We Need A Middle School Moms Support Group, ASAFP Please

When I was a new mom, people would often ask me how I liked being a mom? I never really knew how to respond to this. I mean, I loved my son but being a mom? Well, that shit was hard.

Except it took me a long time to find a group of people who were also willing to admit this because it seems like most new moms say things like “I love it!” and “It was love at first sight!” and “Isn’t being a mom the best?!”

There was a while when my kids were little when parents seemed a little more willing to talk about how hard it all was. Maybe it was because those middle-of-the-grocery-store threenager tantrums are hard to conceal or because those no-more-napping preschool years are filled with some hilarious shenanigans. Whatever the case, there’s a stretch of time when parents get more comfortable in their roles and accept the fact that kids do some bonkers shit and parenting is madness sometimes. We’re all hanging on by a thread.

And it’s refreshing as hell. We’re all in this shitshow together.

Except then middle school happens. And silence.

When your kid starts middle school, people often ask: “How’s your kid like middle school?” with this weird trepidation. Most of the time, people answer with “It’s fine.” Kind of in that veiled way people talked about how much they loved being a new mom. I’ve said it. You’ve said it. We’ve all said it.

But you know what? IT’S NOT FINE. IT IS SO NOT FINE.

It is exhausting and scary and emotional and confusing and holy hell can someone please help me because I don’t know how I’m going to survive the next handful of years.

But yeah, sure, it’s fine. If you say so.

There are support groups for new moms, breastfeeding moms, attachment parent moms, and free-range moms. But what we really need is a support group for I’m Just Trying To Survive Middle School Moms. Can someone create that? Please and thank you.

Every day is like going to battle, except the rules are constantly changing. Will your middle schooler be in a good mood or sulky? Will they want to hug and snuggle, or will it be an eyeroll and heavy sighing kind of day? Will they come home in tears or practically bouncing off the wall due to all the hormones jumping around in their body?

When I was a kid, middle school was brutal. BRUTAL. But I never realized that it might have been brutal for my parents too. I never realized that my mom might have lost hours of sleep with worry or that she likely went into the bathroom to cry because I was being an overly dramatic, snippy a-hole that day. But let’s face it, middle school sucks for everyone. Kids, parents, teachers, everyone. (Okay, for the contrarians out there, for a LOT of us.)

Except none of us are talking about it. We’re too busy with the “it’s fine”s and arguing with our kids over their cell phones and reading their texts and driving all over town for this activity or that sports practice.

Every once in a while, though, when asked, someone might say, almost in an embarrassed whisper, middle school is fucking rough. Or maybe they’ll say nothing except sigh real deep and long and heavy and you just know. You know. Because it’s the same sigh you make a hundred times a day.

Because yay, middle school is that freaking hard.

Even “normal” middle school stuff is fucking hard. There are raging hormones. Kids change schools. Old friendships change. New friendships are formed. Different teachers have different standards. Romantic relationships and crushes start. And everyone is awkward and scared. EVERYONE.

Add to that the 21stcentury complications like cell phones and social media and, OMG, I’m exhausted just thinking about it. When I was a kid, you might get busted passing notes in class or with a naughty magazine in your backpack. Now we have to worry about cyberbullying and sexting – for kids who have massively underdeveloped prefrontal lobes.

The expectations change, the stakes are higher, and everything feels a bit more serious and uncertain. Which is why the biggest lesson I want my middle schooler to know is to understand that middle school is just plain hard. And it’s really hard for lots of people. Find those kids and make it a little less hard.

And fellow parents, let’s do the same. Let’s be each other’s support group. Let’s stop immediately responding with it’s fine, and tell the truth. Let’s help each other out. (And NO, that doesn’t mean smugly letting so-and-so know you saw their kid acting a fool or humblebragging about your kid’s travel baseball schedule or the honor roll ceremony.)

