8 Challenges Your Black Middle-Schooler May Face This Year

Middle school is a time when everything changes. For Black kids who are making transitions this year, parental support is meaningful.

Black middle school girl taking notes in class
Photo: Santi Nuñez/Stocksy

Some experts say the transition from elementary school to middle school is the biggest shift in K-12 education for a child. So much is different: the campus size, the number of students in each class, the accessibility of teachers, how lessons are implemented, student expectations, and interactions with families.

"Middle school is an awkward time," says LaToya Boston, LMFT, CAMF, a licensed marriage and family therapist whose Inglewood, California practice, Real Moms Live, specializes in children, adolescents, and families. "Puberty is in full effect. Kids are self-conscious about their bodies. Some are growing taller and getting thinner while others are gaining weight or not growing at all," says Boston. "They're learning how to appropriately manage hygiene and may be self-conscious about body hair, breast size, menstrual cycles, facial hair, height, and weight, and trying to figure out their identity."

Middle school is also the time when kids are coming to the realization that their opinions matter. They are learning censorship and self-expression and it all goes under the umbrella of peer acceptance.

For Taunya and Joel Taylor, navigating both a child in middle school and one in high school came with its share of challenges and triumphs. "There were days we had to reassure our middle school daughter of her greatness," recalls Taunya."She had fears about fitting in and questioned her body type. We reinforced for her that she is a badass the way she is, told her to be true to herself, and when the time comes, the right boy will like her."

Helping your child manage their emotions can be maddening, but before you pull out your hair, read on for tips to help them navigate some of the common challenges that come with this new journey.

The School Is Too Big

Most kids are ready for a change, but it can be overwhelming when they get there. Reassure them that in time, they will find their way. Encourage them to get involved in clubs, student government, or athletics which can help them find their way.

There's Too Much Work

Middle school is the first-time children transition from attending one class a day to six or more. Rather quickly they must learn to manage six teachers, six assignments, and the responsibility of being on time to class and completing work consistently. Time management and responsibility skills must now be implemented into their daily routine. Advise them to keep the lines of communication open with their teachers so they can offer support.

The Teachers Are "Mean"

At this stage, teachers are tasked with helping students develop effective work habits that will set them up for success in high school and beyond. Explain that just like they have greater responsibilities, their teachers also have more to balance – a longer day, more students, and, perhaps, their own children to manage. Help them understand that they must adapt and will benefit from different teaching styles.

Be sure to differentiate between run-of-the-mill feelings about teachers and those that indicate a larger problem. If you feel that your child is being singled out because of their identity, there are things you can do about it.

It's Hard for Them To Make Friends

Acceptance from peers provides social status. Still, encourage them to be the wonderful person they are. If your child is challenged with making new friends, Boston has four suggestions: "Talk to someone who's wearing their favorite color, someone with a similar hairstyle or outfit; sit next to someone who they admire; join a club or create one."

Parents can also be a source of strength for children who are dealing with bullies.

Navigating Social Media

There's really no way to protect your child from social media. Most kids learn about the world through the eyes of their friends and peers on apps like TikTok, Snapchat and Instagram. Social media isn't always a negative unless they overly identify with images that could harm them, causing issues like eating disorders or infatuations with fake body types. Allow your kids access to social media while also helping them to make positive choices that align with your family values.

Peer Pressure

Middle school is usually the first place where kids are exposed to sexual advances, drugs and alcohol and alternative lifestyles. Your child is also forming their own individual identity, exploring identity and sexuality. If your child is easily influenced, have conversations about self-worth and confidence and building their identity. A powerful way for parents to do this is to share personal age-appropriate experiences. Storytelling allows children to relate to parents as real people with real experiences.

Make Observations

Staying in tune with your child's behaviors is key during this time. Are they communicating less; easily distracted? Do they have challenges completing tasks? Display an increase in emotional outbursts or sensitivity? Has their social interaction decreased, or more argumentative than before? It is easy to assume these behaviors are due to being a preteen, but argumentative interactions may indicate they are struggling to deal with the circumstances they're experiencing.

If you've ever said, "I am not here to be your friend, I'm your parent," Boston says to change that idea. "When it comes to navigating peer pressure, social media, bullying, making new friends, and a new school environment, it is okay to create a positive parental friendship. Ask reflective questions like, 'What was the highlight of your day?' 'What is the funniest thing that happened today?' 'What do you and this new friend have in common?' 'What teacher do you think you will have the best relationship with, the most challenges, or the best/worst experience with?'"

Listen Up

Each time you interact with your child listen as if it is the first time, especially when they're angry. This teaches them to be vulnerable and sends a message that their feelings and emotions are important. Parents sometimes feel they must respond to a situation immediately, especially when emotions are involved. If you find yourself frustrated, it's okay to take a day or two (depending on the situation) before you respond so that your communication is clear.

"It's okay to explain why an answer is an answer. It's not okay to respond by saying, 'because I told you so,'" says Boston. Sometimes that means allowing them to address a decision that was made they may not agree with. Suppressing children's self-expression does not serve them well as teenagers or when they become adults. It promotes a lack of transparency, sneaky behaviors, and dishonesty.

This becomes tricky because many parents encourage kids to stand up for themselves outside of the home, but at home, the environment changes to "Do as I say and don't talk back." This type of interaction is a contradiction and does not allow kids to be independent thinkers.

The reality is parents are always teaching through words, nonverbal expressions, and body language. On the flip side, kids are always observing and learning the messages that are intended to learn from parents. Advocating for themselves in every setting, at school, at home, and in the community, makes a huge difference as children transition to high school, college, and into the workforce.

Keep It to Yourself

Most parents like to brag about their children's accomplishments. Boston says that doing so can create an expectation within the child that they must be greater than they feel they are. She further discourages sharing their challenges with people outside of the family, unless it is with a medical professional or a therapist because it's an invasion of their privacy. "Your child must know you are trustworthy. Offer a helping hand but allow them to figure things out for themselves," says Boston.

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