How can we deal with middle school meltdowns?

February 29 |
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Photo by joo0ey, used under Creative Commons license.
My oldest child, 12 years old, is in his first year of middle school. Without warning, we have hit an academic brick wall. My once mostly straight-A student is now failing half his classes. He's bombing tests and not turning in work.

While I have done my absolute best to keep in contact with his teachers and have talked with him repeatedly about the importance of good grades and writing things down, I feel like I have led my little horse to water but he's refusing to drink.


I'm so tired of yelling and fighting with him; of repeating myself and having to be mean to get him to do anything. I've taken away video games and computers but it still seems like this entitlement is growing and the attitude is growing with it. What do I do? What worked with your children? — Mrs. Daniels

  1. Ok, I'm not a parent yet and have so far not contributed at all to this site, but figured I could help out here.

    I'm a middle school teacher and have seen this happen many times. Middle school is a time of change and sometimes students (particularly boys from my experience) start to experiment with completely changing their behavior.

    It is very good that you're communicating with his teachers and letting them know that this is new behavior for him. I think the best thing that you can do is to figure out what's triggering this behavior. Is he trying to impress his peers? Is the work just too hard and he's worried about failing? Is it too easy and he's frustrated by that? Maybe he's having trouble staying organized – the transition from one self-contained classroom to multiple classes throughout the day can be a real struggle for some students.

    Also, research shows that praising good behavior can go a long way. When he does do well in something, let him know how proud you are of him. If there isn't something to praise school-wise, give him encouragement for something he does well around the house – chores, helping a sibling, saying please and thank you. It doesn't have to be anything big. And then once he's feeling confident about something, you can start to tell him how wonderful it would be if he could put the same effort into the school work – and that you're there to help when he struggles. Supportive parents make so much of a difference.

    Good luck! With any luck, it's just a phase and he'll start to value school again soon.

    15 agree
    • I would be careful with the praise, it can often backfire and produce the opposite desired result. In other words, too much praise and the child knows something is up, they think you are praising them because they are stupid potentially or they might come to other equally undesirable conclusions. Tying the praise to things done like Mary suggests is important, rather than being praised for being smart (or other supposed innate states). As is making sure not to overdo it and it has to be sincere, they can tell if you don't feel it and you're just saying things to make them feel better.

      • This implies the parent isn't dealing with the child as a person. Anyone knows when you're just saying things to make someone feel better no matter how old they are. Mary had the best advice to offer and it came from a good place as well.

        5 agree
  2. Middle school is rough for everyone – it's a really trying age, and you're not alone in this!

    First, I would make sure there are no other issues at play. Is he being picked on? Has he made some new friends who are "bad influences"? Is he unable to see the board and needs glasses? I would schedule a checkup with his dr and a sit down with his main teacher or guidance counselor – don't be afraid to take your time and talk through all possibilities.

    Second, I think you need to change the way you're relating to him, because it's not working for either of you. There are several resources you can check out. Our local library offers parenting classes focusing on various ages – you could also check out your local Boys & Girls club. The book How To Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk was very, very helpful with breaking us of destructive habits when it came to our niece, and it offers very specific, constructive things to try. You could also always find a family counselor/therapist.

    And finally, I would just be realistic with your expectations. There is so much going on during these years – they spend their childhoods learning how to relate to one another one way, and basically need to learn a whole new way of relating. Plus their bodies are changing in all kinds of crazy ways.

    On a hopeful note – I was a hot mess when I was 12 – my locker and notebooks were a disaster, I couldn't keep track of my assignments, I had a hard time making friends. These are all skills that have to be learned, and by the time I reached high school, I had learned them. So there's hope :)

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    • I would just add on to this great comment by saying a lot of the issues mentioned here were problems for me when I was in middle school. I felt unattractive and unpopular, and I just couldn't focus in class. I read in class instead of listening, rarely finished homework (or even realized I had any), got poor grades and failed math. I was also rude at home; even I can't really explain why 15 years later.

      Going to high school turned things completely. The change in social structure and academic structure just clicked with me. I got straight As after that (even in math!) and scholarships to university.

      Struggling in middle school doesn't always mean struggling through life – don't panic just yet :)

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    • I must caution that book does not work for everyone, or at least not everyone interprets it in a helpful way.

      My parent's take away message from it was to tell me how I was feeling when I was trying to talk to them. For example, "I can see that you are angry, myname" or "You seem to be upset about this, myname" or any of a number of other examples.

