How to survive secondary school?
July 30, 2008 3:20 PM   Subscribe

Share your tips and lessons learned -- how to help a 12-year old survive, make friends, and be happy in secondary school?

It's been a while since I was in secondary school (and frankly, I don't remember much of it; selective memory is a wonderful thing), so I'm at a loss! Please help me be a good guardian to my niece by providing me with some tips and lessons learned (for parents/guardians AND kids) on how to survive secondary school. Specifically, I'd like to know how you were able to survive secondary school -- what did your parents do that helped you? Hurt you? What are you currently or planning on doing for your kids?

I appreciate the breadth of experience in AskMe. Thanks so much!

Some personal information if it helps to help tailor the responses:
* She is new to the area, and only has two close friends (neither of whom are in her classes). She attended summer school orientation program, so she is familiar with kids from other schools, but is very shy and doesn't typically strike up conversations with people.
* She's not a "typical" girl -- she wears boys' clothes, hates shopping, and doesn't wear makeup. She's not interested in boys yet (thank goodness) and still plays with Pokemon toys.
* Her hobbies are drawing (she is talented in this arena) and playing video games.
* She's an average student (but bright) with no interest in band or chorus, despite liking music. We are making her participate in soccer to be part of a team sport and we're encouraging her to get involved with the AV club.
posted by parilous to Human Relations (33 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
I think kids at that age are pulling away from their parents, which is only natural. However I would encourage regular family dinners and lots of conversation (not drilling) about their friends and so on. It's also not a bad age to start pointing out the importance of schooling in yuor future life, earnings, etc. Some chats about the harfulness of drugs and responsibility with alcohol, etc, are probably a good idea, too.
posted by Penelope at 3:25 PM on July 30, 2008

She likes music? Get her reading music magazines (do you have the NME over there?)... she'll graduate bing the coolest girl in school.

Many of the friendships I made at school were through a shared taste of bands.
posted by popcassady at 3:37 PM on July 30, 2008

One thing my mom did was arrange for she and I to tour the school before it opened so I knew where all my classes were. It was great because I realized the school wasn't nearly as big as I had feared. That was one less thing for my pre-pubescent brain to worry about.
posted by CwgrlUp at 3:43 PM on July 30, 2008

Geez, it's been 21 years since I was that age. She's still a kid. And kids should be able to be kids. They will find their own interests.

Personally, being shy myself, and we moved around a lot, it took about a year to make friends at a new school, but many were the best friends I've ever had.

Sounds like she's also at an age where some talk about the 'birds and the bees', may be helpful to keep her out of trouble.

Some defensive training, karate, etc, might help as well that regard, in terms of fitness, ability to meet new friends, defend herself against (sensitive topic I know, but things like rape), etc.
posted by hungrysquirrels at 3:43 PM on July 30, 2008

I have fond memories of middle school as a particular brand of hell that I'm glad I'll never have to suffer through again.

Things I wish had been different: I wish I had possessed a stock of comeback lines for when the mean girls struck (even colorful language would have been a help, as I couldn't defend myself verbally very well). I wish I had had a fairy godmother to take me places and give me experiences outside the realm of school/popularity/typical teen stuff. I *did* have a wonderful and long-term (for middle-school) boyfriend.* I wish my parents had included him in some family activities. Nothing big, just a Friday-night pizza now and then. It would have mattered to me that they wanted to know what was going on in my life as a girl.

My younger sister attended summer camp for the gifted. Perhaps you can look into a summer activity she's good at? (I hear you about soccer but you say you are "making her" participate. Mine did too. I got to be in with the jocks...and quickly discovered how miserable they were because of their sports-obsessed parents. If soccer doesn't work out, maybe you can talk with her about volunteer opportunities.)

You mention the word "guardian"--do you mean this in a literal and legal sense, or more figuratively? If you're in a position to help show her that there is life beyond middle school, do it. She may not like you for it but she may not feel as constricted by "Ohmygod, this test/dance/friendship is the end of the world."

Things that hurt: Being repeatedly assured that I was bright and talented and getting no parental support when I was teased for being those things. Having a mother who would say "Let's go school shopping after you've been back and have seen what everybody's wearing" and then not being taken. Invasion of privacy (diary-reading) with the instruction that I should never write anything down about myself. Being asked (in conversation about the above-mentioned boyfriend) why they should ever send me to college because I was just going to get married anyway. I recognize that they were doing the best that they could but basically it meant emotional abandonment and high academic pressure.

I would have liked more excuses to talk with my mother in a substantive way but neither of us knew how to get the conversation going (and still don't). Go read FeistyFerret's advice about relating to teens/pre-teens. Good stuff. Also, buy or borrow "Queen Bees and Wannabes" and "Surviving Ophelia."

