Middle school is a transformative and sometimes difficult time for many children as they navigate relationships with peers, figure out where they "fit in," and balance hormone changes. This particular year has tasked our middle schoolers with even more stress and anxiety associated with the COVID-19 Pandemic. To kick off the What Our Kids Want Us to Know Project we asked a Berks County 7th Grade teacher, Mrs. Smith how she has been supporting her students through the ups and downs of the past year. We also checked in with Parent Alliance Staff member Melissa, who is currently helping her own children with school challenges. Both have offered some advice for students and their parents on the top 4 things we are hearing from middle school students.
"This year is so, so weird. When we had kids come back to school a couple of weeks ago I was taken aback when one of my more outspoken kids pointed to his classmate and said “who is that.” They have never seen each other ever. That just really showed the disconnect. Technology is the only way these kids are getting the opportunity to connect. Limiting screen time is great in theory because they have been staring at screens all day long. Getting them outside with fresh air is also great, but when you do limit a child's screentime right now it disregards the fact that technology is keeping their friendships going.
A lot of kids are telling me they are feeling really stuck. They can’t see their friends in person, they have been on a screen all day, they can try and see their friends on screens but may not be allowed to, or if they are they are so burnt out by technology that it isn’t meaningful at all. There is no answer or no fix. For the time being it seems like screen time limits are friendship limits."
For the Parent: "I am sorry that this time in your life as a parent has been difficult. I know as a parent it is our job to keep our kids safe, happy, and healthy. I know how hard it is to make and keep a routine every day aside from trying to keep it up in a pandemic. We work so hard at setting boundaries and schedules and it is for the greater good of the household, and it is what is best for the children. Everything that we do there is a reason behind it that our children generally cannot see until they are themselves, adults. I can say from one parent to another it is ok to not be so strict during this time. I do not feel that I am lowering my standards by allowing a little extra time on their phone. In this unprecedented time, I feel like anything we can do to help them stay connected to their peers is more important than the schedule I set before. Is it possible to get your child some envelopes and stamps? Find out what their friend's addresses are? They could start sending letters in the mail weekly or doing a porch drop-off something like that."
"It is hard because you don’t know what they are being told at home. You don’t know if they know someone who had or has died from COVID, or what kind of information their parents share with them IF anything at all. I have realized trying to get rid of their fears isn’t working because there are so many and they're so different, but giving them the space to address their fears and air them out helps. A lot of them benefit from sharing their own anxiety. I had them write down one bad and one positive thing about coming back and they didn’t get to see the other responses until they submitted theirs. Then they got to see how far they were from being alone about being anxious We are baseline scared and that's a lot to deal with and sharing the comfort in numbers helps."
We think Mrs. Smith has brought up a really important point here. You don't know where your children's friends and peers are getting their information from, and children talk. Knowledge is power; make sure you are helping to alleviate some of your child's anxiety by showing them legitimate news sources that you read/watch as a family, or places where they could go to get answers they may want.
For both child and parent: "How you feel about what is going on is completely valid. You are not alone in this. I feel like we need to share how we are feeling with each other. If we talk about it more and give it validation we will find that there are people around us that are feeling the same way. Having anxiety about the number of people in a room is something all of us can understand as being overwhelming. I think we can take one moment at a time and get through it. Our website has a lot of wonderful resources. Nothing about moving forward in this new life will be easy. So load up your toolbox with information that may help your family. Do not let family members get away with saying “I am fine.” They probably are not fine. Get everyone to share how they are feeling and find ways to navigate those feelings. You can always reach out to us for support."
For a useful resource on our website: Join Dr. Ana Radovic as she presents an overview of common mental health challenges children face. Information on symptoms, treatment, and helpful websites are also shared.
"This is the funniest, in a very sad way, at the end of the day when you take covid away the fear is that they almost forget how to go to school. There were so many kids frantically roaming the halls. They get fixated on simple problems. At the end of the day, they are kids with kid worries and kid fears they want to make sure they make it to class on time and don’t get a detention. It is refreshing to see they are worried about something every kid ever has been worried about, like finding their way around a new school. We laugh together and if you end up in my class at the wrong time that’s fine, I am just happy they are there."
"Just because things are going back to normal does not mean they are normal. Share space with your child to know what is going on with them. Let them know that it is ok to feel the way they are feeling. I know we all just want to flip a switch and say there you go school is open now, everything is ok. But the reality is that we have had a major change in our lifestyles for more than a year it is going to take some patience and time to navigate this and we do not want our kids suffering any more than they already have or will from this pandemic. COVID was out of our control so what do we do to correct being out of control? We take control back when we get information and resources for ourselves and our families. Do not be afraid to reach out and ask for help!"
"I think despite everything going on getting students back into school has been one of the most soul-fueling things that could have happened. Just to get bodies back into the building and seeing halls filled with kids. I hate to say this because I hate to draw such a differentiation between kids still on zoom and now kids in my class. I have students who barely spoke at all on zoom and now they are flourishing and we are laughing and building a bond. I know everyone is scared but the more we can share the anxiety and acknowledge it and keep showing up it will be beneficial for every single kid that gets touched by it.
We do still have some kids that have not come back yet and it is really hard to keep the kids excited that aren’t in person. They aren’t missing out but it is inaccurate to say that it is the same experience. I feel for my kids that are on zoom and they see their friends get to be there and they don’t. I give them extra attention and an extra push. Nothing can really give them the feeling they have in school. But they are not being forgotten and I am going to be there, I hope they hear that message. I do feel disconnected with less of them on zoom; they have kind of retracted. This is not forever and we do see how hard it is on here for you"
We thought this quote was too powerful not to share:
"This is actually one that I think about a lot and it stuck out for me when doing it in general. This sentiment left me with a lot of mixed emotions. First of all, I felt honored that they trusted me to tell me that, which makes me feel really good. I am happy they are capable to do that with me. On the other hand, this quote haunts me, I think about how many students don’t have the confidence to express themselves like this. There are probably so many kids that are strapping a smile and it is a fear of mine that I will not be able to reach them all. They used to hide behind books or were quiet in class but now I haven’t even met them for 5 months and if they are struggling it is so difficult to see that over Zoom.
Above all I encourage them to advocate for themselves, this is a skill so beyond 7th grade, and I can’t thank this student enough for putting this out there. It is so hard to say "I am struggling and I need help." That student has a lot of background with mental health and mental health services so she does know how to advocate for herself, she has an awareness of what she needs and a voice to ask for help. For this student specifically, we do a weekly check-in because of what she wrote to me and she loves it she always brings up to me how much it means to her. I like to think I always did but to be perfectly honest this was a kick in the ass to check in on every student, the shy ones, the happy ones, the loud ones, and everyone in the middle."
We want to thank Mrs. Smith, Melissa, and the 7th-grade students for sharing their thoughts with us. By continuing to talk about our own mental health struggles we help to make others feel less alone and continue to break down stigma. The What Our Kids Want Us To Know Series will be featured on our blog all spring and summer long; become a FREE member of the Parent Alliance here for it to be delivered to your inbox.