      These statements always sounded pretenious to me, and I wanted to scream at them "Yes, I am clearly angry/upset/whatever-other-feeling, I didn't need to you tell me that. Your statement is unhelpful."

      Perhaps there is lots of other useful advice in that book, but that is all my parents took from it and it did nothing but annoy me. Ah well.

      6 agree
  3. I only have a toddler and I don't teach middle school, so I have no real "advice" here.

    I will only say two things: first, my nephew had these kinds of issues at age 12-13, and he's totally fine now at 17. It was mostly just a phase, and his mother read the book mention above, How to Talk so Your Kids Will Listen….., and found it helpful.

    Second, after being a total geek all through elementary school, I was totally lazy when I was in the 7th grade about homework, studying, etc. It wasn't cool. I outgrew that phase within a year, and I've also ended up without any academic achievement challenges (and am actually a bit over-educated!)

    So, again, no advice for you on getting through the day, handling the conflict and tension, etc — I just wanted to let you know that both my nephew and I went through this phase and turned out fine. So, there might indeed be other things going on that could really matter, but at least part of this is probably age.

    1 agrees
  4. My oldest child is 6 so let me first say I have no first hand experience with this. But I have heard of people going to class with their children sitting next to them and ensuring that things are taken care of. This was a friend of a friend and the kid was ready to do anything in the world to make sure mom stayed out of class he started taking care of school work.

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    • That is kind of brilliant. I think just mentioning that might be the next step with a middle schooler could get results. I would have DIED if my mom started coming to school with me.

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    • When I started reading your post I was like "Oh my goodness! Is she suggesting to be an uber helicopter parent?!?!" and then I read the rest. Phew! I don't know if going through with this would be all that great (the kid might be remembered *forever* as the kid whose mom came to school with him) but the mere suggestion that you might do this might get a teenager to finally sit up and start writing things down.

      2 agree
    • My dad did this. I didn't take his threat seriously, and then almost died of embarrassment when he went through with it. I took him seriously after that though!

      5 agree
  5. I don't have any advice but I wanted to give you some hugs. Hitting a wall when you're trying to help your kid, regardless of their age, is frustrating and overwhelming. I experience it with a toddler and I'm sure it will only get more complicated as my son gets older. Good luck. I'm sure someone in this community will have some sage advice. :)

    1 agrees
  6. I think the comments above are spot-on, and I also recommend the How To Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk book as well. Communication is something that fascinates me, and a child/teen's development of communication is something that we all think should be intuitive (I mean, we were all just there, right?), but for some reason it's not. And that's OK. It's normal.

    The second thing I would check out is different tutoring programs in your area. Your son's school probably has an after-school study club/homework club that is either free or very affordable. If not, check community centers in your area, or ask his teachers for recommendations. Sometimes peer-peer tutoring can do amazing things (especially if the attitude change is related to not making new friends easily), but just as often mentor-student tutoring can be a life changer.

    Third, I would like to underline the importance of praising good behaviors & building confidence that way. When I hit middle school, my English & History classes were no problem at all, but my Math started to suffer drastically. A new setting & whole group of new students meant I didn't feel secure enough to participate in my math classes, because I knew it was my weakest skill. Where I started was fine, but because I didn't participate I started to fall behind extremely quickly. I never regained the confidence in this area, and struggled even into high school. Once I started getting out-of-the-classroom help from teachers (through an after school program at my high school) and private tutoring (it took awhile to find the right tutor – stick with it!), I was able to get back to where I should be. I'm still not a math person and I probably never will be, but it's at least not something I fear anymore. I wish I had discovered these options in middle school rather than waiting till I was desperate in high school. Making sure your kid has the confidence to participate in class is so vital to his success, so reaffirming all the ways he is a wonderful kid could help him open up & have the confidence to talk with you about why he's struggling now.

    I'm rooting for you & your son. I do hope you are able to find the right solutions together.

  7. I'm not a parent yet, but I am a teacher. And more than that, this question could have been posed by my mother when I was 12. I had been a very successful student as an elementary schooler and became a complete mess when I hit 6th grade.

    Without going in to my own nitty gritty details. I'll say this: It would have been great to have had a talk therapist. I eventually met with learning specialists, and later a psychiatrist (who prescribed Ritalin, but that turned out not to be the solution). It was devastating for me , as someone who had been successful at school, whose parents always expressed pride in my intelligence and academic work, to find myself in a situation where suddenly I was struggling and felt like a disappointment.