And if you’re one of the lucky ones who’s been spared the middle school suckiness or you aren’t there yet or you’ve made it through, thank your lucky stars. Or if it’s not hard now, hold tight and bite your tongue. And even if it’s not hard for you and your kid, it’s probably hard for your kid’s friend or your friend or your niece or neighbor. Because middle school takes no prisoners.

Bottom line: BE KIND. You never know who’s dealing with middle school.

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What My Tween’s ‘Mid-Childhood Crisis’ Taught Me About Mid-Life

“We didn’t even get crayons this year!” my daughter is telling me incredulously as I walk her up to school this morning. “It’s the first year we didn’t have crayons,” she says again with sadness. I tell her that I swear I paid for crayons, and I kiss her face and watch her nine-year-old lanky body walk inside the building before I turn around and walk back home.

Her “we didn’t even get crayons this year,” is part of a rallying cry she’s been having about getting “old.” I’m not sure how many nine-and-a-half year olds sit around bemoaning the fact that their childhood is almost gone, but this one does. She is a highly sensitive child, and a deep thinker. It probably doesn’t help that my husband, her father, died suddenly when she was only 21 months old. The passage of time and her growing up have been bittersweet for me, every first that he missed, every birthday without him. She must have felt it too.

And now, as she transitions from carefree little girl to slightly intense tween, I am transitioning too. I am 42 years old. It’s been more than seven years since my husband died. My thirties were spent grieving and mothering a young child, and then they were gone. Before I had time to notice, I was no longer “young mother with small child,” but a woman in her 40s.

Maybe it happens this way for everyone. I find myself still single, chipping away at a writing career, and still very much living in survival mode. In the suburban town where we live, the parents at pickup chat about kitchen renovations and upcoming vacations. On social media, I read about the well-established careers and accolades of friends. Just like my daughter misses the crayons of her younger years, I miss my thirties and the feeling that I was still on a level playing field with most of my peers, all of us still climbing up the hill, not starting to coast down.

My daughter misses the attention she got when she was younger. “Nothing I say seems as cute anymore. No one laughs as much!” she says in dismay one morning. I actually miss the old women telling me to “enjoy her while she’s little” as I pushed her in a stroller through supermarket aisles. Even though she says she feels awkward now on playgrounds, she misses her days of endless monkey bar swinging until her palms were blistered and pink and she came to show me, “Look at my hands!” To my surprise, I actually do miss the endless quality of those long days with a young child. Now it seems there are ends around every corner. Recitals, spring concerts, graduations.

Julia Cho

She misses picture books and bounce houses, and also just feeling completely uninhibited the way a younger child does. Now there are reading logs, standardized tests, and there is self-consciousness. I miss my days of being a night owl, and I miss my narrow waist. Now there are night time skin serums and new spots on my face, and I am surprised by my sudden vanity when I notice them.

For my daughter, this was the year of pierced ears and a palate expander. There was a lot of swabbing crusting ear holes with saline solution and the unnatural turning of a “key” to crank open her mouth. “I wanna go back to the time when I didn’t have pierced ears or go to the orthodontist!” she cries out in frustration one day. For me, the last few years have meant the start of yearly mammograms that compress my breasts into an impossibly, unrecognizable flat shape between two sheets of plastic. I’ve been introduced to a vernacular I’d never even heard of in my thirties—words like “highly dense breast tissue,” LSH and FSH hormones, and perimenopause.

I think we both feel a bit blindsided.

My daughter and only child, I realize one day, is in the middle of her time with me. In another nine years she will be in college. We have only eight more summers to take family vacations. I am entering the middle of my life, and I still barely recognize it. I’m not at all where I expected to be. But here we both are together for a brief moment—in the middle.

The middle is unassuming; it doesn’t have the freshness of a beginning or the accomplishment of the ending, but it’s usually the part of a narrative where transformation happens. Maybe that looks like braces and an “awkward phase,” or maybe it’s realizing you’re not where you want to be, and it’s time to make some changes. “Like it or not, at some point during midlife, you’re going down, and after that there are only two choices: staying down or enduring rebirth,” writes Brene Brown.

