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COVID Lockdowns, Middle School Brain, and Struggling Teens

By Lockey Coughlin

Around the time of my daughter Shea’s 11th birthday, she began to forget things: the simplest of instructions, tap shoes for class, to clean up after herself, her math facts, and occasionally, to brush her teeth. This was concerning to me because it was new behavior for her. As the weeks wore on, her condition became worse. Her room was a disaster area, she forgot to do chores, she would be 10 or 15 minutes late getting ready to leave for even her favorite classes. Then came the tears for seemingly no reason. It was time to visit her physician.

I was convinced that Shea had suffered a brain trauma that I had somehow missed. Children, I thought, were supposed to continue developing in a positive way, weren’t they? Th is was a child who had, before this, been extremely self-sufficient. Now getting out the door on time with all her things was a herculean task. I was very concerned. Her doctor was a lovely woman who gently explained that Shea was perfectly fine. This was developmentally normal behavior.

I am a researcher, by nature, and where my children were concerned, I read everything I could get my hands on, but this was new information. She wasn’t even a teenager yet. And even then, the changes were supposed to be in attitude, not memory or organization, right? What was I missing?

As parents, we are all warned about the terrible twos and the teenage years by other, more experienced parents. We are warned about how fast time goes by and the attitude changes, and the angst, and the slamming doors. But no one had ever warned me about this. Now that I have helped my own three children to navigate this phenomenon and worked with numerous other children and their parents throughout the middle school years, I have a little more information to go on. I now have a term for this phenomenon: Middle School Brain or M.S.B.

Children absorb information at an astonishing rate until M.S.B. hits. They absorb it by exploring, imitating, memorizing, and repeating. The many questions tend to be information-based. “Why is the sky blue?” comes to mind. When M.S.B. hits, they have the monumental task of taking all the information previously learned and synthesizing it to come to a higher level of understanding. They must learn to make decisions about everything on their own and for themselves. This is very, very difficult. I watch fully formed adults struggle with the simplest of decisions every day. Where to eat, what to wear, what to say. We all look for guidance with these choices on occasion.

Professionals call it executive functioning. I had heard this term many times, but never really thought about what it meant in practical terms. Understood.org defines executive function as a “set of mental skills that include working memory, flexible thinking, and self-control, skills used every day to learn, work, and manage daily life.” Trouble with executive function, they explain, can make it hard to focus, follow directions, and handle emotions, among other things. Sound familiar? If you have a middle schooler, it should, because they are working to develop these skills.

Add to this their struggle to learn social skills and you have a perfect storm. Social skills are the skills we use to communicate and interact with each other, both verbally and non-verbally, through gestures, body language, and our personal appearance. Once again, as adults, we still struggle and seek guidance with these skills. For a middle schooler, this is incredibly difficult and complex. This is why they examine every single social interaction in which they are involved, dissect it, analyze it from every angle, and learn from that interaction in a way that imitating their parents or ‘doing what they are told’ will never teach them. Hence the intense drama, the seeming obsession with fairness, the heightened emotions, and the endless questions about the behavior of others.

Teens who were in lockdown during Covid still need to evolve these skills, which are impossible to develop fully in a virtual world. This means that these children have the incredibly difficult task of developing social skills and executive functioning while also dealing with the reality of teenage hormones, burgeoning romantic relationships, and the imperative to separate from parents that we all went through at that age. Think back to your middle school self. Now imagine trying to navigate high school as that middle school child, emotionally and functionally, except in your high school body. Now imagine your peers are in the same situation. Terrifying.

Understanding why these children are struggling is important so we are able to support them. They need to know that you understand their struggles. Listen, listen, and listen some more. For your teens, in particular, try to keep corrections positive and suggestive, as opposed to dictatorial and punitive. Otherwise, avoid abrupt changes in schedule and things that would make anyone more emotional. Instead, keep to regular daily schedules, avoid sugar, caffeine, and other stimulants. Make sure that sleep patterns are regular and healthy by keeping phones and computers out of the bedroom. I found that written and posted expectations were very helpful. These strategies are intuitive but more valuable than ever during middle school development. Of course, the most important things, as parents, are patience and time. Spend time with your children listening to them process their daily adventures out loud. Answer their questions thoughtfully and really take the time to give well thought out answers. Remember, if they are asking you, they are looking for something more intuitive and personal. It is a sign of respect and trust. If you are unsure, look it up or speak with a professional, letting your child know that you will get back to them soon. Always build additional time into your schedules, giving extra time to think, to process, to prepare, to get ready to go, to turn around and retrieve forgotten items, and allow a cushion for mistakes.

Have patience with your child’s educators, as well. Remember that the symptoms of M.S.B. – drama, often inappropriate questions, need to examine every interaction in minute detail, and an obsession with fairness – all make this a very tough age group with which to work . Talk with your child’s educators and mentors often to support their efforts with your children. Eventually, you will notice your child planning ahead a bit more, freaking out a little less, and emerging from this cocoon. Some days it may seem like your child is truly in need of an M.R.I., but this too shall pass.

Lockey Webb Coughlin is the Founding Director of Education without Walls , a private micro high school located in New Milford, CT. She is a Founding Board Member and President of Webb Youth Services, a 501(c)3 supporting scholarships for non-athletic extracurricular activities for children and WYSE, a middle school program supporting nature in education and education in nature. Lockey has created a retail business, Honeybee Books & Tea, to offer educational internships to teens.

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