    Later, a therapist told me that sometimes very bright kids don't develop a study skill problem solving toolbox because the problems they encounter in elementary school don't require any extra maneuvering on their part. This felt like what had happened to me. And when I got to middle school, suddenly I had to switch classes, keep track of homework, on top of using new higher order thinking skills. I probably would have been able to pick myself up faster if I'd been in talk therapy with someone helping me process all of this. I was panicked about how hard it suddenly was to do things like keep track of my assignments and ashamed that I couldn't figure it out. The shame made it hard for me to accept any help.

    As a teacher, I often found myself providing emotional support to kids who were struggling academically because the blow to their self-esteem was so great. Without being reassured of their abilities, they could get stuck in patterns in which they decided they just weren't capable of the work.

    (For the record, despite being a hot mess through middle school and 9th grade both, I did go to college, and have more than one graduate degree. So your son will probably end up okay, too.)

    10 agree
    • I'm not a parent, or a teacher, just a curious bystander really, but this letter also could have been written by my mother when I was 12.

      It took us a few years of fighting and struggling to figure it out, but talking to a therapist turned out to be the answer. I was put on Adderall, and it was like a switch was flipped. Drugs aren't always the answer, but sometimes they are, and it's worth looking into.

      Of course, sometimes the problem is just that middle school sucks, and it gets better later. It might not get better for a few years, but it does get better :)

    • This type of thing – switching to a new place/location/level/whathaveyou is something that all parents of academically successful kids should really pay attention to.

      While I personally didn't run into the academic wall until college, it was totally devistating. I never had to think about anything I was learning until college. I had no study skills, and I was also living without my very schedule-oriented mother (turns out I really need a rigid schedule to get things done). It could be academics being more difficult than before, it could be time management/organization skills, or it could be a combination.

      3 agree
      • i had the opposite experience in college. i had no one breathing down my neck telling me what i "had" to do like in middle/highschool…and so i did fantastically well. college work was done on my own terms. it was freedom, and i was in control. whereas i failed a lot in grade school because i hated being told what to do, and didn't do what i was "supposed" to out of spite.

        4 agree
  8. Okay, so I have teenagers who survived past middle school. It really is the hardest damn time of their little lives, it's just so much all at once.

    Here's the golden secret our doctor told us. They are having hormonal "surges." Your super sweet little boy can turn into a rage machine of crazy or a whiny emotional machine of crazy or whatever crazy du jour and you are standing there with your jaw on the floor. This all affects school work too as they just get overwhelmed or lethargic about it. The defiance is related, the suddenly not caring is related…and all of the school issues might even be related to the idea of the "personal fable." That is, that middle school feeling that everyone is totally watching you and critiquing you. So if it's uncool to not do the work, the kid might stop doing the work.

    It will get better. I promise!

    In the meantime, what helped us was physical activity. It seems so simply but even my more jock-like kid needed more activity and my quiet reader needed it the most. We made them walk, as in YOU WALK NOW. We just walked beside them and let them talk, walk walk walk and I swear after a while you could just see them slump a bit and finally RELAX. Just keep talking with them, LISTENING even more, and walking. And whatever works for you keep doing! And hugs to you, it's hard!

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    • Wow, this is such a good idea! Exercise really is a big part. I always get annoyed when teachers want to have kids miss PE to make up a test or something. Physical activity is very important!

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  9. I think most of the other comments touch upon the developmental and hormonal changes that accompany kids in grade 7 and 8.

    As a parent of two teens, and someone who works at a not-for-profit that is trying to transform education, I think it's fair to note that studies show huge engagement issues for boys beginning in grade 7 that lead to poor academic outcomes.

    Not that I want to be too challenging here, but many of the problems we've faced with our kids in middle school came from poor teacher practice. Teachers who were tired and worn out and were totally uninspiring. Teaching in their minds was writing stuff on the board and having kids copy it down. It was making kids sit in their seats. It was talking at the kids. These classrooms were boring and most of the learning seemed pointless to the kids.

    You have to capture kids' hearts and minds in order to engage them. When kids are engaged in learning, there is no limit on how well they can do.