One night she finally breaks down and cries for a long time. “I miss being little. I was so carefree! Everything was so new and exciting. I wish I had just enjoyed it then! I was so eager to grow up, and now I don’t like it!” I can’t help but smile just a tiny bit inside listening to her diatribe because what she’s expressing seems so beyond her years. But I get it. I really do. I hold her tightly while she cries.

I tell her that, yes, something is ending and it’s OK to grieve that.

But mostly I tell her, “You’re actually still in your childhood. If you keep spending your time wishing you were three or four, you’re going to wake up at 13 and realize you missed this time, right now, being nine.” “You’re right…” she says thoughtfully.

After she’s done crying, we both feel better. We cuddle up like we always have at night while we read in my bed, and tonight, instead of a longer book, she gathers up a few of our favorite old picture books. Before she goes to sleep, she wiggles her newest loose tooth with pride. “It kinda hurts though,” she says. It does.

Julia Cho

The next morning after I drop her off, I dutifully take my 30-minute walk, enjoying the feeling of stretching out my legs, and the bursts of color in the yellow forsythias spread around the park. Afterwards, I put on what I call my “mid-life red” lipstick and head to Trader Joe’s for my weekly groceries. I always buy flowers, but today while I’m already on line to check out, I run back to get a second bouquet of daffodils. I don’t really know what the future holds: more mammograms, more poignant conversations with my daughter, and probably a few surprises. Who knows, maybe a published book, or even falling in love again—but right now it’s spring. And I don’t want to miss it.

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I Love Parenting My Autistic Tween

It’s 5 AM, and my 11-year-old son is standing at my bedside, shaking me awake. He needs to tell me about something he learned in science class yesterday. Not related, but also very important, he wants to read me a section of the novel he is writing.

“Baby,” I say. “I need a minute. I’m really tired.”

“This is important, Mom!” He runs back out of the room, and I hear him preparing to write. He’s chattering to himself, his fingers drumming on the dining room table as his computer starts up.

I drag myself to the kitchen and see that he’s already emptied the dishwasher. Anxiety can be rough for kids on the spectrum, and to-do tasks are anxiety-provoking, so this is one less thing for him to worry about.

I make coffee and watch him tapping frantically at the keyboard, pausing to chirp and flutter his fingers, then diving back in to his chapter. He is writing a science fiction novel about a humanoid robot that becomes self-aware, who looks like all the other robots but believes that he is a real boy. A combination of Pinocchio and I, Robot, adding in an unconscious narrative of his own unusual neurology.

“They think I’m like the other robots,” he reads to me. “They don’t know I have feelings and ideas, that I learn and mimic what I see just to fool them. I want them to see me, but I’m too scared to show them who I really am. What if they don’t care? What if they lock me up?”

His writing pulls me back to years earlier, when I first started wondering about his behaviors and mannerisms.

“Thank you for helping us,” he said to the lady bagging our groceries one day. “You must be a good person, to choose a job that helps people. Not everyone decides to do that.”

“How old are you?” she asked.

“Three,” he said, and offered his hand to shake.

No doctor ever mentioned autism, not with his early speech and love of hugs, and he charmed everyone with his shrewd, literal observations of the world.

But his charisma turned to awkwardness as he got older, anxiety and mood dysregulation kicking in as he entered his elementary school years. Sensory issues escalated. Social challenges snowballed. Kids bullied him for being “weird,” and teachers misconstrued his unusual hand gestures, pressured speech, and misinterpretations of social cues.

He melted down, triggered by mysterious causes I struggled to pinpoint. He had few friends. Even with therapy and near-constant school meetings, it took years to get a diagnosis. And when we finally got one, it devastated me.

It’s hard to acknowledge the way I rejected my own child when I first saw him for who he was.

But having to fight for him in school and the larger world changed me. I grew angry as teachers and principals listed all the things that were wrong with him. Why didn’t they see what he was capable of? My own perspective shifted and refocused as doctors and behavioral therapists tried to train him to be more like the typical kids around him. I wondered why I was allowing others to train my child at all.

