If you're a mom of a newborn or toddler and feel exhausted and stressed, I have some news for you: Once they're out of diapers, it ain't over yet.
A new study from Arizona State University has found that the most stressful time for mothers comes when their children are in middle school. Researchers studied more than 2,200 mostly well-educated mothers with children ranging from infants to adults and examined the mother's well-being, parenting and perceptions of their children.
The study, according to a press release, found that mothers of middle schoolers fared the most poorly. Moms of infants and adult children are doing the best.
Those middle school years come as kids are grappling with puberty; considering risky behaviors such as drug use or sex; and are spending their days at, usually, larger, less personal schools with different teachers for each class instead of cozier elementary schools. Academic performance is more important than ever. And kids just want to fit in with their peers.
It's a perfect storm for tween drama.
“Moms are essentially the ‘first responders’ to the children’s distress, and now they must figure out how best to offer comfort and reassurance, as the old ways — hugs, loving words and bedtime stories — no longer work," researcher Suniya Luthar said in the release.
The study has made headlines, but the results were no surprise to Michelle Icard, a Charlotte mom and middle school expert, who has spent years working with middle schoolers and their parents.
In Charlotte, Icard offers a popular summer camp, conference and other programs for tweens and their parents. She's traveled the world to talk about her practical tips and points in her book "Middle School Makeover." She's planning several programs in Raleigh, starting with a talk on March 22 at Ravenscroft School in north Raleigh for parents. (She also is slated to be on The Today Show on March 16).
"I see these moms," Icard said of the study. The results are "a really nice piece of comfort to people who are stressed out. What a relief now to know that it's normal to feel this way and they are part of a tribe of other people who feel this way."
Icard's work has focused, in part, on the physiological and developmental changes that middle schoolers are going through in those tough tween years. She also takes a hard look at parents, who no longer have babies to guide, but big kids who are working hard to create their own identities.
I spoke with Icard, who shares some advice for parents who are navigating these tricky years (I'm nearly there with you!).
Middle school meets midlife
These years aren't just about the changes going on with your child, it's about you too. Your child is dealing with changes to her body, brain and identity. If you've hit your 40s, you are too.
Your child wants to grow up (more quickly than parents are ready for sometimes). They are working to reinvent themselves and branch out from their parents. Parents in midlife are studying their own life choices - are they happy in their marriage, career or life.
"People evaluate big things when they are in their 40s," Icard said. So, it hurts even more, for parents, when their child, a constant in their life until now, starts pulling away from them.
"That’s really tough when that is going on," she said. "When your child, whose job it is to create an identity separate from you, is pulling away. That feels a lot like rejection when, in fact, it’s a good thing. We forget that this is part of that process."
Get a hobby
With the time it takes to care for young kids, it's likely you've let a lot of things slide. Hobbies are forgotten. There's no time for that class you've always wanted to take.
Here's the good news from Icard: When your kids hit the middle school years, it's time to take care of yourself.
"By the time your kids are in middle school, you need a really good hobby that’s not your kids," she said. "That’s a really good time for adults, who have been really invested in their kids, to figure out what they are really excited about in the world outside of being a parent."
And that's not just good for you. It's good for your child. When a child believes that his parent's happiness is exclusively tied up in how well he's doing at school, with his friends or on the sports field, it's too big of a burden to carry. He'll be less likely to come to you with worries about a bad grade, a fight with a friend or other concern because he's worried about how the news will affect you.
When parents are involved in life beyond parenting, "it makes [kids] more inclined to invest in you," she said. "They don't feel that burden and are more likely to come to you and talk."
Some parents, fearful of the bad choices or issues their child may face, become even more vigilant during the middle school years.
"The truth is that that backfires," she said. "Just go and do something that's really good for you."
Speak their language
Parents often are stressed by the sudden change of their middle schooler's behavior. They feel caught off guard, Icard said, when, for instance, a child used to like spending time talking with them and now just gets mad at everything they say.
Icard recommends parents learn the science behind what's actually happening as their child's body and brain develops to understand the best ways to communicate with them. (Icard shares a lot of great information about this in her book).
"Learn about your kids' changing behaviors and communication styles and adapt," she said.
For instance, "we know that kids cannot read facial expressions in middle school and high school," she said.
So, Icard recommends what she calls the "Botox Brow" - really neutral communication and facial expressions where parents don't tell their kids how to act but, instead, ask them questions to help them come up with their own answers about how to resolve a situation. (Think the Socratic method).
"If you react with emotion, your child reacts with emotion and that spikes your own stress," she said.
There's plenty of good news in Icard's message to parents of middle schoolers. It's an amazing time to watch your kids grow and develop into the adults that they'll become, she said. Icard, herself, has survived them as a parent and learned plenty of lessons along the way.
Living with a middle schooler, she (kind of) jokes, is like living with a cat.
"If you have other interests and are emotionally neutral, they come around more and want your attention more," she said. "It’s a helpful way to think about it."