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While rocking my crying infant, I sobbed to a friend, “Being a mom is so hard!” Then there were the long days of timeouts and kids running into traffic, wondering when I’d feel pretty again, and when my husband would ever come home from work.
But now, as I white-knuckle it through my oldest learning to drive, I see this is what’s really hard. Each phase of parenthood pulls us further into the complicated truth that it never gets easier. It just gets different.
New research recently published in the Journal of Developmental Psychology reveals that for moms, there is a single most stressful time in her life: parenting a child in middle school.
I see it on the faces of moms I work with all the time — it’s a hard emotion to bluff. In a game of parenting poker, middle school moms rake the pot. “I see your tantruming toddler, and your cranky teen, and I raise you a middle schooler.” Game Over. But why is it more stressful than any other time in a mom’s life?
1. Unpredictability. Tweens are in-between little kids and big kids and, unfortunately, their development isn't linear. That means a mom never knows who's going to show up. Sometimes it's the sweet little kid who wants you to brush her hair. Sometimes it’s the snarly teen who slams the door when you ask her why she's wearing eyeliner. Unpredictability can take its toll on a mom’s stress level.
2.Separation. Beginning in middle school, kids must start the crucial developmental process of building their own identity apart from their parents. To Mom, asserting independence can feel like rebellion, defiance, and rejection. It's hard to recognize that it serves a greater purpose. (Spoiler alert: Kids who don't develop identities apart from their parents have difficulties maintaining healthy, intimate relationships with others later in life.)
3.Confusion. Tweens’ brains begin to undergo massive structural and functional changes in middle school. Just as toddlers need to learn how to walk on wobbly legs, tweens need to learn how to think with fresh brains. As concrete thinking makes way for hypothetical thinking, you’ll notice middle schoolers start acting like very bad lawyers. Instead of coming to a conclusion after examining the evidence, they begin arguments by deciding on their desired outcome and then working their way backwards to crank out proof. “But I shouldn’t have to clean my room because John doesn’t have to/I think better in a messy room/it’s not messy/I already cleaned it last month…” and so on and so on.
4.Outside Influences. Changing friendships, social media, sexual curiosity, risk-taking … the social world of tweens bursts open in middle school. Some moms remember how painful and awkward the middle school years were for them, and it stirs up painful memories.This may cause them to carry that baggage to their children's experience, creating stress for both parent and child.
5.Middle school meets mid-life. While tweens are in middle school building new identities, brains and bodies, their moms are mirroring those very changes in their own lives. Hormones, body changes, and identity issues are just as much a part of mom’s life as her kids’ during this time.
Just knowing why this phase is so hard — and trying to understand where your middle schooler is coming from — can go a long way in easing your mind, and your stress level.
Michelle Icard is the mom of two teens and author of Middle School Makeover: Improving The Way You and Your Child Experience Middle School Years. Learn more about her work to help middle schoolers and their parents at MichelleintheMiddle.com.
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Originally published on February 5,2016.