Treat her like a person, respectfully, and like a valued human being that you're responsible for. Good luck. There are hard years.

* Boyfriend was probably the saving grace of my middle school years because it gave me a pass in the eyes of other girls. I also learned a lot about caring for another human being who was going through difficult times. Boys aren't all bad.
posted by MonkeyToes at 4:03 PM on July 30, 2008

Our daughter started middle school (we're grades 6-8 here) as a new kid at our neighborhood school, having gone to grades 3-5 the district where my husband teaches. The nice thing about secondary school (whatever you call it) is that it's a clean slate; kids come in with friends they know from elementary school or their neighborhood, but groups get mixed up through class placement, etc. so it's not impossible for a new kid to break into the ranks.

An important thing you can do is not pressure her about making friends; don't set some arbitrary bar [in her mind] that she should be meeting. At that age, sometimes the transition from "a person I recognize from class" to acquaintance to friend takes some time.

My girl fell in with a pair of strange girls in the 6th grade; they were close friends and a bit boy-crazy and wanted to be popular. My daughter ended up being played in the middle of some drama and eventually felt betrayed and jerked around. We spent a lot of time that spring talking about what it means to be a friend, and how many chances people get, and when it's worth fighting for and when it's better to walk away. The next year, she actually brought together two small groups of her mutual friends, and this group has become one very likeable group of kids.

The point being, this is a great time for your niece to figure out what qualities are important to her, both in herself and in other people. Try to convince her that the best friends to have are ones who will love and appreciate her for who she really is, and remind her that - no matter what it looks like on TV and in magazines - being popular is a journey, not a destination.

And most of all, be the person she can count on, even when she's being obnoxious. Love her even when she's unloveable. Allow her to have mood swings - I have to work on this one all the time - remember that that her feelings are important to her, even if you don't understand them or they seem completely irrational.

And, after reading Monkeytoes's comment, I'll add one more thing: let her choose her own activities and let her quit if she doesn't enjoy them. We always make our kids finish out the season/term, but don't force them to go back if they're unhappy. She'll find her spot eventually, but I agree that team sports these days are not nearly as fun as they were when we were kids.
posted by Sweetie Darling at 4:12 PM on July 30, 2008

Why not enroll her in art class as her school elective and/or enroll her in a community art class through the city? In addition to enjoying the art-making, she might strike up friendships with kids who have similar interests.
posted by Flipping_Hades_Terwilliger at 4:15 PM on July 30, 2008

I'm not sure the "making her participate in soccer" is a good idea. If she doesn't enjoy it, she'll be miserable while there, and that's not a good way to make friends. Then again, she might warm up to it after a while; you'll have to make the call on this, but if she is unhappy in the activity, don't force her to continue.

Also, just from my own personality as a kid-- I think sports in general are a great idea, and getting her to be involved with a group is good as well; however maybe a more individual sport, hopefully one which you don't have to "make" her do, is a better idea. Things like track, swimming, tennis, etc all still have the benefits of a peer group, but she won't be responsible for anyone else's results; your time in track is your own time, so if you screw up nobody is going to yell at you.

The most important thing though is finding something physically active that she actually likes to do. Keep in mind that there are plenty of non-school-based teams that would still have a peer group, so if she likes some random activity that doesn't have a school team, that's ok too.

Since she likes drawing, that can be done in a group setting too; I remember taking pottery classes as a kid and I definitely made some friends there. Can you find something similar for drawing?

(I'm basing this on my own experiences as kid, and on what my folks did that helped me get through the awfulness of being 12. Of course the best thing about being 12 is that you grow out of it.)
posted by nat at 4:18 PM on July 30, 2008 [1 favorite]

A certain amount of middle school involves being miserable. Or at least appearing to be completely miserable to your parents. It's the time you're figuring out who you are, what you stand for and what's next in life and how that conflicts with small and large societal pressures. If you're happy the whole time, you'll end up being one of those people that never moves beyond it.

In other words, I was just like your niece - including the drawing. I got beaten up for drawing people in garish cartoonish ways. I got beaten up for wearing boys clothes. I was afraid to talk to new people. I was decent, but not stellar, at school.

Bad things my family did:
- Buy a bunch of makeup for me as a "gift". It came across as an intervention or something and it made me think they didn't get me at all.
- Force me into activities. The only activities I liked were the ones that were mine. When they didn't push, I found what I liked for myself (art club, AV). I still hate the clarinet to this day because my mom made me play it.
- Tell me to "just ignore them. They're jealous/stupid/etc." It did not help and reinforced the message that middle school is just unfair and I was powerless.
- Complain to my teachers about bullying after I had bitched about it. It got me beat up more.