    My kids are currently at a school where the big issue is teacher practice. My son is excelling in certain subjects for which he doesn't have a natural aptitude because his teachers have piqued his curiosity and his appetite to learn. The two subjects where we normally would have expected him to excel is where he's really struggling. And when I see what they've asked him to do, I totally get it.

    We chose not to change schools, but my third child definitely will not be going there.

    • While I agree with what you're saying, there's some issues at play with teachers that, as a teacher myself, should be taken into consideration:

      * Budgets are being slashed, and schools–especially in poor(er) districts are being scrutinized by unfair and unbalanced testing standards, which makes administrators strong arm teachers into 'teaching to the test.' Especially in a core area like English, many teachers are told/ordered to put aside the more engaging activities to teach rudimentary skills that too many students are lacking because they are being taught to the test and not much more. It's a vicious cycle and it sucks, and to speak out against it–especially for beginning teachers is a sure ticket to a short career.

      * Teachers are tired and worn out because they have a job that requires a lot of training, time and money. They have the responsibility of a brain surgeon, the pay of a fast food worker (comparably speaking when yo consider the time, money, and other hoop-jumping), and get the added bonuses of being scapegoated and shouldering a disproportionate amount of blame and punishment.

      * Beginning teachers, like myself, despite our training, are still learning what works. I would like it if we had all the answers and were experts from day one, but theory, student teaching, and actual practice are all different things. And try doing everything you're supposed to do in just under an hour, with 40+ kids in a classroom. To top it off, to defy our administrators or to question (too much) of what to do and how to do it, again, guarantees a short career.

      • I am curious, without wanting to derail this into a political debate, but it sounds like you are saying the educational system requires an overhaul but that the teachers are not in a position to do it. I'd love to hear how you think parents (and interested community members) could help fix the system.

        Perhaps if the moderators think this is too off-topic for this discussion, perhaps you could point me towards something you've written on the subject.

        I'd really love to hear from more parents who've made the best with what they can (and making "what they can" better). I know I can't afford private school for my future-children (and will probably make too much to get scholarships), and don't have the time or inclination to homeschool. I'd write it but I don't have kids yet :)

        • Hey guys! I'll leave this so you can contact one another, but I'm closing comments on this post. It's definitely derailing, as you put it. :)

  10. Middle school was quite easily the worst years of my life. While I was too proud to let my grade slip (my identity was – and maybe still is – far too attached to getting good grades) I was depressed and hated everything about it.

    What really helped me was finding an extracurricular that I loved. For me, it was FIRST LEGO League. I loved FLL in particular because it suited my nerdiness, and it was a place where I felt I belonged. Also, as the work in middle school was waaaay to easy, it allowed me the ability to really think about a hard problem.

    While FLL may not be the answer for your son, see if there are other extracurriculars in your area that might be great. The pickings are kind of slim for the middle school age, but it's certainly worth a try!

    1 agrees
    • Another good middle school extracurricular is Odyssey of the Mind – god I loved that!!

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    • Ah! Totally unrelated to this post at all, but I was in FLL, too, and I never thought I'd meet another person who had been in it! This is awesome!

  11. Oh, one more thing. I don't know if this is true for your son or not, but he could be doing worse academically because teachers are not giving hard enough work. While he may be behind now, it could be that initially the work was too easy so he tuned out. I obviously can't say that's the case for your son, but it's something to think about.

    1 agrees
  12. when i was a middleschooler, i acted much like your son. i've always had rebellious tendencies, but WHOA i gave my parents hell once i turned 12, and it lasted til i was 18. seriously. i was once a straight A student and mostly obedient, until i turned 12, and realized adults don't always have all the answers, and are not always right. i also realized i didn't have to do anything just "because ____ said so". instead of complying, i started saying "WHY?" and if no one could give me a good answer i wasn't compelled to listen.

    i was totally resentful of authority. i hated people telling me what to do. i hated school because it seemed pointless and trivial. i have always been smart and had intellectual leanings to wanting to learn was never an issue, it was people telling what i HAD to learn. so naturally, a parent or teacher saying "do your homework because i said so" elicited a pretty big "FUCK YOU" response in my brain. the more someone tried to make me do something, the more i refused to do it, even though it was ultimately self-destructive.

    my experience culminated in me failing in highschool, and my parents pulling me out of public school and planting me in a total hippie-liberal-crunchy granola school, which i resented, but looking back it was the right move, and i appreciate it so much in retrospect.

