Navigating Your Child's Education: Grades 6-8

4 min read

Recognizing and Addressing Anxiety in Your Middle Schooler

Sep 24, 2019 7:00 PM

Stress and anxiety affect all ages in our society, but it is especially pronounced in the middle school years. While the middle school years are notoriously awkward and rife with transition, they are arguably more challenging now than ever before.

For tweens entering or continuing in middle school, there are a number of common causes of stress, including:

  • Academics: becoming familiar with a new school building (or new virtual learning platform), learning to juggle multiple classes and interact with several teachers all in one day, completing longer homework assignments than they’ve ever had, and studying more complex classroom material are all academic factors that can stress tweens out.
  • Extra-curriculars: School sports typically begin in middle school. The time and mental, physical, emotional energy involved in after-school commitments may feel overwhelming at times.
  • Puberty: Going through puberty creates all kinds of physical changes that some tweens find very stressful. Middle schoolers may also feel anxiety about not going through puberty at the same time as their peers.
  • The social scene: Social interactions are everything to middle schoolers. From classmates to lunch table companions to first-time crushes, middle schoolers are inundated with social decisions on a daily basis. Another large component of the middle school social scene now is virtual interactions--social media, texting, etc. Tweens often grapple with belonging to a group, feeling like they fit in, and learning who they are as individuals. When they sense a lacking in any of these areas, it can cause stress.
  • Technology: Middle schoolers are often preoccupied with who has a phone and who doesn’t, who is on social media and who isn’t, and how their peers are using the technology they have access to. Social media interactions and increased screen time are directly linked to significant increases in mental health issues and anxiety in tweens and teens.

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How can I tell if my middle schooler is stressed?

A tween’s temperament and personality play a critical role in how they respond to and deal with school-related stressors. Some kids seem to take everything in stride and are relatively unbothered, while others can be very sensitive to what is going on around them and how it affects them internally.

The effects of stress and anxiety on a middle schooler also widely vary. It is so important to really know your child and pay attention to them in order to sense when they may be feeling overwhelmed. Particularly for middle school students, it’s common for anxiety to manifest itself in eating changes (eating more, eating less, opting for “comfort food”), arguing or talking back, keeping things from you, wanting more screen time, or any changes in normal patterns of behavior at home (staying in bed longer, going to room more often). Another very common way that students in middle school begin to deal with stress is through pursuing perfectionism.

How can I help my tween in their stress?

There will likely come a time when you realize that your middle schooler is in a season of anxiety and stress. There are a few practical ways that you can address their stress and help them navigate it:

  • Ask questions and listen to their words. As parents we have a tendency to see or hear a problem in our tween and want to tell them what to do and how to fix it, but this hinders them from freely sharing and developing the coping skills they’ll need later in life as they face bigger difficulties. Asking questions and listening opens up lines of communication.
  • Reassure instead of operating in "teaching mode" and tell stories about your own experience if it is appropriate. When my kids were in middle school, I worried that if I shared stories or didn’t have a “life lesson” that they may make the wrong choices. Now, if I could, I would go back and listen more, talk less. Use scripture to build up your children, podcasts, anything that helps them connect with you and let them know that no matter what, God always loves them and so do you!
  • Give responsibilities at home. Tweens can be very selfish and resistant to anyone telling them what to do, especially when it comes to chores. They should be contributing – have a family meeting, let them know they are a part of the solution. Help them feel a part instead of telling them what to do.

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  • Talk about what a school day looks like. Plan ahead (but do not over plan) and discuss what you can do as a family to make mornings and evenings less stressful.
  • Ask your tween what helps them unwind and make time in the day to allow them to practice. Make a list of healthy hobbies they have or ways they enjoy playing and make sure they have time for those. Cut down on screen time.
  • Sleep. Work on establishing a good sleep schedule. Current research asserts that tweens and teens need 8-10 hours of sleep per night, and a very small percentage of students are actually getting adequate sleep on weeknights.
  • Break down tasks. If a particular assignment or project or upcoming goal is overwhelming your middle schooler, help them break it down into manageable portions and help them experience success.
  • Spend time together. Our culture seems to perpetuate the idea of being busy and plugged in to technology, so it takes serious effort and intentionality for families to truly spend time together. Simple measures like reducing screentime at home, playing board games together, and eating dinner together at home as often as possible can have a profound impact on a child’s stress level.
  • Routine, routine, routine. Especially for younger children, routine is crucial to their health and well-being, physically, mentally, and emotionally. Establishing and maintaining consistency and stability at home provides tweens with a space where they know what to expect. The consistency and routine helps them find comfort knowing what is expected and what the consequences are, and as a result, bring peace and calm to the situations.
  • Pray. As you learn what is causing your child stress and how it is manifesting in your child’s life, pray very specifically for God to move in those areas.

One last thing to keep in mind is that some amounts of stress are healthy for students and cause them to work harder/push themselves in a healthy manner. If it seems like your tween is consistently feeling anxious to the point of it affecting how they function on a day-to-day basis, I encourage you to be open to providing support through counseling or a doctor’s visit if they ask or you notice negative changes.


Nancy Secrest
Written by Nancy Secrest

With degrees in education, Christian psychology, and school counseling, Nancy is dually licensed as a Clinical Pastoral Counselor and School Counselor. She taught second grade and kindergarten for Dublin City Schools and started Blessings Unlimited Christian Counseling. She served on staff at Worthington Christian School as Student Services Coordinator, Psychology teacher, and most recently as school counselor.