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New book serves as guide for parents to survive middle school years

Posted February 15, 2015

Courtesy: Facebook

Here's how I felt after reading the new book "Middle School Makeover:" Relieved.

My older daughter is a year away from the middle school years, but I, along with various mom friends, have been bracing ourselves for this period that seems to be governed by pimples, emotions and all kinds of drama.

Yes, Michelle Icard, the book's author, will tell you that there will be pimples, emotions and drama for your sixth through eighth grader. Indeed, many write off the middle school years as something parents and kids just have to survive, but Icard writes that it doesn't have to be so bad.

"It easy to say, ;ah, we all make it through. It's a rough rite of passage,'" said Icard, a mom of a middle schooler and a ninth grader. "To me, that wasn't enough. I wanted to make it easier for kids."

For more than a decade, Icard has worked with tweens and young teens. She's developed curriculum for the middle school transition, which now is used in schools around the country. And she's hosted a popular series of summer camps for boys and girls and a mother-daughter conference for girls in the Charlotte area. She also is a sought after public speaker. She's currently in Africa to speak at the American International School of Mozambique.

This wasn't the way her career began. Icard pursued an education degree in college, but ended up landing a corporate job for a big consulting firm. After getting laid off and with a toddler and another child on the way, Icard started a tutoring business and found she was working primarily with middle schoolers. 

Parents came to her complaining that their one-time stellar student now had faltering grades.

"Everyone assumed that was an academic issue," she said. "I was really interested in the social and emotional issues that caused the grades to go down." 

She started really talking to the kids, who complained that, for instance, their two best friends wouldn't sit with them at lunch or they didn't seem to have anything in common with more socially mature peers.

"Their minds were consumed with the social stuff and I knew that was taking a toll academically," she said.

Icard started focusing more on helping tweens through the social roller coaster that is middle school instead of English and math. 

"My heart just opened up with these middle schoolers because it reminded me of my own middle school experience, which is funny in retrospect, but not at the time," she said. "I just felt kindred spirits."

So Icard started Athena's Path, a program for girls. Then came Hero's Pursuit for boys. The two started just as week-long summer camps and then morphed into additional programs for kids in schools. About 40 schools in six states use the program, which is offered as a regular class like science or art.

"Middle School Makeover" came out in May and was identified by Publisher's Weekly as outstanding in its genre. The book comes in two parts. The first focuses on why the middle school years seem so tough. Icard describes her own, uncomfortable middle school years and she pulls from the latest research on how middle schoolers' brains are changing during this period.

According to Icard and the research she cites, a girl's brain "reaches full biological maturity at age 22, a boy's brain at age 28." Icard advises we all take a different look at how we think about what she calls "weird middle school behavior." 

This passage from her book that compares the middle years to toddler time really put things in perspective for me:

"When your kid started to toddle, it was scary at times, like when she would tumble onto concrete or bang her head on a corner, but ... it was also exciting," Icard writes. "... With brain development, the tumbles aren't as easy to spot, or as adorable. But, if you can adopt the same attitude toward learning to use an adult brain that you did toward learning to walk, it's easier to have empathy and be supportive through this unsteady time." 

She even recommends listening to tweens and teens with what she calls a "Botox face," wiping your face of any expression when they are talking about something that makes them vulnerable. 

"It seems so cold and unfeeling," Icard said. "But ... the part of the brain that reads facial expression is not active until the early 20s. You just have teens that misread facial expressions all of the time. ... They have been judged by their peers a thousand times already. Be as neutral as you possibly can be. And it certainly doesn't mean you can't have a reaction or emotion, but speak it rather than show it on your face." 

Because I'm pretty sure none of us want our adult children actually living with us years from now, Icard reminds us that a middle schooler's primary job is to start developing an identity separate from their parents. While we may have held their hands through the triumphs and tumbles of the early years, it's now time to let them make their own decisions.

"Parenting through the middle schools years is fraught with dichotomies, including this: You want your kid to learn from you and benefit from your hard-earned wisdom, while at the same time, you want your child to become an independent and critical thinker," she writes. "The key to balancing these desires is to become a good 'assistant manager.'"

The more you hold your child's hand through trying times, the less you're really helping him in the long run. 

"You're depriving your kid the opportunity to set skills in their brain that's helping them later in life," Icard said.

The second section of the book focuses on more specific problems and conversations with your child about sex, bullying, social media and independence.

And she wraps it all up with a chapter just about us, moms and dads, who are reaching the middle-aged years as our kids are getting through the middle school ones. She reminds us that as our kids become more independent selves, parents need to make sure that their kids aren't their entire lives. 

"Find something you love doing," she said. "When your kids see you doing that, they come to you so much more. They don’t feel that your happiness rests on their shoulders."

For the last couple of years, she's actually parented kids who are in the middle years. Her 14-year-old daughter is now in high school. Her son, 12, is still in middle school. Now that she's actually experiencing these years in her own home, she's learned a couple of important lessons. 

"My daughter really taught me to lead all of my discussions with her with empathy," she said. With her son, she's learned the importance of scheduling important talks. "He doesn't feel interrupted or ambushed," she said.

Icard hopes the future holds more opportunities to help parents and middle schoolers. She'd like to build even more speaking engagements into her schedule (and would love to get to the Triangle for some). 

"I get such an energy from parents," she said. "I see relief when they laugh. Connecting with other moms and dads and knowing I provide relief is such a high for me." 

And, while some might shy away from working with middle schoolers, Icard looks forward to it.

"They’re still kids, but they have such a good vocabulary," she said. "They’re hilarious. They are responsible. They can be held accountable. ... They are beginning to develop an adult identity. I guess to me that says potential and I love potential."

Icard would love to schedule speaking engagements and even a mother-daughter conference in the Triangle. If you are interested, you can contact her through her website.

Go Ask Mom features local moms ... and sometimes moms in other parts of North Carolina ... on Mondays.


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