    the thing i appreciated most about that school was my english teacher, who always gave it to me straight. he was much like me as a kid, and rather than saying "you have to do your schoolwork because it's important stuff to learn, or you'll need it to get into college" or whatever other bullshit reason most people would give me he would say things along the lines of "most of this shit is pointless busy work. that's kind of the way the real world is. we live in a world of artificially created institutions with stupid rules. but if you follow the rules and fly under the radar, you can get away with whatever the hell you like." and then the things i was interested in, literature and philosophy, he challenged me beyond the curriculum, giving me awesome things to read and having discussions with me about it.

    i realize not everyone can put their troubled kid in a private school when they are struggling. but if your kid isn't wanting to do the work, and he was a straight A student before, it could be that he doesn't see the point. or he's trying to be cool. whatever. either way, rather than fighting with him or threatening him (what my parents did) be straight with him. print out school board documents that state what happens when a child fails, (likely ends up repeating the grade) and just give them to him to read. i doubt he will want to be left behind his friends, or repeat a grade. don't go on about how you need good grades for college and all that. your kid probably knows it, but since it doesn't apply to his immediate reality, he probably doesn't feel the weight of statements like that. but saying "if you fail in school you'll have to repeat a grade and all your friends will continue on" affects his reality. plus, i HATED highschool, and the thought of having to drag it out any longer than necessary was enough to make me do the work.

    just give it to him straight, and leave him alone. when someone finally did that with me, i made the decision MYSELF that it was in my interest to do my school work. and that's a heck of a lot more compelling than someone else trying to make me do something for a reason i didn't buy.

    2 agree
    • I second a lot of what's said here, but I'd like to point out that it's possible that his school doesn't even have that policy. Public schools in my area will send you to accelerated-learning "catch up" schools instead of holding you back a grade, because they've seen the devastating social effects of being held back.

  13. I agree with commenters who recommend seeing his doctor to make sure there are no vision issues etc., speaking with the guidance counselor and continuing to communicate with his teachers, and possibly talking with a therapist. My firm practices law for kids with special needs – learning disabilities etc. – and many of the cases I see every day sound similar. In many cases some underlying issue is keeping the student from accessing the curriculum, grades dip, stress ensues and the student starts acting out because that's a frustrating position to be in! Your son might be entitled to/need an IEP (individualized education plan) to make sure he's getting the education that's his right in such a way that he can benefit from it.

    And no matter what the issue/solution, the process can be disheartening, frustrating and stressful. But being an advocate for your kid to get the education that's his right is so so so important, and he's lucky to have a parent who's willing to work for it and stick with him until he gets what he needs. Someday hopefully he'll thank you himself, but until then, thank you for giving a damn about your kid!!

    • Oh, and one more thing – not sure where you live, but the magic words in getting the IEP process started in PA, where I live, are (in writing): "I would like to have my child evaluated."

  14. I agree with many of the comments given. Not only do I have a middle schooler, I am also a certified parent coach and many of my clients have been through similar things. In adolescence the brain undergoes a re-wiring . . it is pruning only synapses and building new ones based on experiences and relationships. We have tolerance for infants and toddlers in this brain growth period and we need to extend it to teens as well. There is a book entitled Getting To C.A.L.M. by Laura Kastner . . I liked the way it was written and how the material was presented. I wish you the best.

  15. I second/third/fourth/etc all the above comments about the immense amount of social change brought on during middle school and puberty. I remember going from accelerated learning classes in elementary to sadly only caring about boys, filling out my new bras, and trying to fit in with the popular kids. High school was a lot better for me after that period of change calmed down a bit.

    I agree with the comments about getting his vision checked. I know I needed glasses for the first time at the age of 12, and I did NOT let anyone know for a full school year. I vividly remember failing assignments because I was too afraid to ask for a different seat.

    Also, and this was major for me, I remained sleep deprived from middle school until college. I'm very passionate in my beliefs that middle and high schools start far too early for many students who will never get enough sleep during the school week. Teenagers need more sleep- like at least NINE hours worth! Is your son difficult to wake up in the morning, and does he make up for lost sleep every weekend? Does he ever complain about being sleepy during school?

    • Lolz. I'm doing my PhD, and I still sleep 9 hours a night! Everyone's different with their sleep needs (although for some reason people who don't need much sleep like to insist otherwise). If I sleep less than that, I get grumpy and irritable and can't concentrate, so I don't do any work. It's much easier for me to just get plenty of sleep.

