When is it time to have *that* conversation? Middle School Parents Edition


8 Important Conversation Topics

For parents of middle school teens & tweens

The first day of school for any child is a day of excitement, nervousness, and above all, a day of transition. As children grow and develop, they go through several major transitional phases. The first major transition is the entry into pre-school/kindergarten. This phase is the beginning of a structured day with rules, limits, and expectations set by someone other than a parent. It’s the beginning of major peer socialization and learning. The second major transition, and the biggest of all is the transition from elementary to middle school. During their adolescent years, children undergo a major body transformation through puberty, an attitude transition as adolescents start to develop autonomy and independence, and, often most difficult for parents, the reliance on peers over parents for companionship and guidance.

The middle school developmental years are some of the most important years of a child’s life. These are the years that adolescents need the most guidance and direction as they start to form their beliefs, independence, self-image, and self-worth. The topics listed below are the 8 most crucial conversations parents need to have with their adolescent during these important developmental years.

  1. Smart Phone Safety, Restrictions, and Monitoring

Most middle school children have smart phones and are typically more adept at using them than most adults. The middle school years begin a time of self-exploration, boundary pushing, entry into sexual interest, and peer pressure. A smart phone can be an anonymous gateway to all kinds of adult material, exposure to peers, and avenues for posting selfies, videos, snapchats, etc.  Apps today allow your children to share their location with strangers, share images of their private life to peers, to order rides through Uber with a click of a button, and much more. Middle school (or even 5th grade) is the time to have a conversation with your children about appropriate smart phone use. Let your children know that you will be monitoring their phone usage, collecting their phone at night, and restricting certain apps. Tell them what behaviors are appropriate and inappropriate, what apps they will be allowed to use, and which will be restricted, and tell them the consequences of certain actions BEFORE it becomes a problem. It is important to let your child know that you care about their safety and that phones are a privilege to be earned with proper and appropriate usage.

2. How to Choose Healthy Friendships

Prior to middle school, most elementary school children are associated with friend groups based on their classes. They spend the majority of their day with the same people, and friendships are less about choices and more about association by schedule. As soon as an adolescent enters middle school, they are thrown into a brand new world of choosing friends. Many children find themselves overwhelmed and uncertain about who to choose as a friend and how to know a good friend, from a toxic friend. In middle school, peer groups are an important part of a child’s development of interests, hobbies, and social activities. Now is the time to teach an adolescent how to choose friends with the same morals and values as them and with the same rules and family values. Adolescents often have a very hard time walking away from a toxic friend for fear of “hurting their feelings” or social rejection from peers. They rely heavily on adults (parents, counselors, mentors) to encourage them that it is okay to change friends if they are being mistreated, bullied, or peer pressured. They need adult guidance on how to end a toxic friendship, and how to make new friends that are healthy and positive. Let your child know that you will help them navigate this new and difficult terrain and that they are not alone. This is also a good age to continue contacting the parents of your child’s friends to confirm plans and monitor their behavior. It takes a village, and being close with your adolescent’s friends’ parents is a good way to ensure they are safe and around healthy relationships.

3. Healthy Dating Relationships

Middle school is the time to talk to your child about healthy and unhealthy dating relationships. Let your child know your rules/expectations when it comes to dating, and help them learn how to choose a healthy partner who is respectful of their boundaries. Adolescents are very susceptible to peer pressure in dating relationships. They can be pressured into sending inappropriate pictures from their phones, performing physical acts, they may even be pressured into isolating themselves from their friends and families. In addition to those concerning behaviors, studies show that partner violence begins between the ages of 12-18, and when asked, most adolescents are not able to properly identify unhealthy/abusive relationship behaviors. Talking to your child about unhealthy relationship warning signs is a great preventative measure to help keep your child emotionally, physically, and mentally healthy.