Good things my family did:
- My mom gave me a clothes budget per month. When I finally liked Converse, I stocked up. When there was "a look" that I had to have to fit in, I had a cooling off period. So that crimping iron stayed at Stacy's house.
- My dad shared his music taste with me. Not in a pushy way, but in a "widening my horizons" way. I think it helps that my dad was really into WaxTrax at the time, so he was introducing me to things my peers would soon find cool - Ministry, Skinny Puppy, Nine Inch Nails. My mom turned me on to college radio, which also helped. They took me to concerts I was interested in. This gave me coolness points and interests beyond jr high.
- Let me chat online. Sure, there need to be pedophile protective blah blah, but I learned more about who I wanted to be talking to other nerds - and people far nerdier than me, than from peers who I saw face to face.

Things I wish my family did:
- Talk to me about shaving my legs. Seriously. Learning through humiliation in gym class sucked. A whole lot of my problems came from the non birds and bees part of puberty.
- Talk about school as a temporary thing. When my dad told me that school was a game and that, although some things were important, some things weren't and that the most important thing was to get through proud of myself (not for someone else, not just on grades, etc.) - I was pissed he waited until high school to level with me.
posted by Gucky at 4:24 PM on July 30, 2008

I wonder how many people on mefi had similar childhoods? This sounds a lot like me at that age as well.

Queen Bees and Wannabes. Don't make her do activities she doesn't want to do (I can't emphasize this one enough). If she's perfectly happy in boy's clothes, that's great, but chances are she may see girls in girl clothes and makeup at school and wonder if she's immature or a 'baby' or whatever. Reassure her that that is not the case. If she doesn't have an allowance or hasn't had the rate adjusted since she was 7, reexamine that. Chances are good that she'll like a video game or band or something you think is totally awful, but if she likes it and it's not harmful, don't tell her you disapprove. She'll most likely grow out of it anyway. When she comes home from school crying (it WILL happen), be supportive: the idea that what 'those girls' said doesn't matter will not help, it's real to her.
posted by version control at 4:38 PM on July 30, 2008

not going to offer a lot of advice, but i will say that, as a parent, i found soccer to be a poor way of exposing kids to a team sport. despite my efforts, the soccer teams tended to be kind of chaotic in actual play. if i were to introduce a team sport, i'd reccommed something like baseball/softball, which tend to be more organized.
posted by lester at 4:40 PM on July 30, 2008

It's been about 15 years since I was there. And it was AWFUL. All I can give you are tidbits of my own life as an example.

When your niece befriends a girl that you don't like (not because she's a ho or is a delinquent, but just because you don't like her), don't make your daughter stop being her friend.

Don't keep your niece from going to parties and sleepovers. Yes, do the mom bit and check everything out and whatnot. But don't deprive her of that stuff.

When she starts her period, don't force her to wear pads because you don't want her to wear tampons because of (lame ass ghey reason here - yes, I said GHEY). Likewise, as stated above, don't keep her from doing things like wearing a bra or shaving her legs or wearing tampons so you can't see her pad's outline through her gym shorts.

She can have friends that are boys. It doesn't mean that she wants to have sex with them and it doesn't mean they want to have sex with her. it just means that they bonded over something stupid and are friends, nothing more.

Do not do her hair, period. Even for school pictures.

If she wants to skip school pictures, let her. It's just one day and who seriously gives a shit.

Don't make her take a class because you think it'll "better" her. Make her take a class because she has aptitude for it.

Do not make her tough it out. My social anxiety/panic attacks kicked in around 7th grade and it turned a marginally-survivable three years into Hell Week: Extended Cut. The first day I just wanted to go home because I didn't know what was happening. My mother's words? TOUGH IT OUT ITS JUST MIDDLE SCHOOL. Uh, no. It is not middle school. At that age, it is life. And you are not around during those 7 hours.

Aunts/Moms driving their kids to school and you're wearing pjs? FAIL.

There were a few really lucky kids that took bonus classes at the local community college on saturdays. Like extra music classes and art classes, etc. If she's interested in art and video games, maybe see if there's some local classes she can take. I really wanted to take stuff like that. It seemed fun.

Even though I am not a sporty person at all, I wanted to join the volleyball team so bad. And it didn't help that I was actually GOOD. My mother said it would cost too much and so I never got a shot at it. And I'm STILL pissed off about it. I'm not saying I'd be awesome, but dude - it would have been SO much fun. All of those girls bonded. I got pissy when a friend got selected for it and she went to so many cool places and made so many friends. If your kid wants to kick a ball, let her. but don't force her to kick it, or she probably won't enjoy it.