He stayed calm and productive when we supported him at home by reducing stimuli and avoiding overwhelming situations. He built Lego rocket ships with his sisters, helped his dad cook dinner, and took walks with me, discussing his plans and dreams.

We moved him to a school that didn’t tolerate bullying and celebrated the value of all learners. As his teachers learned about his needs, accommodating him with short breaks and a quiet space to work alone, his meltdowns at school reduced dramatically. After a year, he became a school ambassador and got straight A’s. He needed support, but also supported others, making friends through his efforts to include other kids who struggled along the margins.

It took time, far longer than it should have, for me to realize that this wasn’t about me or my expectations. It was about my son, about getting over my idea of what parenting was supposed to be and simply showing up and loving my kid. It’s hard to admit that I wept when I first heard a doctor say “autism,” to describe the shell-shocked, heartbroken mother I used to be. I lost sight of his deep belly laugh, his soft blonde hair, the way he cuddled close and asked me questions about space as he fell asleep.

My son transforms everyone he comes in contact with. The more I learn about him, and about autism itself, the less I want to change or “cure” him. In many ways, he is profoundly disabled. In other ways, he is extraordinary and independent. In all ways, he is funny, smart, and loving. The baby boy I was supposed to have, to raise, to hold close and adore.

I love parenting my autistic child.

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An Orthodontist Visit Helped Me Understand What My Single Mom Had Sacrificed

We took our two oldest to meet with an orthodontist, found out they will both need braces, and left with an estimate that made my knees weak. Norah was nine and Tristan was 12, and yeah, it was pretty obvious that they would both need braces. Mel and I both had braces as children, and our children more or less inherited our crooked smiles. But I always assumed our insurance would cover more than it did — which as a father of three, I’ll admit was a pretty naive assumption. I should know better by now that dental insurance for a family of five feels a lot like struggling to make a monthly insurance payment only to be punched in the crotch each time we visited the dentist.

Anyway, Mel and I discussed how we were going to pay for it, how much our insurance would cover, and as we did, all I could think about was my mother. I was 12 when I got braces, same age as my son. This was three years after my father walked out. He didn’t pay child support, so he certainly didn’t help with my braces. Mom worked days at the local power plant, and evenings cleaning houses. At Christmastime, she worked Saturdays at a music store.

Late in the evening, she arrived home wearing paint-stained sweat pants and a T-shirt. A plastic bucket filled with yellow rubber gloves, toothbrushes, Lysol, and a scrubbing brush was in her right hand. She’d drop the bucket, fingertips wrinkled from scrubbing toilets. Then she’d step out and return a moment later with the dress she wore to her office job at the power plant slung over her forearm. There were times when she woke me up for school moments before she left for her first job and then came home late in the evening, just in time to hold me accountable for my homework.

I don’t know how much braces cost in the early ’90s, but I have to assume whatever it cost, it was too much. I can still remember mom late at night sitting at our kitchen table, bills fanned out, right hand holding a calculator, her left elbow bent against the table top supporting her forehead.

Not that I, as a 12-year-old boy, appreciated her sacrifice. I felt like those braces were a personal attack. I didn’t wear my headgear or elastics, and each time I met with the orthodontist I argued with him to take them out. I can still remember my mother waking me late at night, her eyes bloodshot from working more hours than I’d ever worked. In her left hand would be my headgear. “Put it on,” she’d say. And I’d grudgingly roll out of bed, and slide that uncomfortable apparatus over my head, and then spend the next several hours sleeping uncomfortably as my teeth were tugged into alignment. I’d love to say that in moments like this I appreciated my mother’s insistence that I wear my headgear, but I didn’t. I honestly hated my braces, and my headgear, and my orthodontist, and at times, my mother.

But now, at 36, I have a pretty nice smile, and I have my mother to thank for it. So after we got those quotes for my children’s braces, and I got over the sticker-shock, I went into the bedroom, and called my mother.

