This blog is written for my younger clients and their parents, so… if you are able to drive a car or if you don’t have kids then please stop reading and skip to the next blog
1. Life in Middle School is all about CHANGES
Your body is changing but your brain is changing too… and by your brain I mean how you learn and how you manage your emotions.
The point to remember is that physical and intellectual development take place at different times. While you are growing intellectually you may be physically smaller than your friends. So even though it is not obvious, your brain and its capacity to reason and think is changing and growing .
Before your brain starts to mature, you tend to think in more concrete and real terms rather than abstract terms and with a much shorter time perspective. That means you think about the here and now; your life at home and at school and maybe the week ahead but you’re not thinking longer term say, five or ten years ahead and your not thinking in abstract concepts which is why Math, being abstract, is often tough to grasp. So while you are transitioning in the middle school years you may be good in one area and behind in other areas. If you are coping with overwhelming emotions you may not be on top of your game in academics.
Don’t Worry you will get there in the end. Life is a journey and we are all “a work in progress”. Feelings come and feelings go but they are not reality. Thoughts come and thoughts go but they are not reality either. The reality is you are in a life stage that is transitional and so, try to be patient
2. Middle School can be Stressful
One of the biggest challenges about life in Middle School is you have a lot more stress and this means that you may have stopped appreciating how much fun learning can be. Remember doing a science project in fourth grade how cool it was, well …it will be helpful if you can try and get excited about learning new stuff, building both academic and emotional skills. This means learning new skills like how to manage stress…and managing stress is hard for everyone, you, me, your teachers, we all have to practice time management skills and find ways to schedule our time so we get our work done and then have time to have fun and relax.
I really want to emphasize how dealing with stress and time management impacts your happiness and self esteem. As your brain is growing you start to learn about stuff going on in the rest of the world, from wars, Ebola, sexual predators and then add that in with having eight different classes and schedules changing on odd and even days and you really have to deal with a lot! When it starts to feel overwhelming you can get “anxiety” and even fears like phobias . If there is stuff going on in your family you may not understand then, wow, you may have actually a little meltdown now and then.
3 TALKING Matters :It takes you out of your emotions into your rational brain.
One of the best skills for managing stress and feelings is talking. When you name an emotion by talking or even journaling, like writing in a diary, you are processing your feelings so they actually leave the sub conscious part of the brain and they get processed in your frontal lobe, or the reasoning and rational part of your brain. Because your brain is growing, you can get emotionally aroused more easily and you may loose your ability to reason and think rationally. In fact the older part of the brain called the limbic system takes over. Talking and “naming what you’re feeling” means you are stopping your feelings from impacting your mood. That is why Talking to someone you trust is a way to be be free of anxiety, anger and sadness.
This is so important because believe it or not when you are stressed out , stress hormones (cortisol and adrenaline) impact the front of your brain, your frontal lobe,and it makes harder to retain information and to learn new things. So good time management and talking about your feelings can help reduce stress and make it easier to do well in in school academically.
A couple of tips…when it comes to Time Management- First thing is to try and keep your locker organized and secondly try to to set up studying at the same times each day if possible and its always better to get your homework over with earlier when you first get home from school.
4. During Middle School years you are figuring out “who am I?”
Your social life and your relationships all change dramatically in middle school and psychologically your forming “a self concept” But one of the things that makes it tricky is during the ages from 11 to 14 your self concept is based on social comparisons. You look at your self versus other kids in your year and you compare yourself on how do I add up physically as in “is he/she better looking” etc you compare yourself academically and you think “am I smart enough?” and then you compare your self socially as in “am I popular.?”
Please be kind to yourself the way you would be with your best friend,.. so don’t feel like you are a failure if you may not have gotten an A in Math. If you learned something and you have tried your best that is what is important and everybody is good at something, focus on what your areas of excellence are and don’t try to be someone you are not.
Your relationship with your self gets mirrored in all your other relationships so if you think “Hey I am a nice person and I’m cool with who I am “ then other people will think “hey she is a nice person and she is pretty cool”.
5. You are not crazy, it is your hormones
The main message I have for you is everything you are feeling and everything you experience is all totally Normal developmentally so NO you are not crazy. When you start to grow all these hormones are floating around in your blood and your hormones impact your moods. Estrogen in girls and testosterone in boys impact endorphins like serotonin and other chemicals in your brains that regulate mood and make you happy. When your serotonin and dopamine levels are low you may feel angry and irritable. Because your body is growing and changing these hormone levels go up and down so your moods go up and down . From one day to the next you may feel totally different. THIS IS NORMAL. Blood sugar levels; getting enough protein and iron; getting enough sleep, all of these things impact your emotions.
