When my daughter entered school, I thought it would be smooth sailing. We had the infant and toddler years behind us and the school-age years appeared to be pretty stable. But then middle school hit.
The middle school years can throw any mom for a loop. According to a study in Developmental Psychology, moms reported feeling the most stressed and lonely during the middle school years. I understand why this is, for moms of girls anyway. It’s like your daughter goes on this mega rollercoaster ride and all you can do is be a spectator, feeling a kind of helplessness that’s new and frustrating.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. Let’s touch on why this stage is such a tenuous time for girls and their mothers before we get into what a girl needs from her mom.
The Puberty Rollercoaster
Middle school is when most girls go through puberty, a period of rapid change both physically and emotionally. Girls start puberty around 10-11 and it typically lasts about four years.
During puberty, the female hormone estrogen instructs the body to mature sexually and physically, including breast budding, weight and height gains, the development of curves (hello fat) and about two and a half years after it all starts, a period. Changes also take place in her brain, causing more intense feelings and mood swings. And she becomes sensitized to her new, complicated social world, one she so desperately wants to be a part of.
Experts believe this is a critical period of the development of a girl’s body image and self-image, which directly relate to her health and well-being. As mentioned earlier, this transition period is like a rollercoaster with highs, lows, and unexpected twists, and turns. And it’s new and often scary for girls.
Given all these changes, girls need their moms more than ever. And here’s a step-by-step plan on how to really help them.
Step 1: Work on Adding Quality Time
Despite seeing each other often, quality time between mom and daughter may be missing. And it may not be because mom doesn’t try, but that girls act like they don’t want us around. But believe me, they do!
A girl needs weekly, quality time with her mom. This may be watching a show together, going shopping, or just going for walks. When possible, spend time doing stuff she likes and will be more open to. This special time shows your daughter how important she is and the opportunity to invite you on the rollercoaster ride with her.
Step 2: Be a Good Listener
This quality time together will bring up conversation and hints about her struggles and motivations. It’s important to leave judgment out when she talks to you. The more you criticize or react, the less she’ll share with you. Focus most on listening and hugging.
It may be tough to hear her say that she doesn’t want to do something out of fear of what her friends will think or that she envy’s a girl who’s thinner or more pretty than her. But this is how she’s feeling based on her limited experience and rapidly changing mind and body.
Good listening allows you to become familiar with which part of the rollercoaster ride she enjoys and which parts fill her with terror.
Step 3: Give Guidance at the Right Time
When the time is right, you can provide her with guidance. The wrong time is when she’s upset or stressed and the right time is when she’s calm. It can’t hurt to ask if you can offer advice or your opinion.
This is where you can fill in the missing information that helps her gain understanding. Has she been saying she’s upset about weight gain? Inform her that it’s her body’s way of getting ready for the menstrual cycle. She thinks something’s wrong because she’s moody? Explain how her brain is changing, making feelings more intense.
You can also help her see how her decisions can have consequences in her day to day life. For example, if she’s feeling stressed every morning you can brainstorm solutions together like getting everything ready the night before. Constantly feeling disappointed with a friend may mean it’s time to distance herself from that person. Her feelings provide important information and you can be there to help her learn how to use them for problem-solving.
Guidance from you helps her gradually take more control of the rollercoaster ride, making it smoother, more predictable, and a lot less scary.
Step 4: Provide Limits & Supervision
Middle school girls often push against limits because they want more autonomy which is good for their development. Yet more than ever, girls need limits and supervision. This helps her develop self control and keeps her from misusing her time (e.g., going on social media for 5 hours!)
But instead of making the rules, explain to her why she needs them and have her take a shot at coming up with her own. After deciding together on what they are (including chores), hold her accountable. The more responsible she is, the more autonomy and say she’ll get.
Also, girls need their mom involved in their media world. So if she goes on YouTube, be sure to spend time with her on YouTube. She’s got a favorite show, ask if you can watch it with her one time. If she’s on social media, keep abreast of it all. This is the ideal time to teach media literacy, helping her understand the limitations of the virtual world, and its unrealistic images and social media pitfalls.
Providing her with limits and supervision helps with prevention, keeping the rollercoaster ride from breaking down and needing repairs.
Step 5: Encourage Her to Follow Her Own Path
One of the key tasks of adolescence is to form an identity. And a strong sense of self has a positive impact on body image and health. Yet it’s easy for girls to become torn between pleasing others and following their own internal guide.
At this point, you should understand what motivates your daughter. For example, if she’s a loyal person and is staying in soccer despite verbalizing how she’d rather try theater, you could help her work through her fear of trying something new and disappointing her teammates.
Following your own path takes courage and she’ll need your support. As she gradually develops a stronger sense of self — which is likely to occur as she gets ready for high school — she enters a new phase. It’s not so much a rollercoaster anymore but a new ride with her in the driver’s seat. She may need you less but will still come to you when she encounters bumps on the road.
Moms Benefit Too
What a middle school girl needs most from her mom is a partner on the rollercoaster ride of puberty. And it’s not just daughters that benefit but moms. Not only is there a close bond that forms but moms can get back in touch with their own early adolescence, giving themselves what they didn’t get back then.
I am in awe of my soon-to-be thirteen-year-old daughter. She helps make me a better person and I think she feels the same way about me. I’m not just helplessly watching her on this ride, I’m with her for every high, every low, and everything in between. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.