The most important one: know when to be a "mom", and when to be a friend. Learn where your "mom" switch is and turn it off at the appropriate times.

As parting words, I'd like to just end by saying that because of how my mother freaked out during those years and just assumed I was a little whore fucking everything on the planet - when in fact I didn't even know what sex was and ZOMG disgusting! - I missed out on a lot of socializing. To this DAY, I don't go to parties with friends because I feel so awkward - I don't know how to interact without feeling like I'm giving a speech and about to die. If your niece is a good kid, she'll probably always be a good kid as long as you don't make fucking ridiculous assumptions about her like my mother did.

Sorry to go all preachy preachy but I just feel protective of shy kids at new schools.
posted by damnjezebel at 4:42 PM on July 30, 2008 [2 favorites]

Teach her the skill of being the bigger person. If someone is mean to her, teach her how to react in a constructive manner.

And to learn the difference between jocularity and bullying. Bullies tear others down, obviously. But friends sometimes say some of the same kinds of things as a relationship-cementer. She should figure out the difference.

Teach her the difference between "self" and "friends". That's an age where people start to really, really get into that whole "I am my group" identity thing. It's good to be part of the group, but not to the detriment of "self".

Similarly, teach her that she doesn't *have to* do everything they do. Whether it's wearing gaudy makeup or kissing boys or drugs.

Remind her that you don't care who her friends are, but you do care about the decisions she makes and the situations she puts herself into. She alone is responsible for her own actions. Being at an underage drinking party is no less bad if she wasn't drinking.

And you should socialize with the other parents at the school. Helps all the parents keep up on things.

And no sleepovers in high school, ever.
posted by gjc at 4:43 PM on July 30, 2008

Really basic, but can you make sure she's not really late on the first day of school? My parents are very unpunctual, and got me there about 15 minutes after the welcome-to-big-school assembly had started. So I was wandering through empty corridors, frantically trying to find the right door, then, when I did, I had to walk in, past everyone. I knew maybe four people there. And then my bag strap broke. Ouch.

I got over it.
posted by tiny crocodile at 4:48 PM on July 30, 2008

Buy her a few teen guides about sexuality and other teen issues. She may not be quite ready for it yet, but it should be on her shelf for when she needs it. Middle school really, truly is when these issues will become relevant for her.

One of the absolute best things my mother did for me around that age was to purchase a few books on those subjects. She initiated a friendly conversation about some of the basics, but kept the conversation casual, and made it clear that I could always come to her with any questions or problems. They actually stayed on the shelf for a while, but once I got curious I got smart, educated advice on topics ranging from friendships, relationships, sex, drugs, bras, tampons, shaving..all the information that one needs but may feel shy about asking a parent directly. It was much better than relying on the rumor mills at school or fashion magazines, and I really do think it led to me acting a lot more responsibly that I would have if I had just been blindly told that sex, drugs, etc were "bad."
posted by susanvance at 5:44 PM on July 30, 2008

I am afraid for her in that she is going to show up for school still in kid mode and the girls who have discovered make up and boys are going to pounce on her like sharks to meat. Even if she is not into that yet, just showing her how to look like a more pulled together version of herself will help how others react to her. As adults we can all point out how this is a bad thing, but it doesn't make it less likely. I say this out of experience- I went to 6th grade with a bunch of kids who were one way, and we moved over the summer and in my new school I ended up feeling like I was from another planet. It took me a whole year to find good friends and fit in.

Things that helped me: My mom bought me a few things for the first week of school, but I didn't really do the big back to school clothing trip until the second week. She let me get a feel for what people were wearing and then we went out and I could find things that I liked, but wouldn't get me picked on. I hated sports, so she never made me take any- I got art classes instead, which I loved. My mom never said "no" to anyone spending the night or me going to their house (as long as she wasn't sick). She always made sure we had lots of frozen pizzas and horror movies when I had friends over. She always made sure I had a gift for the birthday girl, a lot of phone time, never restricted what I could watch or listen to, and she always found me the books that were "in" and got me subscriptions to popular teen magazines.

Things that hindered me: .I wish she had taken me to someone to teach me how to do my makeup & hair, and kept me away from crap like Wet & Wild products. I wish she had been more helpful or knowledgeable about skincare when my face started to show signs of teen acne. I wish she had armed me with a bit more self esteem, or at least sat me down and said, "People are assholes, they may say X,Y, and Z to you and you need to look at them and laugh in their faces and tell them to get a life."
posted by haplesschild at 6:14 PM on July 30, 2008 [1 favorite]

If she takes some kickboxing lessons her confidence will be boosted quite a bit.

