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Unpack your own middle-school baggage and help kids enjoy those years

Remember middle school? Are you cringing? You don't have to pass down those awkward middle-school associations to your own kids.
/ Source: TODAY Contributor

Remember middle school? Are you cringing?

For many adults, a quick trip down memory lane to middle school brings back memories of social blunders, fashion experiments and gawkiness that have us squirming with self-consciousness all over again.

Why is it that what happens to us in middle school sticks with us for so long and can still bring up feelings of embarrassment decades later?

Middle School Makeover
Michelle Icard's book, "Middle School Makeover."Courtesy Michelle Icard

It turns out, memories are formed differently in the adolescent brain than in the brains of younger kids or adults. Not only is the ability to form memories at its greatest during adolescence, but adolescents are slower to forget painful memories. So, what happens in middle school doesn’t stay in middle school. This becomes problematic when your memories affect your soon-to-be middle schooler’s experience.

How do you know if your own middle school experience is negatively affecting how you parent?

Ask yourself:

Do I talk about the middle school years as being overwhelmingly negative?

Do I categorize most kids in middle school as “mean”, “obnoxious” or “immature”?

Do I shelter my child to keep them from feeling the same pain I experienced?

Michelle Icard and family
Michelle Icard and family.Courtesy Michelle Icard

We create a self-fulfilling prophecy when we decide ahead of time that middle school is the worst. Just as cultures who don’t identify the twos as “terrible” report less parenting angst about toddlers, if we could change the script we use to talk about middle school, we might change our kids’ experiences.

What can we do to make it better?

Try not to worry. Yes, middle school brings with it lots of scary changes. You might worry about things like developing sexuality, lack of maturity, or risk-taking behavior, but worrying won’t make those things go away. As Erma Bombeck famously wrote, “Worry is like a rocking chair: it gives you something to do but never gets you anywhere”.

Embrace change. Remember, you’re playing the long game. Though you may have to deal with some strange developmental behavior from your middle schooler, he or she is trying to figure out how to develop an identity separate from you, deal with puberty and operate a brain that is rapidly changing. All of this happens so that eventually, your middle schooler can go to college, get a job and move out. If nothing changed … nothing would change. Yikes.

Keep a sense of humor. Above all else, don’t forget to laugh. Things may get tough but there will be plenty of opportunities to have a good laugh during the middle-school years. Even if it’s at your expense! In fact, a good test to determine if you’re ready to leave behind your middle-school baggage is to pull out your awkward middle-school photos. If you still wince when you look at them, you may need to do some work before you pass your reservations about middle school on to your kids. If you can laugh and share with others, you’re on the right track!

By the way, this is me in sixth grade.

IMAGE: Michelle Icard
Michelle Icard in sixth grade. It was a "Silver Spoons" thing.Courtesy Michelle Icard

The story about why I chose THIS outfit for the first day is in my book "Middle School Makeover." It involves changing schools and a misguided attempt to channel Ricky Schroder from "Silver Spoons" … pretty good for a laugh.

IMAGE: Michelle Icard
Michelle Icard today.Courtesy Michelle Icard

If you’re feeling brave and ready to abandon your middle-school baggage, join me by sharing your middle school photo on the TODAY Parents Facebook page for everyone to see. If it takes a village to raise a child, it also takes a village to support a middle-school parent! We’re here for you!