Halfway through the month of August, thoughts turn away from summer fun toward school preparation, and for parents of kids making the transition to middle school, there is typically a bit more angst and preparation required. The kids are contemplating their new territory, social scene, higher academic demands, and of course, the de rigueur new outfit that will provide that important boost of self-confidence to help them navigate the first day of school.

This is the time for parents to consider what pre-teens may be worrying about, and to do what you can to help prepare them and yourself for this important transition.

It's helpful to think about two areas of change: pre-teen development and the school environment.

Physical changes: girls vs. boys
Twelve-to-13 year olds bring with them their own set of developmental milestones, and many parents will already have noticed some of the intriguing — as well as the less desirable but albeit transitory — changes in emotional development over the last while.

These early adolescent years are a time of rapid physical, emotional, and social change. Much of this culminates in their inability to show you how much you are still needed, but please know that you are still very much needed!

During this stage, children develop a deeper capacity to understand the world around them. They develop the ability to see how things are connected conceptually, to think more abstractly. This translates into the type of learning they will be required to engage in at school.

If you are the parent of a 12-year-old girl, you may have already noticed physically changes such as breast development, body hair, and differences in fat distribution. Menstruation may have begun and, depending on your daughter's preferences and sports activity (swimming, for instance), she may need mum's guidance in the "pad versus tampon" area. This is a critical time to support your daughter's healthy and positive self-image. Girls of this age are at greater risk for developing eating disorders than boys, and worries about appearance and weight are a common way girls of this age express their low self-esteem.

Research tells us that one in four 13- to 18-year-old girls in Ontario report engaging in at least one symptom of an eating disorder; and a significant amount of both male (25 per cent) and female (30 per cent) children, including those as young as 10 to 14 years, are dieting to lose weight despite being within a healthy weight range.

Parents can encourage self-esteem in their daughters by recognizing their inner beauty and accomplishments. Schools have an important role to play here as well. Current research indicates that teaching students about eating disorders is ineffective in changing their eating attitudes and behaviours. Research shows that this approach may even be harmful, since some students might learn to glamorize disturbed eating behaviours.

Schools can do their part by adopting school-wide approaches that encompass:

Sensitivity training for educators and parents that raise their awareness about the role they play in influencing children's body image and how they can learn to recognize and act on incidences of weight discrimination;
Media literacy and life skills curriculum for both male and female students;
School policies that address weight-based teasing, and among other things;
Opportunities for physical activity for all children regardless of their size or shape. See web link for ideas on supporting positive self-image and healthy eating in your pre-teen.
Boys will tend to see their physical changes later, at around 14 or 15 years of age. So, in some ways they are spared having to negotiate new school and new body all at once.

Nevertheless, boys will soon be experiencing such changes as growth spurts, voice changes, body hair, and yes, nocturnal emissions. Boys experience a large boost in testosterone during this period, too, so it's helpful to stay involved in sports activities that can channel their tremendous energy and competitiveness.

Emotional changes
Physical changes are partly the cause of some of the moodiness often seen in children of this age. There's a lot going on inside and this can be difficult to deal with for some kids — and their parents!

This is also a peak time in the process of self-differentiation, when young people start distancing themselves from their family emotionally. For some kids this may be gradual and imperceptible, but for many it is a stormy and painful process of separation, particularly for girls. Boys tend to go about their separating in a quieter way — they are more likely to withdraw to their rooms at 14 or 15 and speak in monosyllables to achieve the required distance.

Not surprisingly, there is an increase in negotiations for independence, about what they do, think, and where they go. Just remember, there is a reason behind this madness - it is your child's way of experimenting with autonomy and building inner confidence about the decisions they make for themselves.

This is where the groundwork of your parenting over the years and your consistency and flexibility will cause you either to sink or swim.

For both boys and girls, peer group relationships become extremely important at this stage. As they pull away from mum and dad emotionally, they create strong bonds with a small group of friends.

These friendships can be a source of tremendous confidence, growth, and protection for your pre-teens, particularly girls. It can also be a chaotic time for learning how to negotiate the sometimes strained world of girl friendships. Parents, especially mums, tend to feel somewhat left out of these new bonds, but it is important to stay connected with your kids at this stage, despite their messages to the contrary.

Fathers play an important role at this stage as well, with research showing that high connectedness between fathers and daughters is protective against early sexual activity and teenage pregnancy. Know that family is still the most effective buffer they have between them and the wider world, and their most important support — deep down they know this too, and they need to continue to feel your support 24/7.

Kids will pick up all sorts of language and mannerisms, both from the school environment and the media. Continue to reinforce the behaviour you find acceptable when you're out and about or at home with your family. The last thing kids want is to see their parents attempting to be "cool." Just be yourself, and they will eventually come around to seeing you as your own kind of "cool."

More importantly, you will be providing them with terrific reinforcement to just be themselves and do their best no matter what life throws at them.

Reiterate the behaviour rules already set in your household and stick by them. In my house, I don't allow eye-rolling for instance, toward anyone. If I see it, I nip it in the bud right away by reminding my kids that this is unacceptable behaviour.

You might say something like, "When you roll your eyes (at me, at your sister, etc) it is rude and makes me/her/us feel bad. You would not like me/her/us to behave this way with you, and respect has to go both ways. If you need some time to yourself, please take it and then come and be with us again because we love your company." I make sure that the kids know this is a reminder to all, not just the perpetrator. And, I say this in a warm, soft tone of voice.

Lastly, remember that you can only encourage the type of behaviour you yourself model. If you tend to emanate a sarcastic tone of voice, body language, and eye rolling, you are doomed to suffer the same from your kids. Life's like that.

Some pointers to help you navigate this emotional time can make the difference between a smooth or rough time:

If you truly think it is dangerous, don't give in. There's always time later for discussion, but there may not be time to bring your kid home safely. Let them know they can call you at any time to be picked up late or if they are in trouble.
Do not criticize! This means negative comments on their hair, clothes, or friends. You can by all means make suggestions by pointing our real world outcomes, such as, "Dying your hair purple may create some problems for you at school. Let's talk about what those might be and then you can make a decision." Know that they may make unflattering comments about you at this stage, and you can choose to ignore them or express how this makes you feel but do not reciprocate in kind.
Negotiate fair rules based on good judgment, safety, health and the realities of the family's finances. The emphasis is on "negotiate" not "dictate," although you can certainly play the role of lead negotiator. For their part, with increased freedom comes increased responsibility, so make it known that you expect they will stick to the agreements they make.
Keep the lines of communication open even if it seems one-sided or monosyllabic most of the time.
Look for opportunities or veiled invitations to do things together, and don't get discouraged when they opt out. Keep inviting them to do things with you. Go for a walk, go shopping, or watch a movie. Eat dinner together as a family whenever you can.
Be positive, encouraging and honest. Be sensitive to things that matter to them — they mattered to you just as much when you were their age. And be supportive of all achievements, no matter how small.
Watch out for worrisome behaviours: prolonged withdrawn behaviour or disturbed sleep patterns; restrictive eating, particularly from girls; severe fluctuating mood swings; high levels of anger over a period of time; and loss of interest in activities or hobbies.
The New School Environment
There are quite a few differences between elementary and middle school that require some adjustment: lockers and locks, class rotation, size of school, more teachers, new subjects, and negotiating travel to and from school — safely. There will be some unease in navigating a new school building, finding washrooms, remembering where the next class is and making the transition before the bell, dealing with more students. Assignments and tests will be more challenging, and the workload will likely change. Note, however, that some school boards have initiated a homework policy. The Toronto District School Board's new policy, for example, states that homework for students in grades 7 and 8 should be no longer than one hour.

Middle schools function differently than elementary schools. Home base is now a locker, and this means having to negotiate the lock. According to my 12-year old, this took quite some doing at the pre-summer visit.

Kids will also have to negotiate a different class, in a different room, every hour, and different classes on different days. How well they do this depends on how spatially and chronologically challenged they are.

Remind them that teachers and school counselors are their resource in times of trouble. One of the best changes in middle school will be the opportunity to get involved in clubs, sports, and other extracurricular activities. Encourage them to join activities that suit them best, but also to explore new opportunities that they may enjoy.

Try and stay involved with the new school as a parent helper or on the parent council. This will help you to familiarize yourself with their new environment and stay connected with your child and their new world. There is still time to make a dry run journey to school, especially if they will be using public transit for the first time or walking a new route. Now is the time to discuss allowance needs, the morning routine for showers, fashion decisions, making lunches and getting out the door on time, as well as rules for after school activities and staying in touch about their whereabouts (see my earlier story on kids and cellphones).

Above all, cherish this time and continue to watch, wait, and wonder at the spectacular individuals they are becoming. Share in their triumphs and their tough times as best you can, and help them to find their way through this transition in ways that will help them through the next ones to come.

I will be going through this next transition year with the rest of you — courage to us all!