It's also good as a self-defense technique later in life -- the ability to deliver a sharp kick in the drunken aggressive frat guy's face is a beautiful tool, in case of emergency.
posted by matteo at 7:18 PM on July 30, 2008

Heh, I left High School not too long ago. Your daughter actually sounds identical to the way I was at her age. I definitely agree that you shouldn't make her do anything she doesn't want to do. I was a failure at physical activity of any form, and gym class was an abomination. Had my parents tried to force me to join a team, our relationship would've deteriorated very, very quickly without me even joining the team.

What I wish I had more of, at the time, is a little bit more trust. I was straight edge kid, not into boys or make up or brand name clothing, really good grades all around and had never even been in detention. But everytime I found something I thought I might like (Pottery Club, Reading Club, Samba, etc.) it was an endless struggle to justify to my parents why I was staying after school, why I was going early in the morning. It's a very exploratory time, and she doesn't have to know what she likes. It's okay not to know what you want to do with your time. Let her have that freedom to explore.

If you have a good relationship with her, hopefully she'll feel okay to come to you when some inevitable social drama goes down. The following is very, very important: do not dismiss it. Don't say that it won't matter in three years anyway, so it's not worth crying over. Don't tell her to stop worrying about whomever she has a crush on (when that happens) because it won't last anyway. You may know that in the grand scheme of things, a split in her group of friends is more or less insignificant. Even she knows that. But that doesn't make it any less painful to go through. Tell her you know it sucks, but you know she's strong enough to get through it okay. And she is.

When she hits the stage where she wants to have as little to do with you as possible, don't guilt trip her. Don't go down memory lane of how you used to hang out and spend quality time together. Don't begrudge her the sleepovers, the movies. But make sure she stays more or less on track with schoolwork. If she starts to fall behind, she may resent your nagging. But it's important to have at least a generic idea of when report cards are distributed, what school events there are - a lot of high schools have websites these days, and you can keep up with events there. Even though I was the independent, devil-may-care type, it still kinda hurts knowing that if I wanted to, I could've gotten away with never showing my parents my grades just because they'd have no idea report cards were even out. Along the same lines, try to at least have a cursory knowledge of her group of friends. If she asks you to go to a school event, try your darndest to go. It takes a lot of swallowing of pride for a teenager to invite a parent. If she asks, it's important.

Despite the tone of this comment up till now, I'm not bitter. High school was an absolute blast, for me. I thrived for the challenges, social or academic. I went to a high school with an advanced academic program, so the population had a lot more nerds than your average school, but even then, I don't think it'll be as scary as she thinks it is. Everyone worries about fitting in - she'll already have that in common with other kids.

Oh, and here's something I did - quite accidentally - which worked out great. I carried my sketchbook with me everywhere, as a bit of a comfort/safety net. People asked me about it, asked me how long I'd been drawing, whether I like drawing. Everyone's desperate to make friends, and an interesting hobby is a great talking point. Plus I met my best friend when he glanced at one of my pictures and rather rudely pointed out an anatomy error. Funny how these things work out.

Best of luck.
posted by Phire at 8:04 PM on July 30, 2008

There's been a lot of great advice on this thread already, so I'll just chime in with some anecdotal thoughts:

Some of my fondest memories from middle school were of me and a bunch of other bright, competitive kids duking it out on our school's academic team.

Since she's interested in video games, she'll probably really like the fast-paced OMG-must-hit-the-buzzer aspect of an academic team. The questions were more trivia-based than anything else, so it wasn't just for the G&T kids.

The following advice depends on your niece's temperament: don't try and make her social if she doesn't want to be. In middle school, I did academic team and art classes. I ate lunch in my English teacher's room and surfed Napster. I studied languages during math class. I may not have been über-social, but my memories of middle school (and high school, for that matter) are still shiny and happy. If your niece wants to be a social butterfly, then by all means encourage her. I'm just glad that my parents didn't force me into any unwanted social situations.

Also: be there when things get gnarly. I thought I had a pretty close group of friends. One year, a girl had a birthday party and invited everyone but me to the sleepover. They went to the video rental store for a movie. Imagine my surprise when the pack of them turned the corner and saw me with a giant stack of VHS tapes in my arms! It was really, really awkward. I don't remember what my mom said afterwards to make me feel better, but it worked--I stayed on good terms with the lot of 'em and we all bonded during high school gym. So be there for her when the chips are down. :)
posted by ElectricBlue at 8:16 PM on July 30, 2008

Because my mother was (and still is) highly antisocial and all those lovely details that come with it, I was pretty much forbidden from having any kind of a social life even through most of college. I was never allowed to have visitors over, nor could she be bothered to take me to friends' houses (not for lack of time, just that she didn't want to have to interact with other people). I was also forbidden from participating in any after-school stuff, or anything that involved even minor financial commitment. Pretty much, once I came home from school, that was it; I was home alone until the next day and my mother would call home at random to make sure I didn't sneak out or something.