We talked for a moment about the kids. She went on about her retirement, her heath, and my stepdad. Then I told her about the estimate we received from the orthodontist, and she laughed. It wasn’t a “sucks for you” kind of laugh. It was more of an “I’ve been there” kind of laugh.

“How did you ever afford my braces?” I asked.

She let out a long breath, and said, “It wasn’t easy.” She told me about how my father refused to help, saying, “Not that it should surprise you. Somehow I made it work because I knew it was important.” When she said “it was important,” I knew what she really meant was “you were important.”

There was a pause and then I said, “Well… I know this is long overdue, but thank you for doing that. And I’m sorry for being so difficult about all of it.”

She laughed and said, “You’re welcome.” Then she told me that I’d have had a pretty crooked smile if she hadn’t. “I knew you’d appreciate it eventually.” Then she laughed and said, “I will say, I assumed you’d probably appreciate it sooner than now.”

I apologized again, and then she told me something that made me feel a little better about this whole getting my kids braces situation, “And don’t worry about your kids. If I figured out how to pay for braces, you will too.”

It’s funny how sometimes it takes having children to become thankful for the parents you had. Mom and I had our differences during my teen years, no doubt about it, but when I think back on all those sacrifices she made for me, how much she invested in me, I cannot help but feel loved.

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I Don’t Let My Tween Have Drop-Off Playdates

“We should totally get our girls together,” my daughter’s friend’s mom gushed as we stood side by side casually chatting at the skating rink. “What’s your cell?”

As I gave her my number, I knew the reality. I wasn’t going to drop my daughter off at their house.

I am “that” mom, the one who is generally labeled as overprotective. I need to “just let kids be kids.”

Though some mean the overprotective label as an insult, it doesn’t offend me. I’m proudly cautious when it comes to my kids.

When I was growing up, my mom did the same. I wasn’t allowed to attend a slumber party until I was in middle school and my mom was well-acquainted with the friend’s parents. I wasn’t dropped off at the mall or movie theater until I was in high school.

While some of my friends were allowed to meet up with their boyfriends in the sixth grade, my parents didn’t allow me to date until I was a sophomore in high school. And even then, there were strict rules. If they weren’t followed, my privileges were revoked.

Of course, in those moments, I was furious. Why were my parents so incredibly uncool? What was the big deal? Everyone else (in my dramatic mind) was allowed to have fun but me. I would slam my bedroom door, blare my Boys II Men album, and furiously write in my diary that my parents sucked.

What I realized is my parents’ strict rules regarding my social life was their way of being good parents to me. They weren’t being helicopters. Instead, they were waiting until I was mature enough to make good choices — including knowing when to ask for help to escape a bad situation — before putting me in environments where things had the potential to go wrong.

This started when I was quite young. When I was in third grade, I got my first slumber party invite to which my parents responded with a hard no. I was a sobbing mess. I imagined my friends watching the newly released Beauty and the Beast VHS while giggling and eating Pop Qwiz. Why couldn’t I be included? My parents allowed me to hang out with the group for a few hours before I was picked up at ten.

Later, my mom would explain to me that a lot of my friends had older siblings or moms whose boyfriends stayed over, and those people may or may not be safe. It was, in fact, better to be “safe than sorry.”

Now that I’m a mom, I can look back and see that my parents made the right decisions. I had friends whose parents allowed them to have too much independence too soon and thus, made terrible choices or had bad and undeserving things happen to them because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Recently, when my tween daughter asked to have a friend come over and hang out on a Friday night, I agreed, found the mom on social media, and sent her a message. She promptly replied that of course her daughter could come over. In my mind, the mom and I would sit at the kitchen bar and chat over a glass of wine while the girls played.

When the mom and daughter arrived, we introduced ourselves and exchanged pleasantries, and then the mom smiled and said she was off to dinner with her fiancé, and she’d be back in two hours to get her daughter. Then she was gone.

She never walked into my house beyond the welcome mat. She didn’t ask if we had guns and were they locked up? Did my daughter have older siblings? What types of things would the girls be doing? Would they be watching or listening to anything I needed her approval for?

