Keeping Tabs on Your Middle Schooler's Mental Health

Dr. Maria Montessori changed the world with her insights into child development and how children should be educated. Do you know what she believed about middle school kids? They should be sent to work on a farm, and no formal instruction should be attempted from age 12 to 15.

Why? Because everything changes for them during those years. They are no longer children and definitely not adults. They grapple with huge questions like “Who am I?” and “What is my place in the world?” all while their body and brain undergo the most massive transformation since birth.

Most of our kids, though, are not going to be on a farm. They will be in environments where they will be expected to take on more rigorous academic work. They are likely also to be navigating a whole new world of digital life, too, as the average kid gets a phone going into middle school.

With all the changes, emotions, and chaos, how can parents know what to worry about and what is just normal adolescence?

Remember when they were first potty trained, and you were paranoid about accidents? Most parents get really good at reading their kids’ non-verbal cues during that time and spotting the particular variety of fidgeting that means they ought to head to the bathroom soon.

Time to wake up that part of your awareness! Middle school kids won’t always know when to ask for your support until something has blown up really big. Watching for certain cues can help you know when there might be something to get curious about and check in with them around.

You didn’t always take your toddler’s word for it when they squirmed in their seat because they didn’t want to stop something to go use the bathroom. Likewise: don’t always take your middle schooler’s word for it that everything is perfectly fine when you can see from non-verbal cues that it isn’t.

Cues to watch for:

  1. Avoiding Eye Contact: If your kid usually doesn’t have any issue with eye contact but starts to consistently avoid your gaze when talking about school, friends, or their phone use, they might be uncomfortable or hiding something.
  2. Restlessness: If they seem more fidgety than usual while away from their phone, in their whole body, or in smaller things like a new or increased habit of nail-biting, hair tugging, or scab-picking, it may indicate anxiety around the phone or dependency on it.
  3. Body Position: When your child uses their phone, tablet, or computer and is consistently positioning their body or phone screen so it's difficult for you to see, there may be something they are deliberately hiding. Kids start wanting more privacy at this age, but when that’s combined with other warning cues, it’s worth reminding them that you are on their side and want to know what’s up.
  4. Facial Expressions: When they receive a notification on their phone, notice their facial expressions. Fear or worry may indicate unhealthy interactions or bullying.
  5. Sleeplessness. Sleep habits change at this age, too, but they still need 9-10 hours every night. If they struggle to sleep enough, that’s worth digging into and addressing. Dark circles under the eyes, noises in the night, and falling asleep after school, can all indicate night time sleep problems. Sleep deprivation significantly increases the risk of developing serious mental health issues, physical problems, and difficulty in school.


Wisdom for Parents of Middle Schoolers:

  1. Bite your tongue. Do your best to listen more than you talk. Literally, bite your tongue if you have to. Middle school kids are particularly lecture-avoidant and itching to prove they know stuff. Ask questions, listen generously, practice your poker face, and only chime in when you’ve heard them out and there’s something necessary to add or discuss.
  2. Get specific about your concerns. Generalized parental anxiety and fear and grief over your baby becoming an adult can shut down communication between you. Practice regulating your own emotions and not freaking out about every little thing. When alarmed, try to get yourself calm and then zero in on exactly what you’re concerned about before engaging with your kid about it.
  3. Don’t be a hypocrite. You want your kid to pay full attention to you when you talk to them? Put your own phone face down on the table and pay it no heed when they speak to you. They pick up on those cues at this age and have very little tolerance for hypocrisy.
  4. Stay involved. No matter how much they seem to push you away, they still need you. Be as involved in their digital life as you are in their physical one: know who they are talking with, where they are going, and what they’re into. Trust them, but remember they don’t have adult-level judgment or skills yet.
  5. Trust your gut. Take time to tune in. You know your child. If you're genuinely concerned about your child's mental health, please seek professional help as soon as you feel it’s needed. It can take time to find a good therapist match and for them to develop trust with your kid. It is better to err on the side of caution regarding mental health.

Great books for a deeper dive: