No longer a "little kid" but not yet a teenager, middle school is an interesting time for kids and parents alike. It's a time when you might notice that your child starts to know more than you do about technology. Or, maybe for the first time ever, your child runs faster than you do.
You might also notice that your child is a little more interested in friendships and less enthused by family fun night.
And while some parents may breathe a sigh of relief that their little one is growing independent, Phyllis Fagell, school counselor and author of Middle School Matters, says the middle school years aren't the time to sit back and relax. Instead, it's a crucial time to proactively help kids build character and confidence.
Fagell says the most important skill parents can teach middle schoolers--especially if they want to raise kids to become business-savvy adults--is to teach them how to take risks.
Why Middle School Is Prime Time to Practice Risk Taking
You might recall from your own experiences that middle school can be a tumultuous time--especially on the social front.
And according to Fagell, the turmoil and uncertainty make it the perfect time to begin teaching risk taking skills.
"Middle school is an ideal training ground--there's no time when the social demands are trickier. It's when bullying peaks and it's a time when kids are most self-conscious and sensitive to how others' are judging them. They also lack coping skills and think in polarities," she says.
Unlike the working world, there isn't a formal hierarchy in middle school. So, kids need to figure out where they fit in and they have to work to stake out their place.
Fagell says, "If you can learn in middle school how to be your authentic self and take risks and recover from failure despite self-consciousness and lack of perspective and life experience, and you can figure out how to navigate complicated social dynamics without any formal structures in place, you're going to be well-prepared for life and the work world."
She says "If you can teach a middle schooler to go against the grain at a time when they're most self-conscious and tend to be self-critical and risk-averse (and I'm talking healthy risks here) then you'll almost certainly raise a kid who is unafraid to take well-calculated risks as an adult."
How to Teach Your Child to Take Healthy Risks
It's important to teach kids the basics about risk taking. For a middle schooler, jumping off a bridge might sound fun. But giving a presentation in front of the whole class might feel too terrifying to do.
Teaching your child to take healthy risks involves helping them understand their emotions, identifying the actual level of risk, and showing them how to recover when things don't go well.
Fagell offers these tips for teaching your middle schooler to take calculated risks:
1. Help your child practice taking safe risks one small step at a time. Push too hard and they'll shut down, but don't push hard enough and they won't make progress. Aim for small exposures to help extinguish their anxiety.
For instance, it might be excruciatingly hard for a child to invite that girl she admires to her house for a sleepover, but maybe she can start by saying hi in the halls, then try exchanging generic texts, or asking the girl a question about a movie, etc.
2. Identify your child's fears. Figure out why the task feels so risky to your child--what's the root cause or basis for their fear? Are they afraid they'll look stupid? That they'll step on someone's toes?
Maybe they're worried they'll tick off a friend who wants the same opportunity they're tempted to chase. Or, maybe they fear they'll get blamed if their efforts result in colossal failure. Ask questions that help you get to the root of the issue.
3. Normalize your child's feelings. Instead of being dismissive and saying "your fears are overblown; it'll be fine," validate their concerns. Then talk about their end goal and what they need to do to reach it.
4. Allow your child to fail. Don't let your fears get in the way of your child's safe risk-taking. At all times, encourage your child to let others do the rejecting.
You don't want them gallivanting across town on an electric scooter without a helmet, but you want them to feel comfortable with safe risks, such as taking a class that will challenge them.
5. Be a good role model. Demonstrate bravery in your life--tell your kid when you gave a presentation even though that frightens you.
Talk about the specific skills you used to build your courage. And don't be afraid to acknowledge when things don't turn out well. Explain how you plan to cope with rejection and failure in a healthy way.
Keep Working On It
Whenever your child makes mistakes (like accepts a dare she shouldn't), use it as an opportunity to talk about risk. And when she passes up a healthy opportunity out of fear, talk about how she can build courage to be bold in the future.
Mistakes are teachable moments that can be turned into life's biggest lessons. Provide plenty of guidance, avoid lectures, and cheer your middle schooler on and you'll help your child turn into a brave, responsible adult.