Riding the Emotional Waves of Middle School
Advice for parents helping tweens cope with the intense emotions of middle school: protein, ask the right questions, and problem-solve to calm things down.
Ever since your child took his first step, you’ve been preparing him for the “emotional falls” of life. Now your child is in middle school, facing a new world of challenges. Bodies are changing, voices are cracking, pimples are sprouting, and irritability and worry are heading for all-time highs. Plus, there’s this new set of feelings called “sexual.” Many of my students no longer consider school a safe place.
For middle schoolers with attention deficit disorder (ADHD or ADD), the parts of the brain that need to come through and help them figure out what to say and what to do with “unpleasant feelings” have a way of checking out during the tough times. This can lead to outbursts of anger, tears, and despair.
How can you help your middle schooler make sense of these new feelings? The good news is that there are effective ways to work with your child to figure out these intense emotions. How? Start with these strategies.
Food and Sleep Matter in Controlling Emotions
We all need to keep in mind that hungry, tired kids with ADHD will have more difficulty figuring out what to do to take care of “unpleasant” feelings. Your child needs to be eating at least 15 grams of protein at breakfast and lunch in order to have a chance at sanely addressing them. Skipping breakfast and taking a stimulant medication is like lighting the fuse on a time bomb. You can be pretty sure it’s going to go off shortly after your child gets home from school.
If your child isn’t able to eat meat or eggs, some easy breakfast meals include protein bars (Atkins Snack Bars or Meal Bars), Special K Protein cereal, Greek-style yogurt, and Silk Protein Nutmilk. For light eaters, I’d recommend a shake like Nature’s Best Isopure drink or Pure Protein Shake, and have your child sip it at lunchtime. An omega-3 supplement, like Vayarin, can have a good impact on a child’s attention and mood.
Protein in the morning and again at lunch will also provide the amino acid tryptophan, which makes the melatonin that puts your child to sleep at night. Skimping on protein at breakfast and lunch leads to difficulty falling asleep, and your middle schooler needs at least nine hours of sleep a night. If diet alone doesn’t work to bring on better sleep, stop access to electronic devices 90 minutes before bedtime, and consider using a supplement, like L-theanine, in the early evening to help him settle in for bed.
Once your well-fed child comes home from school, chances are, you’ll be teaching her what to do when she’s frustrated, disappointed, or anxious about something. Here are some life skills that your child needs to learn.
First, anger, disappointment, and fear cause changes in our breathing and cardiovascular system. Brain activation patterns shift from the frontal lobes (which are involved in planning and strategizing) to subcortical regions of the brain that prepare us for fighting, fleeing, or “freezing.” When I’m feeling upset, there are all sorts of words going through my head, but none of them is helpful. I might be complaining, raging, convincing myself life is hopeless, or worse.
Get Oxygen to the Brain
I tell my middle schoolers that it’s only when your frontal lobe gets into the game that you can ride the emotional waves. So, step one is to get the child breathing again to reconnect with the frontal cortex. I encourage middle schoolers to say nothing until they can take in 10 deep breaths. Other activities to get oxygen to the brain include jumping jacks, push-ups, planks, wall squats, jumping on a trampoline, or repeatedly trying to touch the top of a doorway with his hand.
Now Answer One Question
After that, I ask them to answer one question: “What do you want?” Once a teen can tell you what he wants, it’s time to do some problem-solving.
How to Problem-Solve, Middle-School Style
Now it’s time to ask the second frontal lobe question: “What can you do to make that happen?”
I once counseled a middle school girl who felt like an outcast. I asked her, “What do you want?” I got a lot of talk about “no one likes me” or “they’re so stuck up” (to which I kept asking, “What do you want?”). Of course, this girl wanted to be liked by the popular students. Her plan was to identify what they were interested in and what was important to them. She decided that she was going to get good at something that mattered to the group, which she did. Over time she developed some important relationships with the members of that group, and she was happier and more in control of her emotions and life.
When your child says stuff that is hurtful, there needs to be a teaching sequence that involves apologizing to you, doing something to make up for his or her words, and sitting down with you for some problem-solving. Bad feelings aren’t wrong. They let us know that there is something that we want, but we don’t know how to make it happen.
Teaching your middle schooler the importance of eating and sleeping, the need to breathe, the benefits of asking two frontal lobe questions, and how to identify what he wants and how to make it happen, are among the most important skills that you’ll ever impart to your child.