4. Sex Education and/or Safe Sex Practices

For this topic, it’s important for parents to use their discretion and personal beliefs to direct the focus of the conversation; however, sexual education is an important topic for all adolescents to learn from their parents. School sex education does a good job introducing teens to information about puberty, reproduction, sexually transmitted infections, etc.; however parents can further this conversation by talking to teens about their specific questions/concerns. In addition to talking to teens about safe sex/sex education, middle school is the time to talk to teens (boys and girls) about pornography. Research shows that most pornography addicted adults were first exposed to pornography between the ages of 11-12. Placing restrictions on your child’s phone and computer is extremely helpful, but it is not enough. Help your child understand the dangers and risks of pornography use and help them learn how to make healthy choices.

5. Study Habits & School Organizational Tools

One of the more noticeable changes from elementary to middle school is the course load and homework. Middle school teachers assign more homework, have higher expectations, more exams, and a stricter late work policy. Talk to your children about their course load. Help them to learn about time management by analyzing how much time they will need to dedicate to homework and studying each night. Teach them how to organize their backpack, planner, and binder. Although you might hear the all too familiar, “I can do this myself,” adolescents in middle school are incredibly reliant on teachers and parents to help them develop study habits, time management skills, and organizational skills in order to be successful in high school.

6. Extracurricular Involvement

Research shows that kids who are involved in activities inside and outside of school have higher academic achievement, are less likely to get involved with drugs and alcohol, have better attendance records, and are more likely to complete high school. Boredom is often a gateway into experimentation and reckless behavior for many adolescents. Kids whose time is filled productively are less likely to get distracted by unhealthy behaviors. Schools offer many activities for students to get involved in, such as: band, orchestra, sports, choir, theater, clubs, dance, robotics, debate, art, photography, and more. Communities also offer: sports leagues, boy/girl scouts, horseback riding lessons, employment opportunities, church youth groups, and more. All of the above listed activities are equally beneficial for adolescents. When involved in an extracurricular, kids learn teamwork, leadership skills, development of a skill/talent, they make friends, boost their self-confidence, create goals, and more. Talk to your child about the options that will work for your family and encourage them to try a variety of activities until they find a niche. Continuing with the same extracurricular involvement in high school is a huge advantage when applying to college.

7. Drugs/Alcohol

The middle school years are often a child’s first exposure to drugs and alcohol. They may be exposed online, at school, with friends, with older neighbors, etc. It is important that you have talked with your child about how to handle an encounter with drugs/alcohol before they are first exposed. Help them come up with a plan on how to handle different scenarios and tell them who they can tell/talk to if they encounter a situation. 

8. How to Handle Depressed Thoughts/Feelings

As their bodies change, many adolescents will experience changes in mood associated with fluctuating hormones. These hormonal changes will then combine with stressful situations and many adolescents will develop intermittent feelings of depression. Help your child understand that is it normal to feel many feelings as they go through their middle school years. Pay close attention to their changes in behavior such as: moodiness, increased sleep, insomnia, irritability, or isolation. These can be signs of stress or depression. Offer to talk to your child or help them choose a trusted adult or counselor to talk to about how they’re feeling. Many times, children are afraid to tell their parents about how they’re feeling for fear of being judged or getting in trouble. Offer them a listening ear and comfort them before offering advice. Your presence and empathy goes further than anything else at this stage. If you suspect your child is depressed, it is always necessary to ask them about suicidal thoughts and feelings. It is a myth to think that mentioning suicide will “plant ideas.” The reality is that talking to adolescents about suicide can be a lifeline to seeking help. Remember to seek professional help if you feel concern about your child’s changes or moods.

Parents, this stage is a difficult and overwhelming stage for your child in many ways, but in most ways it is a beautiful one. With your openness, attentiveness, communication, and support, your child will be navigating this tough stage successfully. They will develop their self-esteem, self-image, interests, hobbies, and personalities. Remember, professional help is there for you, your child, and your family should you need it. Best of luck with these important conversations! Please feel free to reach out to me for any comments, questions, or concerns at: Kristin.henshaw@cy-hopecounseling.org

About the Author:

Kristin Henshaw is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist Supervisor practicing with Cy-Hope Counseling. In addition to her counseling services, Kristin serves as the Associate Clinical Director at Cy-Hope Counseling, overseeing the work of practicum students & interns.

Kristin graduated from Texas A&M University receiving a Bachelor's degree in Psychology. During her time at Texas A&M, Kristin volunteered at Giddings State School for incarcerated youth where she created and ran a Youth Mentor Program for adolescents. Upon graduating from Texas A&M, Kristin completed her Master's Degree in Marriage and Family Therapy from Oklahoma State University where she worked as a clinical intern at The Center for Family Services seeing clients for marriage counseling, family counseling, and individual counseling. During her time at OSU, Kristin served as a clinical student intern at Payne County Youth Services, counseling teens and their families in Stillwater, Oklahoma. Kristin also served as the clinical student intern at Ripley High School, and Ripley Middle School counseling students and running counseling groups for teens. Upon graduating from Oklahoma State University, Kristin joined the Cy-Hope Counseling staff as a founding member and helped build and establish the counseling center. 

Kristin specializes in working with couples, families, adolescents, and individual adults. Kristin is a certified Prepare-Enrich pre-marital counseling provider and is also trained in play therapy, Filial Therapy, and Parent-Child Interactional Therapy.

sources: www.enough.org, www.loveisrespect.org, www.youth.gov/youth-topics/teen-dating-violence/c

The Top 3 Essentials for Making Love Last


“This was love at first sight, love everlasting; a feeling unknown, unhoped for, unexpected—in so far as it could be a matter of conscious awareness; it took entire possession of him, and he understood, with joyous amazement, that this was for life” -Thomas Mann

Hollywood spins fantastical tales of romance, true love, and love and first sight; of immortal legacies of couples that will go down in history as people and stories will we always idolize and never forget. But is it real? Is it attainable? What should we be searching for after all? While we are familiar with the love stories in our favorite novels and movies, can we attest to what everlasting love looks like in real life? Sadly, many of us are surrounded by love stories that are no longer described as eternal, but as complicated, short-lived, or futile.

So what are the characteristics of real life love stories? The marriages that transcend the many challenges and complications of life and turn into true depictions of everlasting love. We know these marriages are not perfect, that the feelings of love often oscillate over time, that they face the same challenges that often put an end to other relationships. So what makes these relationships last? What should we actually be aspiring to?

The Top 3 Essentials to Making Love Last

Healthy and Effective Communication

Healthy and effective communication is the first essential to making love last and is characterized by the following:

·      Validation: making sure that your partner’s feelings are heard and respected. Validation can often look like a reflection of what your partner is saying, “I hear you saying that I disappointed you today.” You can also express validation in a statement of understanding, “I could certainly understand why you would feel that way. I would feel the same way.”  An important key to remember about validation is that you do not have to agree or understand why your partner feels a certain way. If you do not agree or understand why, use a reflection statement to let your partner know that you hear them.

·      Acknowledgement: letting your partner know that you appreciate their thoughts as well as their actions. In our busy lives it is easy to communicate only with needs or demands. Remember to acknowledge your partner’s good qualities as well as thank them, or show appreciation towards them, for the things they do for you or your family. Show acknowledgement towards their ideas and goals. Let them know that you value their opinion and willingness to share with you.

·      Use I-Statements: When communicating during an argument or disagreement, use statements that speak to your own feelings or experiences. Instead of saying, “You are always so rude and hurtful!” try saying, “I am really hurt by what was just said.” You statements often feel like accusations and can elicit defensiveness, while an I statement allows your partner to hear your feelings without feeling the need to protect him/her-self from what you’re saying.

·      Be specific: When sharing your feelings with your partner, whether they are positive affirmations, or hurt feelings, be specific with what you need or want. Use your communication as an avenue to grow your partner’s understanding of you and your relationship.

·      Know when to take a timeout: It is always better to pause a conversation and revisit it later than to allow hurtful words to be spoken that you can never take back. Take the time to talk to your partner about how to establish a timeout during an argument. Make plans during times of calm communication so that you both know what to expect during an argument. Make sure to revisit important conversations when you are both in a good place to talk.

·      Be assertive: Let your needs and feelings be known to your partner. Try to identify any assumptions you might have about what your partner should “just know already,” and instead, help your partner learn about what makes you happy and feel loved.

