By the time your child reaches Middle School, they have probably had more first days of school than you can remember. It would be easy to think that this transition back to school will be smooth and predictable, like going back home after a vacation away. It might be, but you should nonetheless be prepared for the ways in which development at this stage may raise new questions, even in familiar places.
Consider what we know about early adolescents. They're different than they were in Elementary, messier and more ambitious. They're more concerned than ever about issues of social justice and civic engagement, and simultaneously more egocentric and myopic. They have grand plans and dismal time management skills. As they imagine themselves as the leaders of their school communities, they may be both ambitious and scared.
They may act like they don't need your help. They do.
They may act like they're not listening. They are.
They may act like your opinion doesn't matter to them anymore. It does.
The beginning of a new school year is an ideal time to sit down with your child to begin to establish how you hope to communicate with them now. Take a moment, a week or more before school begins, to sit down with your child to start that process. Here are some suggestions for how to do it:
Ask them to make time to talk with you. As your child moves into adolescence, you are preparing for a new way of interacting, moving from parenting from above to parenting from beside. Let your child know that you want to talk with them about the school year and set a time when you are both ready to sit together, instead of calling them to a conversation at a time when you've prepared yourself but they may have other things on their minds.
When you're together and uninterrupted, let your child know that you wanted to take a little time to talk about how to prepare for the first day of school. Ask them if there are any worries they have, or hopes for the day, if there are people they're looking forward to seeing or ones they're hoping to avoid. And then stop talking and listen. You're not there to answer the questions as much as you are there to allow space for them. Ask follow up questions that prompt their thinking about how to manage the transition. "How do you plan to handle that?" "What will you need to do to make sure that happens?" At this point in their development, they do still very much want you involved, but they don't want to feel like you're leading their lives for them. If your child suggests something you think is going to go wrong, ask questions like, "Do you see any possible conflicts there?" or "Have you considered what might happen if..." Your goal is to guide them to identify for themselves, in their own words, what they hope to accomplish and what support they think they'll need to get there.
Turn over the School Packet to your child, and then check back in with them later to find out what they understood from it. Unless your school has requested differently, most of the school policies and procedures, health forms and orientation materials can be open to your child. Let them take the first look and then ask them to sit down and walk you through what will happen. They can and should begin filling out any of their necessary forms independently, asking you for details that they may not yet have. Most of the orientation handouts are tools for your child's school to know your child and family better. Having your child take the first pass at them is a perfect opportunity to open conversations about their health, their family structures, and other school-to-home issues. This year should be one during which your child takes noticeable leadership over their school relationships, and these early forms are a promising foundation to support that.
Trust them, and be ready to walk with them when it's hard. Your goal is not to prevent your child from making mistakes in these first days of school, but to model for them the responsible steps they can take to be prepared, and the resilience if something goes awry. You may be worried that letting them take the lead means that they might not do it all right. They might not. That's ok. You're modeling for them what we all do all the time: think things through beforehand, take the action we can to prepare for what's next, and then see what happens. You also need to be prepared to model how to handle missteps, and you can't do that unless you allow for them to happen. It's not so much a matter of catching your child when they fall as it is walking beside them to encourage them to keep walking.
And then, parents, buckle up. Adolescence is a wild ride and your child, even in the most loving and supportive of schools, will encounter conflicts and challenges this year. You're prepared for some of them and some of them are impossible to predict. Such is growth. Such is living. You cannot make the process simpler or smoother or easier for your child. But you can stand with them. You can love them unconditionally (even when they look like they don't want you to.) You can remind them of their worth (especially when they act like they don't deserve it.) You can be the steady nest they return to, for rest and comfort, resilient and compassion. It's a scary place out there on the horizon. At home, love more.