social problemsA new school year often brings with it a big dose of conflicting emotions. While children may be excited for a new year, new teachers and new friendships, they may also find those same things anxiety inducing, especially for kids who struggle with social problems.

Those mixed emotions are even more pronounced for middle school students. The adolescent years are usually the toughest, defined as a time when kids are trying to figure out how and where they fit. In the process, they may try different personas, different looks — all the while trying to be sure they are just like everybody else in the peer group they choose.

The behaviors can take a variety of forms and be upsetting for parents. It’s not uncommon for academically gifted kids to downplay their intellectual prowess so as not to stand out, nor is it unusual for young teens to bully or belittle other kids in an effort to elevate themselves or give them status within a group.

But parents’ responses can make a big difference in how kids actually adapt and cope with social struggles. Difficult as it may be, parents need to be open to the idea that their children may not be perfect and avoid making excuses for their behaviors. At the same time, they need to resist the temptation to project their own teen experience on or live vicariously through their children.

Those are some of the don’ts. What about the do’s?

  • Affirm your children. Affirm their individuality and the interests and attributes that make them unique.
  • Spend time with them. To affirm your kids’ sense of themselves, you must spend time with them. This can be challenging in middle school when adolescents frequently claim it’s not cool to spend time with parents. A great way to find that time is in the car together, running errands or driving to school and other activities.
  • Engage them in structured activities. When adolescents participate in clubs, team sports and other interests, they get the benefits of the built-in social structure that comes with it.
  • Open your home to their friends. Make your home a comfortable, safe and welcoming place for your kids’ friends. It gives you added opportunities to encourage and monitor healthy social interactions.
  • Stick to schedules. Parents often are very good about adhering to schedules when their children are infants but tend to loosen up by the time kids hit middle school. Certainly, kids need more independence as they get older, but they still really need sleep — 10 to 12 hours of it per night.

Parents are often very good about checking on their kids’ homework, test scores and academic performance, but it’s just as important to monitor their social activities. Kids who are more socially self assured often perform better academically, too.