I asked if her daughter had any allergies I should be aware of in case the girls wanted a snack. Beyond that, all we had were each other’s first names and cell numbers.

I was shocked. Not because my mind goes to drastics like serial killers on the latest Dateline special. Rather, she knew nearly nothing about us and left us to care for her child. I’m guessing the cell phone she left her daughter with provided all the relief she needed.

The girls played happily together until the mom returned. We chatted for a few minutes by the front door, and then the mom offered to have my daughter over to her house. “Let’s pick a date!” she encouraged.

In that moment, I didn’t know what to say. How would I share “there’s no way in hell I’m dropping my tween off with people I do not know” without offending her? Without insulting her for the very thing she just did?

I absolutely do worry for my kids’ safety. I worry that the friend’s four older, teenage siblings are going to listen to or watch things that aren’t appropriate for my daughter. I worry they’ll have their own friends over, and what if one of those friends tries to harm my child?

I worry about gun safety. I worry about drugs. I worry about sexual assault. Why? Because preventable incidents happen every day to children.

We live in the real world with real threats. And because I’m my daughter’s mom, my number one job is to ensure my child’s safety and well-being.

Our compromise is that I offer to meet up with another parent and child for a date in a public space like a park or the skating rink. I want to get to know the parents. If I get an OK vibe, I’d be up for meeting up at their house while the mom and I chat over coffee. But I’m definitely not going to drop my daughter off with nothing but an exchange of pleasantries, names, and phone numbers.

Trust takes time and experience. And I want my kids to learn that it’s perfectly OK to take their time getting to know someone and to listen to their instincts. I do not care how unpopular or uncool that is. I’d rather my children feel temporary anger toward me, just as I did with my own parents, than deal with the forever trauma of a horrific and preventable event.

I’m sure I won’t always make the right call. I’m certain that at times, I’m too protective. But I’m OK with making the occasional mistake of being too careful.

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The Impact Just 30 More Minutes Of Sleep Can Have On High School Students

Can we talk about how badly bedtime — regardless of how old your kids are — absolutely sucks? I mean, I know you all know. It’s not a secret that getting kids to bed is like rolling a wiggling bolder into the bath tub, and then into pajamas, and finally into bed. Just the other night I actually screamed upstairs “YOU HAVE HAD ENOUGH HUGS!!” to my four year old.

But the real challenge isn’t my youngest — it’s my two older children. Norah is nine, and Tristan is 12, and getting them to bed on time isn’t just as simple as getting them in the tub, and reading a story. They both have homework. Tristan has soccer practice twice a week, and Norah has gymnastics once a week. They get home around 3:30 p.m., and between then and 8 p.m. (bedtime), it’s a maddening sprint of urging them to complete all their obligations, while they ask and ask and ask for screen time. It’s not unusual for the whole family to be at the table, eating dinner, my wife next to our son helping him with math, while I’m next to our daughter helping her with sentences, our four-year-old watching a tablet so she will be occupied.

I’ll be honest, this isn’t how I saw family life looking when I got into this whole parenting gig, but if we don’t cram it all in, there’s really no way I can get those kids to bed before 8 p.m.

I have witnessed my children dragging their feet in the morning when they don’t get enough sleep, but as it turns out, the consequences of not shutting down at the end of the day are steeper than I realized. According to the CDC’s National Youth Risk Behavior Survey, “A” students get an average of 30 more minutes of sleep per night (6.71 hours) when compared to “D” and “F” students (6.16 hours). Let’s be real, 30 minutes is a pretty small window of time.

Now does this mean that if you get your kids to bed on time that they will suddenly become A students? Probably not. But it does show that getting enough shut eye can put a child in a position to do better in school. But hey, I’m with you, the last thing I assumed was that a 30-minute sliver of time would make that big of a difference, but here we are.

