By Patti Richards
He’s not in elementary school, and he’s not a teenager. He needs you some days, and other days he doesn’t. Yesterday he kissed you goodbye before hopping out of the car, and today he barely grunted as he slammed the door. Tomorrow he might surprise you with an “I love you, Mom,” and the next day, “You don’t understand anything, Mom!” When did you and your easy-going kid board this emotional rollercoaster? Wasn’t it just yesterday that everything could be fixed with a hug and a cookie?
Welcome to the tween years. The tween years, those between 10 and 13 or 14, can be challenging. Your child is changing on an almost daily basis, and keeping up with his or her emotional highs and lows can be overwhelming.
It isn’t surprising that a recent study by researchers at Arizona State University found that moms are more likely to struggle with depression during their kids’ middle school years than at any other point in parenting. The study found that even moms of newborns and infants had less depression overall than moms of middle schoolers, and that’s on little to no sleep.1
So what is the driving force behind this tendency to be blue when kids reach middle school? Understanding the significant changes taking place in your and your child’s brains and bodies is the best place to begin.
In the Middle
During the middle school years, and sometimes starting as early as upper elementary school, your child’s brain is essentially being reborn. According to Jay Giedd, neuroscientist at the National Institute of Mental Health, although the human brain reaches 95 percent of its adult size by age six, the gray matter, the thinking part of the brain, is still thickening and making new connections until the age of 11 or 12.
The areas growing these extra connections are the ones involved with judgment, organization, planning and strategizing — the very areas middle schoolers need to develop in order to manage new normals at school and at home.2 Middle school students move from class to class on an hourly basis for the first time. They’re more responsible for keeping track of assignments, books and supplies than ever before, and their homework load is dramatically increased. Couple these changes with approaching puberty and the desire to find more of their identity from school and friends instead of parents and home, and you’ve got a simmering volcano of emotions ready to erupt at any time.
But middle schoolers aren’t just struggling with organization and getting where they need to be. A child this age is also starting to separate from parents. That means they want to begin making their own decisions and be treated like young adults. The problem is they’re not young adults. Middle schoolers are just as likely as a newborn baby to need a hug while they are crying, but they’re much less likely to ask for that comfort. And when they do ask, it may sound more like fighting words than a desperate plea for a hug and a listening ear. The key is remembering that underneath all the emotion is a child just trying to grow up. And growing up is hard, even on the best days.
When you think of raging hormones, a teenage boy getting ready for his first date may be the picture that pops into your mind. But when it comes to navigating the middle school years, the hormones most likely to derail your day and plunge you close to depression are your own. For moms, just about the time your sweet little one is reaching middle school and puberty, you may begin experiencing the symptoms of perimenopause — the time leading up to a woman’s last period that can last four to eight years.3Some women start feeling the symptoms in their 40s. Hormonal fluctuations that cause irregular periods, heavy bleeding, hot flashes, night sweats, irritability, mood swings and fatigue become a regular part of life. Women who have children in their 20s might see their first baby off to middle school when they’re between 35 and 40. Women who start families later might send their children to middle school at the height of pre-menopause, in their mid to late 40s. Every woman is different, but it’s safe to say that all women experience hormonal fluctuations. And when hormones are out of balance, whether it’s due to pregnancy, childbirth, menstruation or menopause, everything is more difficult.
The key to preventing depression during the middle school years is knowing where you are on the hormonal scale and remembering the amazing transformation that’s happening in your pre-teen. The middle school years can be busy, and having a life that’s too programmed isn’t good for you or your child. Encourage your middle schooler to choose only those activities that are most important — one sport, one fine arts program or one club are enough when tweens are learning to navigate middle school. Planning downtime to simply “be” rather than “do” helps your middle schooler develop a lifetime of healthy habits. Limiting their activities can also help you find balance in your own life.
Middle schoolers crave structure even though they’ll tell you otherwise. Keeping a family calendar in plain sight and monitoring your child’s use of a daily planner can keep frustrations to a minimum and decrease emotional outbursts. Your child needs space to become the amazing person he’s meant to be with boundaries that make him feel safe.
And don’t forget to focus on you. Depression can creep in when you feel you’re no longer needed or wanted. Instead of falling victim to self-doubt, use the middle school years to rediscover personal interests or find new hobbies. Take time to learn more about yourself and explore what your next chapter will look like.4
Finding Help for Depression
If you’re prepared, the middle school years can be an amazing and rewarding adventure. But if you feel depression is taking over, we are here to help. Call our toll-free helpline 24 hours a day to speak to an admissions coordinator about available treatment options.
1 Wallace, Kelly. “Middle School: The New High School for Moms.” CNN, January 27, 2016.
1 “Inside the Teenage Brain.” Frontline, Accessed February 21, 2018.
1 “Menopause 101: A primer for the perimenopausal.” The North American Menopause Society, Accessed February 21, 2018.
1 Becker, Hollee Actman. “Moms Are Most Depressed When Kids Are in Middle School, Study Says.” Parents, December 6, 2017.Share