If you are between eleven and fifteen years old or are the parents of children in that age group, this post is for you.
- Life in Middle School is all about CHANGES.
As a twelve to fifteen-year-old, your body is changing and so is your brain. By brain, I mean how you learn and how you manage your emotions. The challenging part is that your physical and intellectual development takes place at different times. While you are growing intellectually, you may be physically smaller than your friends. So, even though it may not be obvious to others, the development of your brain and its capacity to reason and think may be outpacing the growth of your body.
Before your brain starts to mature, you tend to think more in concrete and real terms than in abstract terms and you have a much shorter time perspective. You think about the here and now—your life at home and at school and maybe the week ahead—but you are not thinking longer term, that is, five or ten years ahead. You are also not thinking in abstract concepts, which is why math is often tough to grasp. While you are transitioning in the middle school years, you may do well in one area but tend to fall behind in others. If you are coping with overwhelming emotions, you may not be on top of your game in academics.
Don’t worry! You will get there. Life is a journey and we are all a work in progress. Feelings come and feelings go, but they are not reality. Thoughts come and thoughts go, but they are not reality either. The reality is that you are in a life stage that is transitional. The secret to mastering the transition is to be patient.
- Middle School Can Be Stressful
One of the biggest challenges about life in middle school is the increased stress in your life. You may have stopped appreciating how much fun learning can be. Do you remember doing a science project in fourth grade and how cool it was? Well, it will be helpful if you can try to get excited about learning new things, building both academic and emotional skills. This means learning new skills such as how to manage stress. Managing stress is hard for everyone—you, me, and your teachers. We all have to practice time management skills and find ways to schedule our time so we get our work done and then have time for fun and relaxing.
It is very important to realize that how you deal with stress and time management affects your happiness and self-esteem. As your brain develops, you start to learn about events going on in the rest of the world—wars, Ebola, natural disasters. When you add that in with having eight different classes and schedules changing on odd and even days, you really have a lot to handle! When life starts to feel overwhelming, you may feel anxious or scared and even develop fears or phobias, which are strong feelings of fear or dislike of something that are out of proportion to reality. If your family life is not going well and you don’t understand it all, then you may actually have a meltdown once in a while.
- Talking Matters
Talking to someone takes your focus out of the emotional part of your brain and into the rational part. One of the best skills for managing stress and feelings is talking. When you name an emotion by talking or even journaling, like writing in a diary, you are processing your feelings. By doing so, your emotions leave the subconscious part of your brain and get processed in your frontal lobe, or the reasoning and rational part of your brain. Because your brain is growing, you can get emotionally aroused more easily and you may lose your ability to reason and think rationally. Talking and “naming what you’re feeling” means you are stopping your feelings from impacting your mood. That is why talking to someone you trust is an effective way to be free of anxiety, anger, and sadness.
This practice is very important because, believe it or not, when you are feeling stressed, your stress hormones (cortisol and adrenaline) impact the front of your brain (your frontal lobe) and make it harder for you to retain information and to learn new things. Good time management and talking about your feelings can help to reduce stress and make it easier for you to do well in in school academically.
Two tips for time management are (1) try to keep your locker organized and (2) try to set up studying at the same time each day, if possible. It is always better to get your homework over with early when you first get home from school.
- During Middle School Years You Are Figuring Out Who You Are
Your social life and your relationships all change dramatically in middle school, and psychologically you are forming your self-concept, or who you think you are. However, it can be tricky because, from eleven to fourteen years old, your self-concept is based on social comparisons. You compare yourself with other kids in your class about how you add up physically (who is better looking?), academically (are you smart enough?), and socially (are you as popular as others?).
Please be kind to yourself—the same way you would be with your best friend. Don’t feel like you are a failure if you may not have gotten an A in math. If you learned something and you have tried your best, then that is what is important. Everybody is good at something, so focus on the areas of your life where you excel and don’t try to be someone you are not.
Your relationship with yourself gets mirrored in all your other relationships. If you think “Hey, I am a nice person and I’m cool with who I am,” then other people will tend to think “Hey, she is a nice person and she is pretty cool.”
- You Are Not Crazy—It Is Your Hormones
The main message I have for you is that everything you are feeling and experiencing is all totally normal. So, no, you are not crazy. When you start to grow, hormones begin floating around in your blood and they impact your moods. Estrogen in girls and testosterone in boys affect your endorphins (substances that produce effects such as pain relief), like serotonin, and other chemicals in your brain that regulate mood and make you happy. When your serotonin and dopamine levels are low, you may feel angry and irritable. Because your body is growing and changing, these hormone levels go up and down so your moods go up and down. From one day to the next, you may feel totally different. This is normal. Changes in your blood sugar levels and in the level of protein and iron in your system and the amount of sleep you get can impact your emotions.