Take last night for example. My son got his homework done right after school, ate an early dinner, and then went to soccer practice. He came home, took a shower, and BAM! It was already 8 p.m. He’d done everything he was supposed to do, and I was proud of him, so I let him stay up an hour later to play games as a reward. But as it turns out, perhaps that isn’t the best strategy.

If you are like our family, we monitor screen time pretty closely, because if I didn’t, all my kids would do is play games and watch Netflix. Nothing would get done, and they’d most likely never leave the house. However, we do use screen time as a reward, and on days like above, I feel like I’m between a rock and hard place. I want to reward my son for meeting his obligations, but at the same time, I don’t want him falling asleep in class because he stayed up playing games, something that has happened in the past.

But I suppose this is the reality of being a parent these days. 90% of it is trying to regulate and monitor screen time, while also working hard to teach your children how to meet obligations.

Naturally, the question I had is: How much sleep should my children be getting? The good people at Savvysleeper put together a pretty interesting analysis of the CDC’s report on high school sleep habits. According to their analysis, children ages 13 to 18 should be getting 8 to 10 hour of sleep per night. However, 71% of children do not receive the recommended amount of sleep. And like I discussed above, the big killer of sleep is screen time.

Among high school students not getting enough sleep at night, roughly 1 in 3 admitted to spending between two and three hours watching TV on school days. While about 19 percent said they didn’t watch any TV on school days, 14 percent of students juggled their school workload, the possibility of extracurricular activities, and four hours (or more) of TV every night before finally making it to bed. As for video games, among students not getting enough rest during the school week, roughly 28 percent spent over four hours on school nights playing video games.

What this all boils down to is realizing the importance of sleep, and helping our children understand it as well. And I get it: every time I tell my children to shut it all down and go to bed, they act like it’s a hate crime. With my 12-year-old, just saying good morning is enough for him to shoot daggers at me, so that really is just standard operating procedure. But this all should give us a little more motivation to send those kids to bed early because all it takes is 30 minutes to make a lasting impact.

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These 4 Simple Words Make All The Difference When Talking To Tweens

Usually, when one of my kids is frustrated with something, I can quickly come up with a solution for their problem. And, usually, when I suggest that solution, it is accepted as the useful wisdom it is, applied as per my instructions, and carried out successfully. Because I’m a wise, badass mama, chock-full of brilliant ideas to help my kids overcome any and all obstacles.

*scratching record sound*

And then my oldest turned 12.

In the year since my son’s twelfth birthday, over the course of many frustrated moments and almost without my noticing, my motherly input has been gradually relegated to the same dark corner as my son’s old Transformers action figures and miniature jets.

*brushes cobwebs off shoulders*

Okay, okay, I’m being melodramatic. I know my kid values my opinion, sort of, because he occasionally still asks for it. I’d just better not offer it unsolicited. If I do, he either “already knows” what I’m talking about or I’m just plain wrong, he “just learned about this in school, Mom.” Which, to his credit, is usually true.

This is totally normal tween behavior, of course. My son is lurching toward independence—the last thing he wants when he’s frustrated is for me to jump in and rescue him.

The problem comes when he really can’t manage a problem on his own—when he needs help but doesn’t realize it or when he’s out of his depth and overwhelmed and angry. These are the toughest moments for us, and they happen most often when he’s stuck on a difficult homework problem. His math is so advanced at this point that it’s over my head, and we both know it.

So, he gets incredibly frustrated, literally to the point of pulling his hair, and I’m sure he’s doubly frustrated that he knows he’s on his own. Mom can’t help anymore. But when I offer solutions like “Take a deep breath, you can do this,” or “Have you texted any of your friends that are in the same class?” he becomes even more frustrated. He snaps at me that “No, he can’t do this” or “No, his friends can’t help, they’re just as stuck as he is,” and pounds his fist on the counter.

There have been times when he’s gotten so snippy with me that I lash out in return. I tell him to knock off his attitude or he’ll be grounded, or I tell him to go to his room if he wants to act like a grumpy jerk. I tell him he can be angry and frustrated, but I won’t tolerate him bringing everyone else down with him.