Make Time for Your Relationship

 Making time for your relationship is the second essential to making love last. Through the course of your relationship your role will change from girlfriend/boyfriend, to fiancé, to husband/wife, to mom and dad. Do not let your role changes stop and stick on mom and dad. Maintain a constant balance between Mom/Wife, Husband/Dad. Easier said that done right? Make sure to take time for your relationship:

  • Go out on date nights

  • Plan a couple’s exclusive vacation

  • Spend alone time together without the T.V. or other distractions

  • Have conversations about your relationship and your feeling for each other

  • Write love notes     

  • Send sweet texts   

  • Buy cards and flowers   

  • Prioritize and communicate about intimacy

  • Find what works for you, it does not have to be complicated or consuming.

This is an essential to making love last because without it, couples can lose sight of their connection and lose their identity as partners. Have a conversation about how to connect, reconnect, or rekindle previous relationship stages and keep them alive!

Let Your Partner In

Letting your partner know who you are, and being true to who you are, is the third and final essential to making love last. With movies and novels filled with heroic and romantic Romeos and beautiful and flawless Juliets, it can be hard to measure up what you think your partner might expect of you. Remind yourself that while you know you are no Romeo, your partner also knows they are not a perfect Juliet.

·      Establish a friendship with them that is deep and honest. The establishment of a deep friendship takes time and a slow development of trust. Embrace that this process begins with, or before, dating and continues throughout a lifetime. Nurture your friendship with acceptance and respect. Allow your partner to make mistakes and always approach disagreements with the goal of forgiveness.

·      Don’t be afraid to laugh and joke as well as cry and need comfort. An honest expression of needs and emotions will allow your partner to feel close to you. Keeping your feelings to yourself leaves your partner in the dark about how to comfort you.

·      Remember that disappointments are inevitable. From infertility, to financial crisis, to health scares, or the loss of loved ones, disappointments or devastations are unavoidable across the span of a lifetime. Whether there is a crisis in your family, or a crisis within your couple relationship, allow yourself to be the person your partner can come to. Recognize when a crisis is causing you to turn away from your partner instead of bringing you together and address it. Know when to get help. Seeking counseling or outside advice is not a sign of marital failure, but a sign of strength and commitment to persevere and overcome.

·      Allow your partner to know the real you. Don’t hold back the parts of yourself that you are afraid cannot be accepted. Allow your partner to completely accept you for who you are, not just the parts that you allow them to see. Real life true love acknowledges flaws and embraces truth. Remember that your partner is not perfect either.

Make sure that you have made your partner feel comfortable coming to you with good news and bad. Create a place within your relationship for honesty and trust with the above mentioned essentials.

“Love is like a friendship caught on fire. In the beginning a flame, very pretty, often hot and fierce, but still only light and flickering. As love grows older, our hearts mature and our love becomes as coals, deep-burning unquenchable”- Bruce Lee

            The state of real life everlasting love changes over time, fluctuating between a deep burning and an eternal glow.  The flame that prevails and does not falter is not in itself perfect, but is nurtured, tended, and constantly fed.

The Power of Play: A Parent's Guide to Engaging Your Children

Play comes very naturally for children as they are innately imaginative and creative; however, it wasn’t until relatively recently that therapists and researchers started to view a child’s play as a form of emotional communication, rather than just a creative outlet. Researchers and therapists have found that children often use play to sort through their past experiences, learn about future possibilities, and most importantly, express their emotions. Play is the language of children.

This new understanding of a child’s play has many implications for parents. Learning to engage your child in play correctly could open lines of communication long before communication and emotion regulation skills are fully developed. So what is the right way to play with your child? Are there wrong ways to play? What can result from playing with your child? The following is a list of do’s and don’ts to enable you to enhance the quality of play with your child:

Do: Let your child lead the play

Don’t: Correct your child, or try to teach your child “proper” ways to play 

This can be the hardest skill for parents. Parents tend to naturally lead, direct, and teach their children. While this is important, playtime is not the time for parents to be in charge. The best, and most therapeutic playtime for children is when the child feels that they are totally in control. This type of play empowers children to feel confident about their decisions, accepted by their parents, and proud of their ideas. Try to avoid asking any and all questions during play to eliminate the possibility of your child feeling like they are being judged, or that they are doing something wrong.

