘cause that is an excellent idea. Because then you’re sending them to school at least with the confidence of knowing the physical layout. If the school doesn’t sponsor it, most of the time you can ask if you can go in the week or so before school and just walk through with your child and preferably, maybe another student that’s gonna be going there that maybe goes to your church, a friend, so that you can just get the lay of the land and figure out what’s going on. ‘Cause you’re right and I’m glad you brought that up, ‘cause that’s real critical. They’ve got so many other things to think about.

Jim: Uh, let’s talk about grades. Uh, we’re right about to start the school year again. What should be the expectations at this stage of junior high when it comes to grades and discipline and how they’re getting their work done, if they’re getting their work done?

Cynthia: Let me tell you a couple overarching things. Number one, whether parents like to think about it or not, school for a middle schooler is really just the stage for all of their life is happening. Their peers, they’re learning rules and unwritten rules. School is the stage. School work, academics and what they’re learning is incidental. If it happens, great. But that’s not even what they focus on. They don’t have enough energy to focus on everything, ‘cause things are happening so quickly to them, that they can’t even keep up with it.

I think that’s why the other overarching rule, which is that your grades aren’t on your permanent record until you’re in ninth grade, gives you a little window of grace, not that you let kids get by with being lazy or not trying. But this is your opportunity to help them kinda do a little bit of trial and error and to experiment with what works. What’s gonna motivate you? How are you gonna help? Because by the time you get to ninth grade and you start high school you’re gonna need – it’s gonna really matter.

Jim: Yeah, patterns are set. And…

Cynthia: Right. Not that the grades don’t matter now…

Jim: Right.

Cynthia: …’cause they’ll – but if you make the grades the whole – all-encompassing important thing, it’s like Jean talked about earlier with what’s really important, the communication and relationship goes by the wayside. If all you’re focused in on is the fact that I’m not getting A’s, then I can’t even feel like I could talk to you. Or you know, the middle school kids feel like, what’s the point? I’m – I’m failing everything then. I don’t understand anything and I can’t even get good grades.

Jean: Cynthia, you mention in the book that really the important part is helping them learn study skills during…

Cynthia: Right.

Jean: …these years, isn’t it?

Cynthia: Right and this is the time they can try it out. What works? What doesn’t?

Jim: Cynthia, in middle school, again we’ve touched on this, but the development of friendships is so important to them and parents can back up and not be in tune with who their friends are and that network. How do we manage that effectively and not to be too overly involved in their friendships, but to know that we’re there to protect them and their safety? I would think a lot of angst can be developed right there, because “Don’t tell me who my friends should be. These are my friends. I like my friends. We laugh together. We have fun together. Don’t tell me I can’t uh, be with them.” Talk about that aspect of parenting.

Cynthia: Well, a couple things. First of all, as a parent, you want to try to design as much as possible an environment for them where they find friends the right way.

Jim: How do you do that?

Cynthia: Well, if you’re not involved, for instance, in a church that you really like with a good dynamic youth group that you believe is solid, you want to get them around other families and other kids that have – it doesn’t mean that – that’s not a magic formula. But I mean, you want to try to get some friends that are – that are around. The other thing is you know, you want to – you want to be able to talk to them and not panic too much. But you want to be able to ask questions. “Wow, he’s interesting. How did you meet him? What are his parents like? I’m just curious. Well, that … that must have been … must have been cool. You know, that reminds me, you – you like that kind of thing.” And I mean, again, using kind of the empathy in some of the questions, instead of saying, “Well, I don’t like him. Well, why would you go out with somebody that’s got a tattoo on him?” And you know, then – then they’re going, “Whoa, whoa, whoa.” Everything becomes defensive, right?

And – and you know, we talk about “the talk” in here, where instead of having a big heavy-duty sex talk, all the kids agreed that, you know, the little bite-sized pieces. When a situation comes up, like you want to bring up, you know, there is a girl in your class that she’s kind of, you know, she’s developing and she’s not wearing – dressing appropriately. Let’s talk about how that makes you feel and why that’s happening. And we’ll just do it briefly and then we’ll move on to something else. So, it’s – you know, it doesn’t embarrass you, but just addressing it at the time.

Jim: Yeah, and you’re training your child to manage that, because, you know what?

Cynthia: Right.

Jim: When they’re 18, they’re gonna be foisted – 18, 19 – into a situation vocationally, at work or in college, where they need to rely on only themselves to be able to…

Cynthia: Right.