Up until fairly recently (e.g. about 3 years ago), my only means of socializing outside of school was through the internet. Not knocking that, of course-- it has saved me from going insane on more than a few occasions, but I must wonder how different things would have been had I been allowed to socialize normally. But because of my mother and her "I HATE PEOPLE AND SO SHOULD YOU" way of thinking, I had virtually no lasting friends and was generally regarded as that sullen-looking fat girl that people should stay away from unless you need an edge in French class team activities. To make matters worse, I was the favored bullying target of a boy I had a crush on way back in elementary school; he thought it was funny to carry out his retaliation on me all the way through the end of high school. I really hope it was worth it for him.

I don't know what was worse, taking the bus to school and being picked on by the rowdy boys (I think one of them even dry-humped me), or being subject to my mother shredding me apart in the car on the way to school over insubstantial or even outright IMAGINARY things, or told that nobody will ever like me. Whenever the latter occurred... well, that was awful-- much as I wanted to ditch first period and hide in the bathroom to cry, I was so afraid that they'd call my mother about that that I would just suck up all that pain and silently endure it.

My grades crashed quite a bit-- and not because of laziness as my mother STILL insists was the case. I would have these hardcore depression episodes, one of them the result of a panic attack in freshman honors English over an autobiographical essay. Like hell I was going to let any of my teachers in on how miserable I was (in the past, I had been honest, and that resulted in teachers/principals calling home to ask if something was wrong, and my mother would punish me for "acting out" and "telling lies"), and after everything was said and done, I got dropped from the honors program. This part alone is a reason why you should NEVER ASSUME SLIDING GRADES ARE ALWAYS A RESULT OF LAZINESS. There could be depression episodes or other mental health things at play, the last thing a depressed teenager needs come report card time is for parents to assume they were just lazy and punish them without even TRYING to investigate any other causes. Teachers and counselors begged and pleaded with my mother to get me some kind of mental help, but she just wouldn't hear any of it and punished me whenever they called home for acting out, then go whine and throw a pity party to my stepfather and even my real father about how much of a spoiled/ungrateful daughter I was. The way everything was... what my mother did to me BARELY avoided being considered abuse and so there was nothing anyone could do.

I guess you could say I am the very example of what NOT to do in terms of guiding a teenager. I apologize for the longish reply, but all things considered I really think that this cautionary tale needs to be out there.
posted by Yoshi Ayarane at 8:47 PM on July 30, 2008 [1 favorite]

Um, pooh, I forgot about this last part. It wasn't a TOTAL disaster, though... in my junior and senior years I was the artist for the newspaper staff and everyone there (ESPECIALLY the teacher and editors-in-chiefs) more or less became my surrogate family. I was actually treated like a real person and not someone's emotional ragdoll. Once I explained my home situation, they were all quite sympathetic, and the seniors who could drive would smuggle me out of my home so I could go work on group projects for other classes, or participate in the nighttime editing sessions when I was needed. Though I was eventually caught at the end when the teacher was bringing me home from the final nighttime edit session, she handled the situation quite wonderfully and (though obviously very politely and calmly) diffused my mother's rage by telling her how much I was an important asset to the staff and there was NO way they could make the deadline without my help.
posted by Yoshi Ayarane at 9:02 PM on July 30, 2008

Please do NOT force her to do anything. I was "forced" to do soccer at a young age (5) and I ended up HATING soccer. I can't stand it. I also can not stand most any sport. It's just not right to force someone to do something. Her school should have plenty of activites/clubs for her to join. Don't make her do anything, but don't make it awkward for her. Now I have to launch a bit into my life. I've never had many friends, and as a result never really went to friends houses or had them come over. Now (I'm a sophmore in high school), it is incredibly awkward for me to have friends. It sound strange, but it is. I am not comfortable asking my mom to have friends over, or vice versa, despite the fact that I have a *very* close relationship with her.

If your daughter has had ANY history of mental health issues, do NOT yell at her for grades. Or in any way chastise her for grades. Trust me, it just makes matters worse. Also, one thing I would recommend you also not do is mention who is on the honor roll/getting straight A's. Where I live, both are published in the newspaper and my mom used to insist on telling me some of the people who would get straight A's. I do not, because of my poor study habits and some psychiatric issues that always seem to get worse when needing to study.

