How to Talk to Middle Schoolers about Resilience, Self Care & Problem-Solving

This podcast will focus on how to best talk with middle schoolers to bolster resilience, encourage self-care and help them feel comfortable and confident with solving problems on their own. As middle school is a great time of change for children—from their bodies to their brains to their identities, there is a lot to learn. In fact, my guest, Michelle Icard, calls this time a “construction project!” Listen in as Michelle provides important tips, scripts, steps and—(something very important) “Botox Brow” to best help our middle schoolers thrive. This podcast episode provides great tools for you to best connect with your tweens during this challenging and interesting time of life.

Ahhh, middle school. The crazy, time of ultimate change between elementary school and high school. Just thinking about it brings up so many memories— not all great, of course, as middle school changes can be confusing and strange  as we try to figure out the social scene while trying to understand ourselves. Our brains are growing, our bodies are developing and we are trying to answer questions like “who am I?” What do I like? Is it ok for me to like this while my friends like that? “Do I fit in?” and so much more. And while all of this is happening- we also have to turn our attention to the parents and educators who are not only watching this happen but uniquely involved riding the lines between guiding and letting go, dependence and independence. How, as parents and educators, do we help our middle schoolers navigate these school years that can be filled with angst and bewilderment with humor, grace, success and maybe even a little bit of fun thrown in there?

To answer these questions and more we have Michelle Icard on the show today.

Michelle Icerd is a writer, speaker, educator, and the author of Middle School Makeover: Improving the Way You and Your Child Experience the Middle School Years. She is a member of the TODAY Show parenting team and NBC’s Education Nation. She is a contributor to the Washington Post OnParenting section and Your Teen Magazine. In addition, her work has been featured in The Chicago Tribune, The Christian Science Monitor, Redbook, Time, People Magazine, and A Mighty Girl. She is also an internationally recognized voice on adolescence who speaks around the country and across the globe.

The podcast provides:

  • How to encourage middle schoolers to solve their own problems
  • How to use “botox brow” to council your middle schoolers
  • The dos and don’ts of communicating with your middle schoolers
  • How to help middle schoolers feel good about their own identity when they don’t like the same kinds of things (or aren’t talented in the same way) as their peers
  • How to respond when something really upsets your child at school
  • How to help middle schoolers incorporate self-care into their routine

Important Messages:

  • We need to allow our children the opportunity to problem-solve themselves. No adult emerges as the perfect problem solver without learning how to solve problems.
  • Use “botox brow” when communicating with your kids about sensitive things. Child sees your face with wrinkled brow and it sent a message to your child that was unintended. Parents wrinkle brow to show interest, focus, empathy
  • Adults could distinguish different emotions just by looking at faces (Deborah Yurgelun-Todd) 100% of the time. They used their prefrontal cortex. Teens could distinguish emotions from looking at faces only 50% of the time. They used their amygdala.
  • Middle schoolers feel judged all the time. If they feel you are needy of them- they jump away from you. The second you don’t need them, they become interested! “I’d love to hear about your math test but I have some emails to catch up on so let’s talk about it later.”
  • When we solve our children’s problems for them, it can send the message that they are helpless. 
  • When they express a problem- start with empathy. Use botox brow! How did that make you feel? Kids in middle school have a warped overdeveloped sense of justice- and want revenge. Litmus test later on- “does this fix the problem of feeling…” Then- what can you do to feel less __________? They might say “I don’t know.” I get it, it’s a hard one. Be the eye-doctor- do you like A or B? They may provide a response you don’t like. Brainstorm- no evaluation. Get 5 – 10 responses- “wow! You are good at coming up with solutions.” “You have quite a few responses- which 2 are your favorite?” Then explore. Could you get in trouble? What will other people fix? “It sounds like what you are feeling is anger- and if the teacher finds out and the kids get involved, does this make you feel less anger?” Maybe that doesn’t solve for feeling angry- what about another one? But remember, this is not your problem- they must solve it. “You did a great job solving this problem- what would that look like? Great, I hope you try this and report back to me!”
  • Don’t interview for pain.
  • Talk about the concept of popularity. Kids worry about where they rank. There is being popular because you are really likeable and being popular because people are afraid of you.
  • There are lots of ways to get social cred from peers besides sports- music, starting a little business.
  • If your child is going in the wrong direction to get attention- point them towards research rather than talk to them directly about themselves (they’ll often get defensive if you go that route). For example, there’s an article in the NYT “Cool at 13, Adrift at 30” that talks about how those kids who were cool at 13 for doing things that were inappropriate (class clown, drinking, making jokes at other people’s expense) don’t stay cool into the adult years.
  • Testing boundaries in middle school. Who can I push further? Where can I get a laugh?
  • What’s one of the worst things that someone could do or say to you in middle school? Come up with something that you can have something in your back packet to say/do? What matters is that you don’t show you are being rocked by it. Ask; what is something you can do? You might think “I wish you would stand up for yourself” but if they come up with something that worked, then they will have a sense of accomplishment. They are not helpless. They have ownership. Must be something natural to that child—otherwise it feels forced. Also, they are less likely to come back to you for advice.
  • Self-care: Make it concrete.
  • Create a “try this first list.” Sit down during a happy moment- make a list of 10 things that make you feel good. Decorate it. Poster. Hung it in the closet- deal with big feelings- 20 min- pick one thing off try this first list. For example- draw picture, take a bath, listen to music. You do it too!
  • What your kid is going through with this body, brain and identity development- that’s being mirrored in your own life. Kid is growing up and may not need you as much. Tip—get a hobby! What is something you love to do? Show your kids that you should devote some of your life to doing something you love. Parents are multi-faceted- the kids are not our whole life!

Notable Quotables:

  • “The 3-year period of life is probably the most fascinating time of life. The project of who you want to be is messy and awkward and painful and exciting and fun- there’s a lot going on there!” 
  • “As parents, we help our kids solve problems throughout elementary school because it’s an act of love. But in middle school, it becomes an act of love, to give our kids the chance to develop the problem-solving skills themselves.”
  • “We often want to solve our kids’ problems because we know how. But it’s really important to take a step back and give our kids the same opportunity to earn their wisdom. We didn’t always know how but we figured it out over time through trial and error and often with a lot of messes along the way. Our kids deserve the same opportunity to figure things out themselves.”
  • “Kids start talking when they know their parents aren’t mad.”
  • “You don’t want to raise kids who feel that it is their job to fix other people’s bad behavior and they never focus on themselves.”
  • Middle-schoolers are going through what I call “The Middle School Construction Project.” Their bodies are changing, their brains are changing and their identities are changing. That leaves them a little lost at sea and they look around at their peers and wonder, ‘am I normal? Is my body change normal? Is my brain like everybody else’s? And do I like and look like everyone else does?”
  • “The things that make you cool in middle school make you uncool as an adult.”
  • “Middle school is one of the stickiest times of life because your brain is starting to gel. What happens in middle school sticks for a really long time.”
  • “When it comes to teaching your middle-schooler self-care it has to be something that works for them, not for you.”


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