Jim: …make the right decisions. Uh, Cynthia, you mentioned um, young love. I think I want to come back with that, just for a moment. Again, in the context of the middle school years, the impression I have and it may not be accurate, uh, is where those – the girls are seeking that romance. They want a boy to pay attention to ‘em. And in many ways, I don’t mean this disrespectfully, but they want to play romance. They don’t really know what it’s about. Uh, they probably have a Hollywood rendition of it. So, it’s now becoming more physical than perhaps it was in years past. But they want to be noticed. They want to be um, in some ways, courted, that kind of thing. How does a girl particularly in junior high, guard herself from the dangers of that?

Cynthia: And I’ll tell you what, you could do a whole future program with Sue. I hope you do, because she’s got a lot of experience with this with these girls. The eighth graders tell us though – they said if we would tell a – the sixth and seventh graders one thing, we would tell ‘em, don’t date. Don’t go in for romance. ‘Cause they look back on it and – and Sue helps walk them through the thing.

You know, you need to think about the fact that this is probably not gonna be your last one and that you’re still gonna be around these boys and you’ve gotta be careful. And she, you know, takes ‘em through and – and uh, talks to the girls about it. But the bottom line in the book is we recommend you do not – don’t think it’s cute and let ‘em just kinda go out on a little date or whatever. It’s not a good idea. Um, it just really isn’t. You encourage them not to. You…

Jim: And teach them why.

Cynthia: And teach them why. Yeah, and you talk about it. And again, it doesn’t have to be the great big talk, but you – you start introducing them to the idea of what dating is and what it leads to and – and why it’s not a good idea to – to do things casually sometimes. And as a policy, we would recommend that you don’t do – don’t let your middle schoolers – they call it “dating.” I – with my boys, I said, you know, there won’t be any dating until 16. You want to do group dates, um…

Jim: Group outings.

Cynthia: Group outings where – where it’s, you know, but not, you know, one on one, hide behind the bleachers, do a little secret kissing. That happens all the time, but then there’s always drama, always drama and all great regret and great tears and great you know, all kinds of stuff.

Jim: Well, and – and I don’t want to naïve here, uh, because I think junior high is different today than it was…

Cynthia: Yes.

Jim: …when we were all in junior high. And we need to be forthright with that. I think you have a combination of media and uh, entertainment that has saturated all of us and even our middle school kids. So, they – their expectations of what it means is not a kiss under the bleachers. It’s far more than that and you need to…

Cynthia: Because it’s a problem.

Jim: …realize that.

Cynthia: Things are – yeah, they’re watching.

Jim: And protect your children.

Jean: Well, and they are not mature enough yet to understand the ramifications of sexuality.

Cynthia: Right.

Jean: And uh, middle schoolers are not at a point where they – they really understand cause and effect. They really can’t see into the future. And isn’t that right? And understand that what they’re doing today, especially in the realm of sexuality, girls and boys, how this will affect them or how it could even have some permanent effects. I think their brains aren’t even developed in such a way that they can understand pregnancy or really understand the emotional scars that having sexual relationships in middle school.

Cynthia: And there are problems, you know, even at Christian schools, let alone public schools and others, where you know, um, sexting is pretty popular still, where you take pictures of yourself and send to your current boyfriend or whatever.

But a lot of times, you know, Sue will say to the – one of the students is, “This picture’s gonna be around forever. You understand that? Once something is posted on the Internet or YouTube, it will never go away. Is this what you want around forever? Is this how you want to be remembered?” And sometimes the girls will go, “Oh, no, I don’t want to be remembered that way.”

Jim: But it’s important to have that chat before…

Cynthia: It is.

Jim: …it happens.

Cynthia: Absolutely.

Jim: So, you have to be brave enough as a parent to go in there and have that discussion and paint that picture and – and get their input related to that…

Cynthia: Right.

Jim: …and hear their heart on that…

Cynthia: Or capitalize on…

Jim: …before it happens.

Cynthia: …local news or – or you…

Jim: Yeah.

Cynthia: …you see something on television and you say, “Let’s talk about that for a minute.”

Jean: That is a great suggestion, Cynthia. I appreciate that, that while you’re watching, you see a commercial. It’s a woman that’s dressed in appropriately or – or maybe it’s an ad for a – a show that’s coming up that – it’s inappropriate sexually, to have the discussion with your middle schooler about that.

And I would like to say that to parents out there, because I can tend to be naive and I want to believe that all those terrible things I hear about in the culture really aren’t happening at my son’s school. And what – the advice I would like to give is – to parents is, unfortunately it is. And your kids need to hear it from you before they hear it from their peers. And with each decade, that age gets younger and younger when we need to be talking to our kids. We may think they’re not being exposed to these things, but they are.

Cynthia: And Sue tells me that she’s – I mean, hello, parents. They watch what you watch and they watch what you’re watching, even though you say, “Well, this is an adult movie.” “Well, why are you watching an adult R-rated movie and you won’t let me watch it?” That – I mean, they’re watching. They’re taking cues from us all the time. So, what you think is no big deal, it might actually be a big deal. So, you need to model it.