Good luck to your daughter! I'm sure she will do fine. Middle school was fun, but the freedom of high school is awesome.
posted by majikstreet at 9:12 PM on July 30, 2008

12 years old is such an awkward age for girls (for boys, too). You are on the cusp of teenagerhood. I wanted to shave my legs, pierce my ears, wear a bra, and really, that's all. My Mom would not allow any of that. Of course, 7 years later it was just fine for my 12 year old sister, but I digress. I found the references to mothers very interesting, because it's our mothers we look to for validation and I don't think my mother wanted me to grow up. But for heavens sake, shaving my legs, piercing my ears, wearing a bra, what's wrong with that? I too, hated competitive sports, with a passion. When I was twelve we were forced into it at school. I still have nightmares about kickball. I wasn't good at any sports, was usually the last team pick, and the anxiety was unbelieveable. Just let her be herself, support her in whatever she shows an interest in. But I'm agreement with the above posters, don't try to force anything. Just look for clues regarding her interests and go with that. When my mom signed me up for an art class one summer, I was in heaven. Made new friends, and changed the way I looked at myself.
posted by wv kay in ga at 11:03 PM on July 30, 2008

There has been so much good advice here - I had a pretty rough time at high school and I think mainly because my parents always talked about their own terrible times. I remember before I started being told long lectures about their own experiences, that there had been bullies, what had been done to them, what the worst days of their school lives were.

And in the end, all that really made me do was just be terrified and expect it to happen to me. It just made it so much worse. It took me about 3 years to figure out that the more worried I was the brighter the neon light shone with "bully me...I'm right here". At which point I made friends with the geeky science boys, and I've never looked back.

It's something I really want to remember when I have kids, don't relate at depth all of the terrible things that happened to you, and that might happen to them. Who knows, it can be fun too. I think if I'd known "high school can go either way, bits of it might be rubbish, bits of it will be great" it would have helped me a great deal.
posted by Augenblick at 2:12 AM on July 31, 2008

She needs to go and make friends. No one likes to hang out alone and at that age she should be out and about all the time with kids her own age but this is something you can't really help with. As long as her friends aren't punks than she'll be alright.
posted by BrnP84 at 4:22 AM on July 31, 2008

This has been alluded to in a few answers, but I'd like to stress it: allow her to find her own interests, and pay attention to her when she finds them. I did the whole sports thing in middle school, but it didn't take me terribly long to realize that I didn't like it all that much and wasn't that good at it either. I found my niche in theatre and competitive speech, and thrived there.

Also, this thread may provide some food for thought.
posted by craven_morhead at 7:26 AM on July 31, 2008

You have to balance being a supportive parent (no, you can't stay up until three in the morning, but yes you can color your hair green as long as you don't mess up the bathroom) without being overprotective. Sometimes people will be jerks and maybe everything won't work out all the time, but if she thinks her parent can come in and save the day, it stunts the problem solving and handling adversity skills she'll need later in life. And now is the time for those skills to strengthen. Also, go find an old copy of groening's school is hell. There's a bit in there about high school and junior high and it's like a letter from the future telling you that it'll be over soon.
posted by history is a weapon at 7:31 AM on July 31, 2008

If she wants to try something that you can´t afford, or think is a waste of time, or never liked yourself, don´t try to convince her that she wouldn´t like it with a bunch of made up justifications.
posted by yohko at 8:37 AM on July 31, 2008

helped you? -- let me participate in the things I liked, and not participate in the things I didn't like

hurt you? -- didn't try to get me into gifted classes when it was obvious my behavior problems were due to boredom

What are you currently or planning on doing for your kids? -- I have a 12-year-old daughter. (Her situation is different, though, as we've been in the same neighborhood/school district all her life.) One thing I have not seen mentioned is the Girl Scouts*. The whole goal of Girl Scouting is to give girls the leadership opportunities they may not ordinarily get. It works EXTRAORDINARILY well for shy girls. Troops are much smaller and aren't usually based out of a school or church anymore - they are made up of 5-10 kids from across the community, so she will have a chance to make friends who don't necessarily attend the same school as she does.

Everything in the organization is girl- and woman-centered. It's the one activity I will not let my daughter quit. She may not like every activity her troop does, she may not always like her leaders, or the other girls. But she is being shown how to cooperate in a group, she is encouraged to explore her passions on her own, she is given opportunities to see and do things I could never think up on my own.

If Girl Scouting has a presence in your community, I would highly encourage you to get her to check it out. I can't speak highly enough of this group and of the work they do in luring girls this age out of their navel-gazing shells.

