Middle School Matters: Exclusive Excerpt from the New Guidebook for Parents

The middle school years are arguably those most fraught with transformation, the most confounding to parents, and those with the least accessible professional guidance and support. There is no shortage of expert material to help parents of newborns, toddlers and preschoolers through developmental changes. But once the child is out of the booster seat and just when it starts to get really complicated, the literature runs woefully dry. (Part of the reason we have created Philly Tweens!)

Counselor and popular Washington Post contributor Phyllis L. Fagell fills that need with Middle School Matters: The 10 Key Skills Kids Need to Thrive in Middle School and Beyond – and How Parents Can Help, an evidence-based, common-sense guide to help parents tackle the most common questions and struggles with kids embarking on, or in the midst of, this distinctive development phase.

The following is an excerpt from the chapter on Growing Up Sexually Healthy:

“I do know how babies are made,” my then nine-year-old son, Alex, told his thirteen-year-old sister, Emily. She ignored him. “Mom, he really doesn’t,” she told me from the back seat of the car. “You better tell him before he goes to camp and hears it from older kids.” She was right. I’d talked to him about love for years, but I must have glossed over the mechanical piece. I was late to the game. As sex educator and author Deborah Roffman told me, “If we’re not deliberately reaching out to kids by third grade, almost everything they learn after that is going to be remedial.” You can explain sexual intercourse in the service of reproduction to six-year-olds.

The statistics underscore the importance of talking about sexuality. According to the results of the 2009 Youth Risk Behavior Survey, up to 20 percent of sixth graders, up to 33 percent of seventh graders, and up to 42 percent of eighth graders have engaged in sexual intercourse, depending on the geographic location. For many parents, the entire topic feels overwhelming. By middle school, there are so many components to cover, including dating, sexual orientation, gender identity, consent, harassment, and pregnancy prevention. Throw in information about puberty, body image, self-care, and safety, and it’s no wonder we miss a few details along the way.

Not long after I got my son up to speed, I taught middle school health and wellness for the first time. No amount of parenting readies you for a roomful of curious thirteen-year-olds in varying stages of maturity. To prepare me, my principal showed me questions kids had asked anonymously in the past. “How many times can you ask a girl out before it’s considered harassment? Is it possible for a boy to put his penis in the wrong hole? What does ‘giving head’ mean?” Well, okay, then. I could do this. I took a deep breath and dove in.

Since then, I’ve come to understand that middle schoolers want to know about much more than just the mechanics of sex. They’re also curious about relationship issues and body image. They’ve asked me questions including, “How can you convince someone to like you as more than a friend? What if my crush lives on my street and I’m too nervous to go outside?” A male student asked me if it’s okay for boys to diet, and a group of girls once came to see me to make a plea: “Can you PLEASE tell the boys that it’s not okay to ask girls to take off their clothes?”

Alas, unlike school counselors and sex educators, parents can’t offer their child anonymity. It’s not always easy for kids to ask questions and share concerns. And with so much factual ground to cover, you can get stuck in the weeds and fail to connect with them. To avoid overloading them with information, consider the broader framework. As Roffman explains to parents, kids have five core needs when it comes to sexuality. They need affirmation and unconditional love; information about healthy and unhealthy behaviors; clarity about values such as respect and integrity; appropriate boundaries and limits; and guidance about making responsible, safe choices. At an age when the body tends to mature faster than the mind, kids want to know what’s normal and what’s next. It can take some courage to tell them.

Admit discomfort, stay calm, and fill in gaps.

Start by acknowledging your discomfort, then tell your child you’re going to talk about it anyway. You’ll normalize the dialogue and create a safe space for them to ask questions. If they say something that shocks you, give yourself time to process. That may mean talking to a friend or partner first, or coming up with an excuse to leave the room and collect yourself. Be authentic and tell them if you need time to reflect. Do your best to stay nonjudgmental.