Jim: Cynthia, in your book, you talk about the red flags of middle school years. Tell us what you mean by that and it – again, it’s parental attention, being in tune with where your middle schoolers at.

Cynthia: Right and knowing how to not overreact, and yet, still be aware what’s going on. ‘Cause there’s a certain amount of normal, for instance, privacy issues. They’re just realizing they can close that door and this is the one place where their siblings don’t infringe and they can just kinda be alone with their thoughts and figure things out. And that’s okay for a while, but excessive privacy um, and of course, no computer in there, it’s just something to watch and – and see. A little bit of depression is natural, a little bit, because again, it’s overwhelming. Everybody’s gonna have mood swings in – in middle school. Uh, but there are issues that you can watch for. For example, Sue, and even in a Christian school classroom, there are kids who are cutting. Uh, that’s become more and more prevalent, is the cutting, even with kids that you think were perfectly normal on the outside. Um…

Jim: And they’re just struggling on the inside…

Cynthia: They’re struggling, yeah.

Jim: …not that it’s abnormal, but their behavior is – they’re losing themselves in some of these activities and actions.

Cynthia: Right. And talking to some of them, they’ll tell me, “Well, I just needed to feel something, ‘cause I just felt sorta numb. I don’t know who I am anymore.” So – so they – they needed that.

Um, at some point, especially if you’re a middle school parent and you don’t know what’s normal, I – I would encourage you; Focus on the Family has a great referral service for counselors. And if you feel like you’re in over your head, I think it’s not a bad idea at all to at least do a couple phone calls and find out, what’s normal? Should I be worried? If you have a doubt, it’s better to check it out than it is to just ignore it.

Jim: It’s a really good point and I think so often we, as parents, we second guess maybe to the detriment of our child. Case in point, I was able to take the boys with me on a – a Focus related trip to New York. And we had some time, so I took ‘em over to Ground Zero to walk that. And it was profound. It made an impact on them.

And we talked about what happened that day in terms of people being told to stay at their desk. You remember the reports. I mean, people naturally were going with their gut instinct to get out of the buildings. And some people, the facilities people were saying, “No, stay put. Everything’s under control.”

And I said to my boys, I said, “Listen, God’s given you instinct.” And I said, “If you’re ever in a building or if you’re ever in a situation where your instinct tells you to get out, do it, no matter who’s telling you to stay put, even if it’s an official. Uh, know what’s going on as best as you can and go with what God is putting in your heart to do.” Because I believe God’s given us that ability to say, “Run.” And uh, it was that kind of thing. And the same is true here. Um, if something’s not right, don’t stay put at the desk if the building’s crumbling.

Cynthia: Right.

Jim: Um, get out and as a parent, you need to help them see those things.

Cynthia: Right. I agree.

Jim: Cynthia, you talk about cutting. There’s so many potential pitfalls at this age, where kids are feeling that depression, which to a degree as you said, could be normal. But it – it may go over the line and then they uh, find themselves in deeper depression and they don’t know what’s going on. They’re lonely. Maybe they don’t have the parental connection that can help them to be that lifeline for them. And now it’s starting to express itself in a variety of behaviors – bulimia, anorexia. It’s happening at a younger and younger age, cutting like you said. So many things can go wrong right now. What do parents need to be aware of in that really destructive behavior?

Cynthia: Well, again, you need to watch for signs and a lot of times parents don’t know, ‘cause – ‘cause kids can get substance abuse out of a lot of things. I mean, you – you can extract the alcohol out of hand sanitizer. We have – I mean, Sue and I, we’re starting to put together a – a list of things that you can look for that you didn’t even know that could damage your child that’s out there, among the kids, just nor – normal every-day household items and food items they can get.

Jim: Prescription drugs.

Cynthia: Right, your own prescription drugs and – and uh…

Jean: Cough syrup.

Cynthia: Yes.

Jean: Over-the-counter cough syrup.

Cynthia: Yes. And hair spray and I mean, other things that you wouldn’t even think about, that the – all the inhalants and the experimentation and things you think, “Never would my child do that. They’ve grown up in a Christian home. They know better than this. They would never go and try to hang themselves just for fun or what -” But they do. And it’s horrifying and it’s shocking and it’s – you don’t want to be surprised about it.

So, I think also, you know, most places in your police departments and stuff, they – they may have some – some informational seminars at your schools. I mean, check it out. Get knowledgeable about some of those things. Google it, find some things. There are some very good resources where you can just read about what to – some signs on what to look for. And again, if you have any doubt, talk to your child about it. Um, you may even want to talk to your child’s friends about it or talk to your child about their friends. You want to make it so that they can at least feel free to communicate with you. And it’s tough. It’s a touchy thing and it’s something that most parents don’t even want to think about.

Jim: Cynthia, that’s the – the point I was gonna make. So many of us as parents, we’re saying understandably, no, not – not our child. It’s almost dangerous. You think to yourself, “I don’t want to expose them to that discussion, because am I enabling them to know more about it than if I didn’t speak to them about it?”

Cynthia: Yeah, that’s just it, yeah.

Jim: You – so you sit there and you spin in this logic situation. But it’s best to engage, because most likely they do know people or they will soon know people. Maybe it’s not seventh, eighth grade, but it most likely will be ninth and tenth grade that they’re gonna know people that are engaged in that kind of behavior. And you just want to make sure that they’re equipped to manage the risk of them falling into that trap.

Cynthia: Right. So awareness is always better than ignorance when it comes to that. And just keep an open mind and if you’re not comfortable talking to them about it, maybe you have a friend um, a fellow parent that is comfortable talking to them and their friends about it, but don’t ignore it.

Jean: And that is my caution to parents, because I fell into that of not wanting to talk to my kids, fearing that I was going to tell them about something they hadn’t heard about. And as I have found out through other parents at our school, our kids are being exposed to everything and they are just – even ours in seventh grade and I think that’s a caution for parents, that um, and we live in a pretty conservative place, that their kids I would argue are being exposed to everything.

Cynthia: Sure. They’re gonna find out about it from somebody. It would be better if it – if you control who the somebody is.

Jim: Well, let me – let me tease that a bit, because the – the issue is at some point, you’re right, 18, even if you’ve done a fantastic job and you’re home schooling. You know, you have felt it’s imperative to keep my children from that exposure. They’re gonna turn 18. They’re gonna turn 19, and now they’re off to college and what’s happening so often is that’s worked well in the bubble, but now that they’re out there and they’ve gotta make those decisions, some of them are – are not managing that responsibility well. So, it’s not that they’re going to uh, be able to get through life without the exposure. It’s when the exposure happens, do they know how to manage it?

Cynthia: Yeah.

Jim: That can be a seventh, eighth grader. I can be hopefully, certainly 11th, 12th grader or a college student. But at some point, that child comes out from your protection and they’re in the world and now can they manage what’s coming at them? And that’s the goal of parenting, is to get them ready for that moment.

Cynthia: Yeah.

Jim: Cynthia, you have talked, I think and opened up our eyes to the idea that uh, junior highers, what they’re really trying to figure out is who they are, you know, at the core.

Cynthia: Yes.

Jim: Who am I and what am I about? And how do we help guide that as a parent. That relationship between parent-child begins to change in junior high. You’re noticing their changes, uh, but you know what? We’re changing as parents or should be changing as parents, as well. And I love that idea of empathy, the idea that – and it’s a Christian ethos; that’s what’s wonderful about it. How do we empathize with our junior high children and really connect with them in a way that they can continue to trust us, trust our advice and that we encourage them to come to us?

You know, it’s like that – that Scripture where the Lord says and I love this, where God says, “Come, let’s reason together.”

Cynthia: Yeah.

Jim: I just love that as a father, you know, because in many ways, He’s a father of a lot of junior highers, meaning us. We don’t behave properly, even as adults and for the Lord to be able to say, as a father to us, “Come now. Come. Let’s reason together. Let’s talk this through.” It’s a beautiful picture of what good parenting is about.


John: We really enjoyed the conversation with Cynthia Tobias and Jean Daly for the past couple of broadcasts, and today, talking more about the middle school years and how to best manage and approach those. I really love the message that we’ve had for you. Hold on to the relationship. Pursue the relationship even if it feels like your child is pushing you away or slipping away. It’s on you, mom and dad, to really maintain that – as Jim likes to call it – that tether of love.

Well Cynthia’s book is called Middle School: The Inside Story, and she and her co-writer, teacher and education expert in her own right, Sue Acuna, really have some great ideas about maintaining the relationship and having effective communication, discipline approaches, and more. Look for that at or call 1-800, the letter A and the word FAMILY.

In fact, make a generous donation of any amount to this ministry today, and we’ll send a complimentary copy of Middle School: The Inside Story. It’s our way of saying thank you for supporting this ministry, for helping us reach out around the world with biblical advice, and it’ll give you the answers that you might be looking for if you’ve got kids in this age range. So donate and get a copy of Middle School: The Inside Story at

Well join us tomorrow as we’ll continue with the parenting theme. We’ll be talking to Jonathan McKee about insights regarding your teenager’s social media world.


Jonathan McKee: It’s so tough for young people today, because there’s this measurement. They’re like a celebrity from 10 or 20 years ago that had to be careful every time they walked out of the house because every comment they made was judged, what they were wearing was judged. That’s all our kids today.

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