*Girl Scouting has changed significantly over the years. I have been directly involved as a mom and leader for the last 7 years. Believe me, it's not all crafts and Kumbaya around the campfire anymore.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 9:21 AM on July 31, 2008

Buy her art supplies and see if there are any local art classes she'd like to take. I was a lot like her at that age, and we were poor--but my mother had an artist friend who bought be a box of acrylics and gave me art lessons, which really solidified my interest in that sort of thing. By the time high school came around, I (like Phire) was carrying my sketchbook everywhere and most of my closest friends had come from art club or painting scenery for school plays, both of which were activities I found myself.

Nthing not forcing her to do any activities. If she wants to keep up with soccer, great. If not, see what else she's interested in. If she doesn't want to do any athletics, that should be fine--but ask her if she'd like to go for long walks with you when the weather is good, if it's possible in your town. This will get her moving in a way that's body positive and will also give you two some very natural, comfortable time to talk about whatever is on her mind.

If she's tomboyish, I'd prepare myself for some teasing or (maybe!) gender identity issues. I dealt with both at that age, mostly from boys who had formerly been my friends. If she's not totally heteronormative now, when those sort of things suddenly will become really, really important to her peers, she might have a lot of thinking to do. And, if she's anything like me, it will take her years to sort out her actual sexual identity after years of being called a dyke because of her short haircut. That's not to say that she'll be gay (or queer, or whatever), but that she'll need a lot of loving, acceptance, and support. As all adolescents do, really.

Good luck!
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 10:07 AM on July 31, 2008

Thanks so much for all the thoughts, comments, and suggestions! Based on what we're seeing here, we kind of feel like we're on the right track. I respect others' suggestions about not making her play soccer (or anything else), but I think she can really get a charge out of being part of a team that has crowd encouragement. Even if she hates it, we have already told her that she can quit after the season (which is really short -- two months).

We already have...
* introduced her to punk music
* rewarded her for being an individualist
* had the Big Sex Talk
* toured the school, tested the locker combination, walked her class schedule, and planned for bathroom breaks and when she should return her stuff to her locker
* had important talks about the problems of drugs and alcohol to young brains and that anything excessive is potentially harmful, even water. We also created a way for her to get out of a troublesome situation without feeling like she's tattling on her friends.

We already planned on...
* taking her to a salon so she can learn how to apply makeup (when she's ready for that)
* making sure to maintain a appropriately supportive while still providing boundaries
* showing her respect by giving her choices and letting her choose the option that fits her and giving her continued autonomy

Thanks to you guys, I'm going to:
* teach her to shave
* coach her on memorizing some comeback lines for when she's being teased or suggestions on how to be bigger person to get out of the situation
* not belittle the hurtful experiences by saying it "won't matter in five years" or "those girls are just stupid" but instead respond with honest compassion
* not immediately attribute declining grades as laziness
* encourage her to draw - but not during class! - or at least carry her sketchbook around with her because it may begin a conversation with someone new

Thanks so much to everyone -- I will be referring to this thread often!
posted by parilous at 3:21 PM on July 31, 2008

Oh, just a note--I wouldn't say anything to her about drawing during class unless one of her teacher's mentions that it's a problem. I was a big doodler, but had really good grades and would usually doodle while taking notes, mostly unconsciously.. The one or two times I had a teacher say anything about it, it ticked me off, but I could understand, even then, that it was their right because it was a classroom management issue. I'm pretty sure my teen-brain would have read my parental unit saying anything prophylactically as being naggy and intrusive, and therefore something to rebel against. It's fine if you want to say something general about homework looking neat--if you're turning it in, it shouldn't be drawn on--but otherwise I'd let it go.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 3:31 PM on July 31, 2008

That's a good point, PhoBWanKenobi. I will do that instead.

Also, we talked about teasing last night. I assured her that she was average in most things and with all of the kids that were below average, she's not likely to be singled out. But I hinted that she might get teased for being pretty and that the way to respond to it varied by gender:

* If it's a boy, they're teasing because they want attention and she should ignore them. They're like children, throwing tantrums to get their way. If they get attention, they will always throw a tantrum.
* If it's a girl, she should recognize that the girl is probably feeling insecure about something and should try to reassure her, even if it's slightly self-deprecating (e.g., say that the other girl has better clothes, a nicer smile, or has pretty hair or something), to diffuse the situation.

We'll talk more about this as the need arises; I wanted to give her a heads' up without making it be like "Middle school IS THE WORST!!!1".
posted by parilous at 2:24 PM on August 1, 2008

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