      Definitely worth thinking about for disengaged teens.

      1 agrees
  16. There is a lot of talk about struggling to keep track of classes, homework, etc. When I went into middle school this was a huge problem for me. My mom recognized that I was struggling and took me to Sylvan Learning Center. Amongst other things, I learned study skills and time management which helped big time. I still remember getting my first planner and sitting down and learning how to use it to manage my classes and the time I needed to allot to complete my homework. I LOVED that planner! It helped me through school, college and into my adult life and I could not have been the successful individual I am now without it. I highly recommend getting a planner and showing him how to use it, if it turns out that is the problem he is having.

  17. As a HS teacher, my first question to you is "do you think this is a problem of _can't_ or a problem of _won't_?"

    If it's a "can't" problem, then the issue is about the workload, the types of problems, the ability to focus. If it's a "won't" problem, then the issue is that your child has, for whatever illogical reason, decided that the best way he can deal with the storm and stress of middle school is to rebel against you and the school. "Can't" problems can be remedied with tutoring, IEPs, medication, time, etc. "Won't" problems are harder. There I would recommend a therapist, other outlets for physical and emotional energy (like sports), lots of non-judgmental communication from you about non-school things. But I would strongly caution you against thinking of "won't" as a choice that can just be flipped on or off; it's just different than "can't."

    Last but not least, I would try to strike a deal with your kid. Punishing him isn't doing it, and it's making you both miserable. Work out with your kid how often you can "drag him to water" before he bucks, and have him clearly understand and help construct the consequences for always "refusing to drink." The good news is that middle school is a much better time to tank grade-wise than HS, and hopefully you can get this all behind you before then.

    4 agree
  18. My mom could have written this when I was 12 as well! I was in sixth grade, I was 12 and I all of a sudden went from great grades to very poor performance and not doing my projects. I can remember sitting in my room (not cleaning or doing homework like I was supposed to) and eating junk food and reading books for fun.
    I am guessing it was hormones. I remember I wasn't very interested in my school work. I would rather read my books for enjoyment. I'm not sure what it was, but I did manage to scrape by, pass sixth grade and move on to middle school. And my grades and attitude did magically turn around.
    I went through this again briefly in 8th grade (my advanced math class was too challenging, it was easier to give up) and again my senior year of high school (I was bored and ready to go to college).
    Even with all my academic and hormonal ups and downs, I still managed to graduate, went on successfully to college and have a good career now. I'm hoping I can remember all of this when my daughter is 15 and doesn't smile for an entire year. (I did that to my parents…I'm surprised they still wanted me around haha.)

    1 agrees
    • Wow, I'm sure a lot of parents would be thrilled if their kids were reading books for fun, even if they were slacking off at school!

      • I would still rather read a book than clean my house. :)

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  19. Yes, being someone who remembers middle-school (6th and 7th grade) I was a hot spicy mess. The reason? I had NO organizational skills whatsoever. I dont neccesarily "blame" my parents for this, because they didnt know I was a mess, I never told them. There was no communication between my parents and my teachers. My teachers just let me go. It got to the point where I took it upon myself to keep a composition book (one of the manilla ones they give every kid for each class) where my teachers and I would write my homework assignments, and I would paperclip them to the sheet that the homework assignment was written on. It helped me to still stay independent, but kept me on track..and Ill be honest with you, being 25 years old– I STILL tack stuff that needs done to my monthly planner, and I never MISS a thing.

    P.S. Give yourself credit, you are active in your child's school life it sounds like. Once he learns that its not going to change, he will have to adapt, and be a part just like everyone else, after all, he will learn falling behind is embarrassing, and will start his own program, or implemement and adopt one you help design with him.

  20. I don't have anything to add that everyone else hasn't already said, but kudos to you, as a parent, for realizing there's a problem, and trying to seek answers! So many times, I see parents of teens say, "That's just how it is." and let behavioural or emotional problems slide because they think they should. So understand that you are being a great parent just by seeking solutions to a problem you know is there.

