My daughter is halfway through eighth grade, her final year of middle school. Which means there's finally a little light at the end of the tunnel. She is back to smiling all the time now, laughing with me in the car, and singing at the top of her lungs.
But last year, when we were in the thick of things, it was a different story. There were awkward silences, slammed doors, lots of screaming and yelling. It was probably my darkest time as a mom. Watching my daughter—a normally happy-go-lucky kid with not a care in the world—pull away from me, struggle with friends, and stress over school had a very real effect on me. It was like a dull gray cloud threatening to burst into storm had settled over our home without permission and without warning. And there was nowhere to take cover.
Turns out, I'm not alone. According to a new study by Arizona State researchers, the most stressful time for moms is when their kids are in middle school. "I was a little taken aback to see that apparently preadolescence is the new adolescence or junior high school, or middle school is the new high school," said Suniya Luthar, one of the study's co-authors and a professor of psychology at ASU.
Um, Luthar must not have a kid in middle school. Because in a study involving more than 2,200 moms across the country (more than 80 percent had a college or graduate degree), mothers of middle-school-aged children reported the highest levels of stress, loneliness, and emptiness, and also the lowest levels of life satisfaction and fulfillment.
"I see these moms...you can read it on their face," Michelle Icard, author of Middle School Makeover: Improving the Way You and Your Child Experience the Middle School Years told CNN. "They're highly stressed. They're nervous. They don't know what to do."
Mothers of infants and adults, meanwhile, were found to be the most satisfied. Which means if you're a new mom and you're feeling glum because you're not getting any sleep, you better strap in because you haven't even hit the bumpiest part of the ride yet!
Part of the reason middle school is so hard for parents may be that the changes in your kid seem to take place overnight. "You see this person who is almost but not quite grown-up physically, saying at one moment, 'Leave me alone. I've got this figured out. Let me do it my way,' or 'Don't ask me questions,'" said Luther. "And on the other hand, they (are) crushed in tears, and looking to you for comfort just like a child. They might cry like the children they used to be, but being able to actually comfort them is nowhere near as easy."
So what can we do better help them cope? Icard—who has been working with middle school children and teachers for more than 10 years—told CNN parents would benefit from knowing the facts about middle school, how children are going through what she calls "the middle school construction project" as they start to develop a new body, new brain, and new identity
"If you know that, for example, your kid has to create an identity apart from you when they are in middle school so that they can form healthy relationships with people in the future, it makes it a little easier to bear so it's not for nothing that your kid is separating and relying on their peers," she said. "That's how they figure out their way in the world."
She also suggested moms make sure they have something else going on in their lives for themselves when their children are in middle school. "You'll be modeling good self-care for your kid," she said. "And when things get really tumultuous and they're illogical and they're unpredictable, you have something to dive into that makes you happy and that does a lot for stress reduction."
True story. And the exact reason I decided to go back to work.
Let's just call that the silver lining.