In middle school kids begin to have more homework, more complicated schedules, and yes, more complicated emotions. A lot of parents want to stay close to their children as they head into middle school, but a lot of things can get in the way. Some kids have more independence, which means they spend less time with Mom or Grandma or Dad. Many kids have cell phones, which enable constant communication with peers. And as some kids zoom ahead into puberty, their friends’ influence often increases. What’s more, celebrity culture (with its money, glamor, and dysfunction) takes on ever-more power as role models. It’s all part of growing up in 21st century America.

If your child ventures into this new stage of their life with a strong connection to you, they will be safer, happier, and more resilient. They will stay connected to your values, because they are connected to you.

How can you maintain a strong parent-child relationship with your soon-to-be middle schooler? By laying the foundation now, while your child is still a kid.

  1. Listen: Ask about the year ahead

    What is your child excited about? What makes them nervous? What can you do to help your child get ready? Some kids may have heard middle school is “scary” or homework is “so hard.” Finding out specifically what your child has heard is really important to understanding their mindset. You may not know if their fears are excessive. You may need to ask around to learn more about the culture of the middle school. You also may not know what to do about their fears. But the most important thing is that your child feels you’re really listening. Listening — not lecturing or even solving problems — is your new superpower as your child heads into adolescence. Read more about how to smooth your child’s transition to middle school.

  2. Explore: Dive into big, age-appropriate themes

    When it comes to media consumption, your child is somewhere between a child and a teen. In fact, your child may switch back and forth daily. A lot of kids’ movies and TV shows probably won’t really challenge your child to think new thoughts and learn new things. At the same time, a lot of the teen and adult media is way, way too focused on sex and violence to be healthy for your child. Common Sense Media is a great website for finding just the right movie for you and your fifth grader to watch together. You can filter for different genres like comedy and drama and for topics like activism, cooking, and dinosaurs and even character strengths, such as compassion and perseverance. This list offers streaming movies that have been honored with the Common Sense Seal for kids ages 10 and up. The list includes some family-friendly masterpieces including McFarland, USA; Queen of Katwe; Hidden Figures; and Wonder — all of which would make great starting points for a conversation about life.

  3. Share: Tell a new family story

    Are there family stories you haven’t told your child yet because they were too young to hear them? A story about a grandparent or something that happened to you as a child? Perhaps there’s a story about your own middle school that can give your child a sense that you have been there, too. Maybe there’s a piece of your family heritage that might have been difficult for your child to understand when they were younger, but now feels relevant. Are there stories of migration? Of moving to a new school? Of feeling scared and living to laugh about it? Of course, it’s important not to cast a shadow of your own experience on your child’s future (that’s all too easy for us parents to do). But family stories — especially those that help your child draw on images of resilience, persistence, and learning from experience — can give your child a strong sense of their roots as they spread their wings. This is also a great time to tell stories about the positive results of telling the truth when it matters. (Research shows negative stories about truth-telling, like The Boy Who Cried Wolf, don’t work as well.)

Not only will these three activities draw you and your tween closer, they’ll also help your child with school next year. Why? Because a lot of what your child will be asked to do in class next year has to do with thinking. Your child will need to be able to reflect on ideas and experiences and form their thoughts into full sentences, either verbally or in writing. By being a family that talks about feelings (which are actually quite abstract), discusses thought-provoking media, and tells each other stories, you’ll be helping your child practice essential academic skills. Whether you have these conversations in English, Spanish, or Swahili, these practices will help reinforce your bond with your child while preparing her for the meaningful class discussions and writing projects ahead.