By Jamie Niebergall
Tween. Preteen. Middle school. All words that strike fear in the hearts of parents everywhere.
If you thought the terrible twos and threes were difficult, you haven’t seen anything yet.
I have a preteen son, Eleven. He’s an intelligent, funny and sensitive kid that struggles with big emotions. At age nine, Eleven was a tornado that ripped through our family. Anger, sadness and fear were feelings he didn’t know how to handle. He dug his heels in deep and his stubborn nature exposed his worst side. I didn’t help.
Eleven and I are practically the same person. I refused to let this child get the best of me. Our battles were epic and lasted hours. Anger, tears, and words not meant to be said were hurtled between us. I read articles and I talked to friends, but there was nothing out there. No one could understand what we experienced. We felt alone. Finally, we attempted family therapy. It was there we learned strategies to diffuse our short tempers and how to communicate more effectively. It was there that we began to heal.
Now he’s eleven. The hurdles of two years ago are starting to show their nasty face again as elementary school comes to a close. Kids in his class are discovering the opposite sex and determining what is cool and, more importantly, who is cool, who fits and who doesn’t. They are challenging authority, writing offensive messages on the walls at school and shop lifting. Changes are becoming a daily occurrence. Eleven doesn’t do well with change.
After a particularly nasty fight with his brother, Eleven let it slip that one of his best buds, such a tenuous term, didn’t invite him to his birthday party, instead choosing the boys that are part of that elusive “in” crowd. Funny how unrelated incidents lead to revealing truths.
As a mother you dread these moments. This moment brought back my own memories of rejection. At twelve, I was the only girl in my sixth grade class not to secure one of the coveted invitations to Stacy’s party. I clearly remember talking to her about it for two weeks - what movie she was going to show and if boys would be invited (I was really hoping for Silence of the Lambs since I wasn’t allowed to watch rated R movies.). The invitations were delivered at school and I waited with open palm. There wasn’t one for me. I was told that one of the “cool” girls didn’t like me. That was all it took. The word of one girl and my entire class surrendered to her will. I was humiliated.
It’s also these moments that become teaching moments. I could attempt to fix the problem. I could call the mom of the offender, demanding to know why Eleven was left out. I could tell him that this kid isn’t worth his time. But, that’s not reality. Reality sucks and it’s messy and sometimes our kids get hurt. The truth is that Eleven will still hang out with that kid, and I’m okay with it. It’s up to him to decide what makes a good friend and what doesn’t. I can only give him guidance.
A few days later, the birthday party revelation was still lurking in the background of Eleven’s mind. He brought back that special kind of mean that our family knows well. It snuck in undetected and struck like a viper, hard and fast. His brother hit the ground hard when Eleven attacked him from behind, punching him in leg. His brother’s nonsense words and ear-piercing noises masqueraded hurt feelings caused by the betrayal of a friend. The attack was the only way to appease emotions too big to handle.
What was thought to be a small problem escalated into a situation which consumed his thoughts and his actions. The thing with preteens is that they are stuck between the identity of a child and the identity of a teenager. They want the independence of a teenager, but the affirmations of a child. Eleven still needs me to tell him how proud I am of all the hard work he has done over the past two years. As emotions start to become unbearable, he opens his mental toolbox to help diffuse his anger. Often, he’ll walk away for a period to reassess, returning later to talk about or even apologize for his behavior.
When the birthday party situation didn’t go away after a day, we realized that he needed more time to process his emotions. He needed time away from the over stimulation of school and peers. He needed a Mental Health Day.
A Mental Health Day in my house is a time to decompress and audit our emotions, something I have practiced for years, considering my own depression. This was Eleven’s first. I gave him the opportunity to explore his mind and emotions through talk and through journaling. Journaling has become invaluable. His journal is a scared place where he can write his most private thoughts, and above all, he can release his pent-up aggression before little annoyances cause him to explode.
As we embark on this journey into the deep end of the preteen years, I feel hopeful. I can’t protect him from all things bad. Like all of us, he will walk away from middle school with scars. But, that is what makes us who we are. That is what builds our strength. I am confident that Eleven is learning the mental tools he needs to be successful in navigating the complications that await on the horizon. I try not to look to far ahead. High school is just around the corner and if I’m honest, it’s terrifying. For now, I’m going to focus on eleven. Jamie Niebergall lives in Oak Park, California with her husband, two rambunctious boys and menagerie of pets. She is an emerging writer and explores topics on mental health and motherhood. When she’s not writing, she is an avid reader.