Written by Lori Poland, EndCAN Executive Director

As a parent, helping adolescents in their middle school years with their homework can be a difficult task. From the eye roll to the sass, it can be hard to be a calm and collected parent in those stressful moments when you’re trying to be helpful to them. One thing I like to remember is that my middle schoolers are developing their autonomy (deep breath one) and learning to trust their own instincts (deep breath two), which sometimes can mean they don’t want to listen to your advice or do things your way (long and heavy deep breath three). So how, while you are in the midst of the struggle, can you help them with their homework and enable them to be better students, family members, and people? Here are a few thoughts, ideas, suggestions, and things I’ve done and recommend trying:

1. While this may be challenging to hear (especially on the fourteenth eye roll you’ve received) but the VERY best way to get through to a middle schooler is to be firm, WHILE being reassuring and empowering.

“How the heck?” you might ask. Well, it looks like this: they are fearful under that armor of know-all-ism. They need to know they are safe (i.e., you being firm) and they need to be reassured by you. Tell them that you believe in them and know they are wise and able. You empower them by telling them that you know they are becoming their own person and you believe they will do the right thing, that you trust them to ask for help when needed, to take accountability, and to stay focused even amidst a world of distractions.  

2. Let them have autonomous thought.

“WHAT? They don’t know anything, they are twelve…” I am sure you are thinking this, have said this, or want to scream it as I write. And… I get it. Yes, they are young, but you’ve done a great job thus far at teaching them to think for and express themselves even with adults. We ask them to speak their mind to others when they are being bullied, influenced in negative ways, manipulated, or treated poorly, so… they are bound to bump against our opinions and thoughts as well. We can let them have their thoughts, honor them in fact, and state to them that just because they have thoughts, doesn’t necessarily mean their way is the only way. They will write papers and study topics that you would never dream of doing, they will intentionally argue the opposite side of your viewpoint on a subject matter at school, just so they can feel empowered to stand on their own two feet, and this is a great opportunity to help them express their difference in perspective.

I often use the analogy of eyewitnesses to a crime. The police do not gather everyone together and say “now, what did you see?” instead, they talk to each person individually and most often, they will find that there are many versions of the incident, because perspective is a real thing. We all have a different lens by which we see the world. It does not make any of us more right or wrong than others, instead it just means it’s a different view. Let your teen have that if you can. They are truly just testing their words to see what fits for them, and sometimes those words are beyond conceivable to us. Fight the fights worth fighting, not all of them.

3. Ask curious questions.

When possible, help them explain their view, their world, their experiences, and their thoughts with you by asking curious questions. “I need help understanding. Help me see what you mean. I’m curious how you got to that thought.” Each of those is a way to open the discussion up for exploration, it allows your youth to use critical thinking skills and will help them justify why they come up with the responses or answers they do. It pulls you out of the fight and simply puts you in the audience wanting know more. This creates a sense of strength in an empowering way for them.

4. Allow them to feel worthy of your time, attention, and love.

I find all too often that parents are shaming their kids and causing a feeling of unworthiness. I hear it in my practice all the time and I hear it through the walls when I listen to youth around my house talking with one another. It is my personal motto to work my very hardest to never do this to my kids, and yet, I am guilty of being overwhelmed, tired and burnt out, and sometimes, when it’s time to look at algebra, I huff heavily at the worksheet, I act as though I have better things to do (and maybe I do) and…when I’ve caught myself behaving this way, I humbly and honestly model for my kids an apology that I should not have treated them that way and that I am sorry. I tell them they matter, and that while I am tired and have so many things to do, they are equally as valuable and that I love them. Shaming our children is the fastest way to validate the negative voice in their heads (we all have that voice, and it doesn’t feel good when anyone echoes that voice).

5. Resist being reactive.

I call this the art of pausing. When I find myself irritable, angry, or discontent, the very best thing for me, those around me, and the world, is for me to pause. When I learn that my teenager has a D in algebra after I have hired her a tutor and helped her in every way I possibly can, this right here is a moment I must pause. Me being reactive won’t help her, won’t help me, and certainly won’t bring that grade up. I take a few minutes, sometimes announcing that I am being reactive or am angry and need some time, and I then come back after I have centered myself and I go back to suggestion #1. I am very firm, I am not as reassuring but instead a bit concrete in KNOWING she is capable, and setting my expectations that it is not acceptable for her to have a D, she has but one job, and that is school, I believe in you, now get to it, get focused, get your grade up, and show me how you do that.  

6. Ask to be treated with kindness and respect.

At times, I feel like this is the ask of my world. I have had to repeat this statement many, many, many times in one day with my sassy and strong 12-year-old. And yet, I have found in all the times I ask, that when she is reminded and I am consistent, she works harder and harder at treating me well. She is my child who was born with her entire bag of emotions (while the others learned and picked them up along the way) she, this one, nope, the whole kit and caboodle right outta the gate. :::::deep breath number 846:::: I often remind myself that the things I struggle with the most in my children are going to be their greatest strengths in adulthood. And, I ask that she treat me with integrity and respect, be kind and courteous of my feelings as well, and I will always do the same. We both stumble, especially around homework hour, butwe never fall, fail or crack. These things I count on.

7. “I trust you.”

There is nothing better than a lesson we can learn on our own. We don’t need our boss to tell us what a terrible job we just did as we biffed that presentation (we probably get it) because we certainly are our own worst critiques. So, what better way to empower intuition, critical thinking, and problem-solving skills than to tell our children that we trust them. They are going to fail, mess up, get it wrong, and make a lot of errors. And it’s our job to let those things happen while we are around to guide them back onto the course, so that when they leave, when they go out into the world and live the lives we dream they’ll have, they go with an internal compass that guides them. This compass comes because you trusted them, and knew that when they were in need, they would seek you. Be that for them. It’ll all be ok (especially when they have middle schoolers of their own).

I hope these tips are helpful for you and your family. When you approach homework time with your middle schooler from a place of wisdom and compassion, both you and your child will benefit from the experience. Go with grace, model humility, and know that you are not alone.