Do: Be fully present with your child

Don’t: Get distracted during play, be on the phone, or go in and out of the room 

The best way to remain fully present during play is to designate an amount of time during the day that is dedicated solely for playing with your child (10-15 min.) During this time, try to limit distractions and remain engaged.

Do: Reflect your child’s emotions

Don’t: Tell your child how they should feel about certain toys or play scenarios 

Reflecting your child’s emotions is extremely therapeutic. Examples of reflecting are: “Wow! You are so excited about building that tall tower!” or “You are very frustrated about not getting that block to balance.” Don’t worry if you are unsure about exactly what your child is feeling. Do your best to label your child’s emotions and allow them to correct you if needed. Keep at it! This skill not only allows your child to feel understood, but it also helps them learn how to label their feelings.

Do: Engage in imaginative and creative play with your child’s direction

Don’t: Let creative play feel foreign or awkward, you are speaking your child’s language! 

It is easy for adults to feel uncomfortable while engaging in imaginative play. Sometimes children will ask their parents to play a certain character, act as a figurine, or put on a play, requiring parents to be creative and imaginative. Just go with it! Remember that you are speaking your child’s language, and he/she loves spending this quality time with you. Allow your child to direct your imaginative play. Try not to ask questions, instead, do your best to interpret what you think he or she might want. If you get it wrong, allow them to correct you.

While there is no wrong way to play, using the 4 do’s above can greatly enhance the quality of your play, strengthen your connection with your child, and build their self-confidence and self-esteem.

4 Tips for Communicating with Your Teen


For many parents, staying connected and close with their teenager is a quite challenge. If you have felt that way, you are not alone! The teenage years are defined by emotions, changes, and a drive for individuality and independence. Often times parents feel lost and confused as they watch their once open and loving child, become more distant, secretive, moody, or secluded. Below are 4 tips for parents on how to stay connected with your teenager

1. Approach conversations with an intent to listen

Parents tend to want to give advice, to share their own experiences, or to fix a problem. They do this out of care and concern for their child, and from a desire to help teach and mold their child as they grow. While these are important parenting techniques, they are sometimes not the most effective way to connect with an emotional teenager. Approach conversations with intent to listen means to remind yourself, I’m here to validate, to understand, and to show compassion, not to offer advice or correction. Try statements like, “Wow, that must be very stressful, I am here for you if you need me,” or, “that sounds very overwhelming, I can see why you would be upset about that.” Listening without offering advice or correction is a great way to let your teenager know that you understand them and can relate to them, making them feel more comfortable to discuss difficult topics with you in the future.

2.  Offer reassurance

More often than not in my practice, I hear teenagers tell me, “I wish my parents would just tell me everything is going to be okay.” Sometimes a reassuring comment like, “things will get better next week,” or, “I’m sure you and your friend will work this out, it’s just temporary,” is exactly what your teen needs to hear to relieve their feelings of worry or dread. Adults carry life experience that reassures them that problems between friends, or relationship issues will resolve with time. For teens, however, this may be their very first experience with some of these issues, and they need to be reminded or taught that these negative feelings won’t last forever.

3.  Remember what it was like to walk in their shoes

Think back to your days a teenager. What were your biggest stressors? What did your parents do that you found helpful? Is there something your parents did that you would not want to repeat with your teen? Check-in with yourself and make sure that you are communicating with your teen in a way that you would have wanted to be spoken to.

4. Make them laugh

Teens love to connect through a shared enjoyable experience. Is there a funny memory you haven’t talked about in a while? Is there a YouTube video you both enjoy that you can laugh at together? Let your teen teach you about the things that make them laugh and smile and make sure to incorporate those things into your weekly dialogue. Teenagers are under constant stress and pressure from school expectations, extracurricular involvement, and the desire to fit in with peers, how special would it be to be the person that put a smile on their face each week?

Published by: Kristin Henshaw, LMFT-S