One of the defining characteristics of being a teenager is having mood swings and this is partly the physiological changes but also as your self concept is getting stronger , you push back at bit more when you feel you still are being treated like a little kid.
Remember having negative feelings doesn’t make you a bad person, feelings come and go but you are a good person and there are people who are willing to listen. Your teachers, your friends, your parents and people like me who specialize in helping people talk through their problems.
7. Is it Love or is it Infatuation?
There are some feelings we may need to explore a little bit further particularly the ones you have when you feel like you are in love. You exchange a glance followed by a warm smile and boom, suddenly you feel a crazy attraction. It is like euphoria, you can feel the blood rush to your face , your knees feel weak and you are captivated. Is it love? well no it is really more likely to be infatuation.
If you are miserable when they are not around, if you can’t focus and you can’t help thinking in a sexual way about them…. then guess what it is not real, it is your hormones again. When infatuated we experience a surge off dopamine that rushes through our brain causing us to feel good . Norepinephrine stimulates our heart and the same chemical that is found in Chocolate, phenylethalimine creates a feeling of bliss. The crazy irrational romantic ideas are caused by oxytocin which creates sexual feelings and feelings of attachment. These feelings are sometime overwhelming but it is part of your body growing and it really important that you don’t make choices based on your hormones and on infatuation. Developmentally you are too young to handle engaging in a sexual relationship, it can destabilize your growing self concept and the consequences can be life changing. If you act out sexually you may be inviting disease, pregnancy and emotional damage that you can’t easily recover from. You are still developing life skills which include managing emotions so you are not emotionally stable enough to handle a sexual relationship.
8. When you take drugs you are impacting your brain and your future ability to be happy.
The same crazy feelings that I used to describe infatuation and why your moods go up and down are a result of changes in brain chemicals called neurotransmitters like Gaba, Dopamine and Norepinephrine . They way your brain produces these chemicals changes when you use drugs. Drugs artificially elevate these neurotransmitters so they make you feel good for a few hours but when you stop using the drug, the brian has adapted to the artificial surge by reducing the amount of naturally occurring neurotransmitters. This means once the drug is out of your blood stream the level of neurotransmitters are really low and so your ability to regulate your moods is gone. You feel depressed and irritable . If you keep taking drugs while your brain is growing you may change the way your brain works. If you add all of the other things going in your life as a middle school kid then by taking drugs you may be about to throw your life away before it even got started. Your brain is growing and when kids take drugs while their brain is growing then they may forever alter their brain and its ability to regulate moods. I worked in drug rehabs for ten years. When teenagers came in hooked on painkillers our ability to help them was less succesful because their brains had been altered by using drugs while the brain was not yet fully formed. They had difficulty regulating emotions and they found it very difficult to feel any form of pleasure.
9. Play sports
If you want to feel good then go for a runner’s high . Running and doing exercises that get your heart rate up, raises the level of those brain chemicals we were talking about earlier, Dopamine Norepinephrine, & Gaba. The same neurotransmitters and amino acids that illegal drugs artificially elevate to make you feel good., But doing cardio can get you high in a healthy way and you get physically fit at the same time.
Even better than running is playing a team sport. It is one of the easiest ways to learn how to be self disciplined and self discipline is one of life’s most important skills When you are playing a team sport you are practicing a new physical discipline with other people,you are learning how to train and your coach is there to push you to go the extra mile. You aren’t alone, trying to do it all by yourself and you can get really motivated. The other thing about exercise and the so called Runners high, which happens when you get your heart rate up, it is a great stress reliever. You can make awesome friends playing sports and if your are good at it you can also enhance your self esteem.
10. The Marshmallow Test.
There is a very famous clinical study where an individual kid is put in a room in which there is plate full of big fluffy white marshmallows. Each of the kids are told that they can have one marshmallow now but if they are willing to wait one hour then they can have two marshmallows. The scientists followed more than 1000 kids for ten years tracking their academic and emotional achievements . The kids who had waited an hour for two marshmallows had developed a life skill that carried them to success and happiness. Why because these kids had developed an ability to control their feelings and impulses, they understood delayed gratification.
Managing your emotions and having self discipline is more important than your IQ in terms of happiness and success in life. The thing to remember about self discipline , it is an emotional muscle that you can build through practice. The more you learn to delay gratification and say NO to the second brownie or the temptation to play video games instead of getting your school work done the easier and easier it gets.
If there is one thing you should remember about what I am telling you it is this: emotional intelligence is more important than IQ and it is a life skill that you can learn. The same way you learned to ride a bike , you can learn to be manage feelings, to say “No” and by talking things through and not acting on your feelings, you make better choices and it means you are going to feel better about your self and you are more likely to be a happy person.