The payoff is that your child will turn to you when they need you most. One of my former students, Nicole, grew up openly discussing sex and other sensitive topics with her parents. One afternoon in eighth grade, she engaged in a sexually provocative online conversation with someone who claimed to be a local teen boy. She told him personal details, including where she lived. When he asked her to meet him at the mall, Nicole decided to go, but she told her parents she was meeting a girlfriend. At the last minute, Nicole got cold feet and confessed her plan. Her mother called the police, but they never figured out whether the person was a fourteen-year-old boy or a fifty-year-old man.

Nicole’s mother didn’t overreact, but she explained to Nicole that she could have put herself in grave danger. She alerted the school to be on the safe side, and she talked to her daughter about exchanging personal information and sexual innuendo with a complete stranger. Nicole cried because she was scared and embarrassed, but she was receptive to the advice.

While some kids are open books, others are intensely private. They bring their own issues to the table, whether they’re uncomfortable with their developing sexuality or have secret fears. One of my students, Carla, believed she’d get a disease every single time she had sexual intercourse, so she planned to stay celibate forever. Her parents tried to talk to her about her worries, but Carla shut them down. When that happens, don’t force the issue. Give your child space and say, “I can see you’re really uneasy, and that’s okay. We don’t need to talk right now, but let’s figure out the best way to get you the information you need.”

In Carla’s case, her parents gave her developmentally appropriate, factually accurate books about sex, gender, and reproduction to read on her own time. It’s a method I’ve used as both a parent and an educator. I keep several books on sex and puberty visible on my counseling office bookshelves. On more than one occasion, I’ve returned to find giggly kids racing out. When that happens, I know I’m going to find several books scattered across my floor. Provide online resources, too, such as the website AMAZE (amaze.org), which is geared toward ten- to fourteen-year-olds and features animated videos about sexual development.

Don’t make assumptions about what your child knows. Kids can make incredible leaps in logic and come to outlandish conclusions. One of my friend’s daughters believed that horseback riding and bicycling would endanger her fertility. A sixth-grade student worried that tampons could travel up through her body. One morning at work, I found three eleven-year-old girls waiting for me. They wanted to discuss their fears about getting their period, so we set up a time to talk. They returned with six more friends. All nine girls crammed into my small office and started rattling off questions. I really felt for them. They worried that others would know when they got their period for the first time, and that they wouldn’t know how to find tampons or pads if it happened at school. They wondered what they should do if they got their period during a sleepover, or while wearing white pants. One girl asked, “Exactly how much blood and pain are we talking about here?” Only two had discussed menstruation with their parents.

This is a conversation you want to have long before your daughter turns eleven. You can allay her anxiety by talking through different scenarios. For many girls, it’s reassuring to know they can keep a pad in their backpack just in case.

Boys also need you to debunk myths and misconceptions. Some are concerning. A sex educator told me he taught a boy who believed that if he cleaned his genitals with a medical disinfectant after sex, he wouldn’t get a sexually transmitted disease. A father once told me his eighth-grade son was using a stain remover stick to masturbate. “Doesn’t he realize that stuff is full of chemicals?” he asked me. “I’d never think to spell that out for him, but seriously? Anything else in his bathroom would have been a better choice.”

Parents often incorrectly assume their child will make logical inferences. One mother gave her son detailed information about intercourse, but later discovered he had no idea what he was supposed to do with the condom after sex. “It didn’t occur to him that he should take it off before it leaks,” she said. She realized she needed to break down sex the same way his teachers broke down big assignments.

Read more in the new book Middle School Matters: The 10 Key Skills Kids Need to Thrive in Middle School and Beyond – and How Parents Can Help by Phyllis L. Fagell.

Phyllis L Fagell, LCPC is the counselor at Sheridan School in Washington, D.C., a psychotherapist at The Chrysalis Group and a frequent contributor to The Washington Post and other national publications. She is also a regular columnist for the Association for Middle Level Education and Kappan magazines, and she consults and speaks throughout the country.

Copyright © 2019. Available from Da Capo Lifelong Books, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc.