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“What No One Ever Told Me About the Middle School Transition with ADHD”

The middle school transition is scary and messy and liberating and disheartening and so full of opportunities for growth. When my daughter with ADHD moved up to 6th grade, her desire for independence was far stronger than her self-control, social skills, and working memory. Here is the advice I gave to a dear friend navigating the same choppy waters with her adolescent son.

Despite the September heat, my friend, Melanie, and I set off for a morning walk down one of the steepest hills in our neighborhood. As we left, I could feel she was on the verge of tears and put my arm around her, giving her a quick squeeze. “Josh?” I said.

She nodded. Her son, Josh, and my daughter, Lee, both had severe ADHD, and it was what had brought us together. When a mutual friend introduced us, knowing the challenges we each faced with our children, it was the beginning of a long friendship. On our regular walks, we shared the frustrations that parents of neurotypical children seldom understand and offered hope to each other on our toughest days.

“The first two weeks of Josh’s middle school transition seemed good,” Melanie explained. “But now he’s quiet and withdrawn. I’m certain he’s hiding something from us.” Our eyes met. I knew from experience that that particular transition can be extra challenging for kids with ADHD.

“He wakes up and rolls out of bed, already feeling down and depressed. I told his dad it might be our fault for not spending enough time with him lately…”

“Whoa,” I said. “Don’t start blaming yourselves. There are a million reasons why Josh could be feeling down right now that have nothing to do with your parenting — or with Nick’s. It could be hormones, or maybe anxiety about being at a bigger school with new procedures, new teachers, and classmates he doesn’t know.”

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Middle School: No Parents Allowed

The last two weeks of summer and the first two weeks of school are notoriously the worst for kids with ADHD. Even though Lee is 20 years old now and in college, the annual change still launches her anxiety into hyper drive. Since she lives at home, my husband and I know to give her plenty of space and time to face her fears of starting a new semester. We also give her the time she needs to face her fears of starting a new semester. It typically takes a few weeks for things to shake out and for her to adapt to the change.

When Lee was Josh’s age (12), the larger middle school environment and new cliques that formed left her stranded, feeling alone and struggling to find her footing. In elementary school, I was a welcome volunteer in Lee’s classes, and knew when she was having trouble due to her learning disabilities. When the teacher was busy, I could give Lee extra attention. I accompanied her on the playground, too, readily available to help when Lee struggled with social cues or got caught in awkward moments.

In Lee’s middle school, parents weren’t welcome in the classrooms, let alone in social groupings, like lunch or school assemblies. Not being permitted to assist her made me feel helpless. But I also knew this day would come and that it was time for Lee to become independent, to choose her friends and start advocating for herself in school. No matter how much time Melanie and Nick spent with Josh outside of school, he would have to face many of these new challenges on his own.

“Yeah, transition is hard for him,” Melanie said, glaring at a driver who shot past us.

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Middle School: Teacher Communication Is Key

“Or maybe a teacher said something to upset him. Lee’s memory retention is really poor, thanks to ADHD, and she was always getting in trouble for forgetting her homework. Why don’t you reach out to Josh’s teachers and see what they have to say?”

If I’d learned anything from Lee’s experience in middle school, it was that working as a team with the teachers, Lee’s case manager, and her IEP specialists paid off. They often knew, sometimes before I did, that something was wrong with my child.

Middle School: Social Skills Challenges, Part 2

Melanie sighed deeply, took a deep breath, and said, “Maybe he was bullied…” Her words trailed off as we watched a blue jay fly overhead. Lee never told us in middle school when she was bullied, but I could sense it all the same. One day, I went to school to pick her up, and found Lee huddled with a boy and his mom. The boy, along with his friends, had been teasing Lee for wearing a yellow Pikachu sweatshirt to school every day. Lee’s impulses had taken over. She punched her tormenter in the gut and down he’d gone. To her credit, the boy’s mom listened to both sides of the story and didn’t report it to the school. Lee was ashamed of herself. From then on, she carried a bullying hotline card provided by the school and even used it once.

Melanie and I arrived at the bottom of the hill, covered in sweat. I took out my water bottle as she leaned over the fence rail beside us, catching her breath. “What I’d give right now for a lift back home,” she said, taking in the uphill path back home.

“Think how good you’ll feel when you make it to the top, without any help. That’s how Josh needs to feel, too. It’s his journey through middle school, just as much as yours.”

Melanie let go of the rail, and looked at the steamy, concrete hill. “Ready?” I said.

Thirty minutes — and a lot of huffing and puffing later — we made it back to the top. I didn’t know if I’d helped her, but one thing I knew for sure. She’d get through it and overcome, just like the rest of us had, one step at a time.

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