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Conversations with Middle School Students

By Kristy Johnson, head of Middle School
The head of Middle School explains the middle school child's brain.
When people hear that I have been working with middle school-aged children for 20 years, I often get the same response. “I don’t know how you do that. Middle school children are so difficult.” Or they might ask a question I get asked all the time, “Why does my middle schooler not talk to me anymore?” I thought I would take a moment to address this question and provide some thoughts that may help create the connection we all want with our children during their middle school years and beyond.

The middle school years are a challenging developmental stage, but middle-schoolers need us, their caregivers and teachers, as much, if not more, than when they were younger. It seems as if overnight, they stop sharing every detail of what they did during the day. The good news is that this is completely normal and expected. As they work on becoming independent young adults, finding their identity and separation from parents and guardians are part of the process. However, this separation can be tough for parents and guardians. It can also be confusing, as some days, middle schoolers seek advice from their caregivers, and then the next day, they demand privacy. 

Below are a few suggestions and reminders for how to keep communication open with your middle school child.

  1. Middle school children take their relationships with parents/guardians for granted.
They have a lot on their plate. Their brains and bodies are changing rapidly, and their emotions run high. As Daniel Siegel, M.D., and Tina Payne Bryson, Ph.D., explain in their book, The Whole-Brain Child: 12 Revolutionary Strategies to Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind, middle schoolers’ upstairs brains are unfinished while their downstairs brains are complete. The article’s author, Karen Price, explains the book’s analogy of a two-story house, “The downstairs brain is responsible for basic functions (like breathing and blinking) as well as impulses and emotions (like anger and fear). The upstairs brain is responsible for more intricate mental processes like planning, decision-making, self-awareness, empathy and morality.” 

Students must manage all of these changes all day long and genuinely have difficulty understanding why they do what they do. On top of those changes are the social stressors. When they get home at the end of a long day of school, they often want to recharge and have alone time. They know that home is a safe place for them to look for that quiet time.

  1. Find a common interest.
Asking questions at home is not the only way to connect. Identify interests that you have and explore them together.  While you are enjoying the activity (or even the drive to/from the activity), let the conversation happen naturally. It might be a small something that they share. If so, ask for more. A simple question like, “Tell me more about that…” can open the door to a larger conversation. Be aware that middle schoolers are very in tune with any sign of disapproval or judgment, so make sure that you try to keep a neutral facial expression and tone of voice during the conversation. 

  1. When complaining, ask three questions.
When middle schoolers communicate by complaining, ask them three questions. “Are you looking just to share, are you looking for advice, or are you looking for action?” This gives your child the opportunity to grow in their independence and feel supported. It allows them to see that you respect their growth as a young adult.

  1. Be prepared to stop doing whatever you are doing when your child wants to talk.
Inevitably, your child will want to share with you when you are in the middle of a task. Recognize the opportunity, take it and don’t interrupt. That load of dishes can be put away later! 

  1. Conversation starters 
Lastly, try a few questions from this article to help get more information during conversations with your middle school child. 

  • Tell me about a moment today when you felt excited about what you were learning.
  • Tell me about a moment in class when you felt confused.
  • Were there any moments today when you felt proud of yourself?
  • Tell me about a conversation you had with a classmate or friend that you enjoyed.
  • Is there a question you wish I’d ask you about your day?



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