  21. I do not have children, but I remember all too well going through that phase myself. Once you've eliminated all the dangerous possibilities (someone is abusing him at school, or he's hanging with a bad crowd), just try to be patient. It does get better. You're doing all the right things by staying in touch with his teachers. The two most helpful things to me were changing schools (I realize that's not an option for everyone, but we happened to move across the country for my dad's job) to get a fresh start and frequent conversations with my parents when things were good. There were times I made my parents so mad they barely could stand to look at me, but they were very good about making sure to keep the lines of communication open. When things were good, my dad would sit me on his lap and just listen to me talk about anything. I don't know, maybe sons don't do that like daughters do, but you know your son and what he'd want to feel loved/appreciated/listened to.

  22. First off, major kudos for actually responding to this change! I teach middle school, and almost none of my kids' parents have stepped up to help their children through this rough transitional phase.

    Second, I don't know if any advice anyone who doesn't know your kid will fix my experience is that the best solution is open conversation. I had one particularly challenging kiddo this past year who had transformed practically overnight from a straight-A angel into a belligerent, rude, lazy jerk (his parents' assessment, which I couldn't help but corroborate). After a few months of flummoxing and an unsuccessful cycle of punishment, yelling matches, and continued misbehavior, his parents buckled down. They started more aggressively staying in touch with me and his other teachers, explaining and upholding very specific consequences that he really cared about (not taking away things, but taking away social choices and responsibilities), and very openly telling him how his behavior made them feel. Leaving a pretty grim parent-teacher conference, I overheard his mother tell him "this is all making me so sad: I know you're better than this." The look on his face was heartbreaking, but we all started to see a change not long after his parents started being really blunt with him.

    Obviously, this is one kid, and I don't know yours, but my single biggest piece of advice is to be completely transparent. Tell your son how his choices are making you feel, and be brave and follow through on even the most dire of consequences if he earns them. I hope he gets back into the swing of being the awesome kid you've known him to be soon: this time period really stinks!

  23. Oh boy, I should write a book! I have two children who have gone through this stage and it was rough. My second, a daughter, was failing her freshman year until I stepped in and changed teachers, acknowledged her ADD (she is now medicated) and stopped harping. What worked for me was accenting the positives. Not praising good grades, but reminding her that part of her "job" as a student is turning in work, even if the teacher doesn't acknowledge the hard work she put into it. If there is an attitude, I use "I" statements to talk with her about how it makes me feel, remind her that she is loved no matter what, and encourage her to take responsibility for missing assignments rather than blaming the teacher. Consequences do not always work; we took things away and it resulted in more negative behavior. It's important to seek out what motivates him. In my daughter's case, it was simply listening to her when she talked. Seriously. So often we would just listen half-heartedly, lots of "Uh huh, that's nice" rather than engaging in listening. I don't try to be her friend and like the things she likes (though we do have some common fan girl things) but I do acknowledge that her choices are her own and that, as long as those choices aren't interfering with her work or her safety or health, I will accept them and try not to put them down. This is such a time of growth and search for identity; the middle-school age child's brain is so confused and bombarded with new sensations and new ideas that it's difficult for them to absorb it and process it all. It's so important to just be there for them; remind him the frustration is YOUR process, not his, and let him know that grades aren't the goal, but learning is. I gave her leave to bleach highlights into her hair, allow her to choose her clothes (she's a modest girl, so it's easy) and find things that reward her, like allowing her to play YouTube videos while she cleans the kitchen (Extra responsibility seems to hit their pleasure center once they realize it makes you happy). I also started giving her some mom time; first thing in the AM, we hang out while everyone else sleeps. We check weather, make sure we know the day's schedule and make lunch together. Finally, I discovered my daughter was just shoving homework wherever; I gave her a folder and she tucks all assignments into it into the order of classes she'll have the next day. She's slowly discovered how much better she feels when she's well-prepared. She did go from a D- to a B+ in her failing class. I didn't reward her with anything more than a happy dance, but it meant the world to her. I also reminded her that best effort is the achievement gal, not an A.

  24. I just skimmed through all the comments, but as someone who works professionally with middle schoolers, I would suggest coming up with a system of positive consequences. Talk to your son about things he would like to earn and make a list. These don't have to be material things–it could be things like he gets to choose what movie the family watches, he gets a day with mom or dad or whomever to do whatever he wants, he gets to stay up a little later, etc. It could be tv or video game time. Then be really specific about what he needs to do to earn those things. Choose small milestones that he can reach easily so he can experience some success. And celebrate all successes, no matter how small!
    A good family therapist can work with your whole family to come up with a system that will work for you, and it might be easier to stay accountable to following through if you have someone to check in with regularly.
    Good luck!

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