One of the defining characteristics of being a teenager is having mood swings. They are partly the result of physiological changes but also partly the result of the strengthening of your self-concept. You push back at bit more when you feel you still are being treated like a little kid.
Remember, having negative feelings does not make you a bad person. Feelings come and go, but you are a good person. If you are struggling, there are people who are willing to listen—your teachers, your friends, your parents, and people like me who specialize in helping people talk through their problems.
- Is It Love or Is It Infatuation?
We may need to explore some feelings a bit further, particularly those you have when you feel like you are in love. You exchange a glance followed by a warm smile and, boom, suddenly you feel a crazy attraction. It is like euphoria. You can feel the blood rush to your face, your knees feel weak, and you are captivated. Is it love? Well, no it is really more likely to be infatuation.
If you are miserable when the special person is not around, if you can’t focus, and if you can’t help thinking in a sexual way about the person, then it probably is not real. It is your hormones again. When infatuated, we experience a surge off dopamine that rushes through our brain, causing us to feel good. Norepinephrine stimulates our heart, and phenylethylamine, the same chemical that is found in chocolate, creates a feeling of bliss. Your crazy irrational romantic ideas are caused by oxytocin, which creates sexual feelings and feelings of attachment. These feelings are sometimes overwhelming, but it is part of the development process as your body grows and matures. It is very important that you don’t make choices that are based on your hormones and on infatuation. Developmentally, you are too young to handle engaging in a sexual relationship. It can destabilize your growing self-concept, and the consequences can be life-changing. If you act out sexually, you may be inviting disease, pregnancy, and emotional damage that you can’t easily recover from. You are still developing life skills, which include managing emotions, so you are not emotionally stable enough to handle a sexual relationship.
- Taking Drugs Will Affect Your Brain and Your Future Ability to Be Happy
The same crazy feelings of infatuation and your many moods swings are a result of changes in brain chemicals called neurotransmitters, such as GABA, dopamine, and norepinephrine. The way your brain produces these chemicals changes when you use drugs. Drugs artificially elevate these neurotransmitters so they make you feel good for a few hours. However, when you stop using the drugs, the brain has adapted to the artificial surge by reducing the amount of naturally occurring neurotransmitters. As a result, once the drug is out of your blood stream, the level of neurotransmitters is very low so your body’s ability to regulate your moods is gone. You feel depressed and irritable.
If you keep taking drugs while your brain is growing, you may change the way your brain works. With all of the other things going in your life as a middle schooler, taking drugs may mean that you will be throwing your life away before it even got started. When teenagers take drugs while their brain is growing, they may forever alter their brain and its ability to regulate moods. I worked in drug rehabilitation centers for ten years. When teenagers came in hooked on painkillers, our ability to help them was less successful because their brains, which were not yet fully formed, had been altered from the drugs. The teenagers had difficulty regulating their emotions, and they found it very difficult to feel any form of pleasure.
- Play Sports
If you want to feel good, then go for a runner’s high. Running and doing exercises that increase your heart rate also raise the level of those brain chemicals mentioned earlier, dopamine norepinephrine, and GABA. They are the same neurotransmitters and amino acids that illegal drugs artificially elevate to make you feel good. However, cardiovascular workouts (running, exercising, and playing sports) give you a healthy high and you get physically fit at the same time.
What is even better than running is playing a team sport. It is one of the easiest ways to learn how to be self-disciplined, and self-discipline is one of life’s most important skills. When you play a team sport, you are practicing a new physical discipline with other people, you are learning how to train, and your coach is there to push you to go the extra mile. In addition, the runner’s high, which happens when you get your heart rate up, is a great stress reliever. You can also make awesome friends playing sports, and developing a skill can enhance your self-esteem.
- The Marshmallow Test
In a very famous clinical study, a series of five or six-year-old children were left alone in a room while seated at a table in front of a plate with two fluffy white marshmallows. The children were told that they could have one marshmallow now; however, if they were willing to wait for the researcher to come back (after fifteen minutes), then they could have two marshmallows. The scientists followed more than 1000 children for ten years, tracking their academic and emotional achievements. The children who had waited for fifteen minutes for two marshmallows had developed a life skill that carried them to success and happiness. These children had demonstrated an ability to control their feelings and impulses, and they revealed an understanding of the benefits of delayed gratification.
Managing your emotions and having self-discipline is more important than your IQ (intelligence quotient) in terms of happiness and success in life. It is important to remember that self-discipline is an emotional muscle that you build through practice. The more you learn to delay gratification and say no to the second brownie or the temptation to play video games instead of getting your school work done, the easier it gets.
In short, your emotional intelligence is more important than your IQ, and emotional intelligence is a life skill that you can learn. In the same way you learned to ride a bike, you can learn to manage your feelings. You can learn to say no to bad choices by talking things through and not acting on your feelings. You can learn to make better choices, which means you are going to feel better about yourself and, best of all, you are more likely to be a happy person.