Even though I may be right to not tolerate lashing out behavior, in that moment when he is at his wits’ end, my commanding him to behave in any certain way is totally ineffective. He’s dealing with a rapidly developing brain that still has an underdeveloped prefrontal cortex. This makes managing big emotions incredibly difficult. It’s literally not his fault that he can’t get his shit under control. He still has to learn, of course. But he can’t learn when he’s seeing red.

But that’s okay—I’ve found a workaround. Four simple words that have made all the difference in how my son and I interact with one another in difficult moments: “How can I help?”

I can’t take credit for this. My best friend used to be a clinical therapist and worked with lots of kids, and she suggested I try this. People, it’s a miracle.

How can I help?

This little question changes everything. It gives my son the autonomy to decide, first of all, whether he wants help or not—because sometimes he really doesn’t want a solution. And he’s old enough now that I need to respect when he needs space to figure something out on his own.

How can I help?

It also lets him decide, should he choose to accept help, what the help will look like. Maybe he wants a suggestion from me. Maybe he wants silence for a few minutes. Maybe he needs a snack or notebook paper or new batteries for his calculator.

How can I help?

He can simply say he doesn’t want any help right now. But asking the question at least lets him know that I am here if he needs me. I think we can all relate to that feeling of comfort we get just from knowing backup is available if we need it. How can I help is a bridge to autonomy—I’m not swooping in to save my kid, but I am letting him know he’s not alone.

Last week when my son was struggling over his advanced algebra homework, frustrated to tears, I asked the question. I admit, I tried offering solutions at first, which only made him more frustrated. But then I remembered: How can I help?

And he did want help. You know what he wanted? A hug. Really. A freaking hug. I wrapped my arms around him and felt his shoulders relax. He went back to work and, though still frustrated, seemed to make some progress. I came back in 10 minutes and offered another hug, which he accepted. This time, since he was calmer, I reminded him to take deep breaths and offered to bring him a snack. He agreed to that. Another 10 minutes later and I offered another hug. He still accepted, but this time he was much, much calmer, and focused enough on his work that he only wanted a very quick hug before he returned his focus to his work.

Maybe next time when I ask this question, he’ll want my opinion. Maybe he’ll want to bounce some ideas off of me. Or maybe he’ll say he just wants to figure out how to manage on his own.

It’s funny isn’t it, how, with tweens, letting go can sometimes be the thing that keeps them close? I know my son wants to be independent, and yet, I know he still needs me. Not all the time, but sometimes. And, I think, part of the journey toward independence is that my son must learn to know when he needs me and when he doesn’t. My job is to give him the space to decide.

The post These 4 Simple Words Make All The Difference When Talking To Tweens appeared first on Scary Mommy.

How I Survive The Hell That Is The End Of The School Year

I’m tired. Like all the time. So far today I have had 5 cups of coffee, but I am still dragging my high heels behind me at work. You see, it is April and this is me: Spring Mom.

Spring Mom, who can’t keep up with the calendar of birthday parties, chorus concerts and art shows. Spring Mom, who is sick of math sheets and reading logs and Wordly Wise quizzes and Science Fairs. Spring Mom has given her all and is currently on the Spring-Mom slide, when she cuts corners to keep the peace because if she doesn’t she just may fall to the ground and never stand up again. At least not until summer.

It is April. I am kind of checked out and so, this time of year, I take short cuts. I do the best I can and I lower my expectations just a little. Two more months — I got this. Two more months of early morning alarms and school projects — take-home folders, and PTO sign-ups. Two more months of book sales and soccer practices and laundry piles and uniforms. Two more months. I can do this. I can’t do it as well as I did in September, but I can do a damn-good, mediocre job.

I often wonder if I am on the only one who takes shortcuts, but hey, I guess it doesn’t really matter, does it? I know that I am doing the best I can and sometimes self-care is taking short cuts. Here are some of my Spring Mom confessions:

– I literally just put my coffee mug and one cereal bowl in a dishwasher full of clean dishes and pressed start. I mean really, why take all of the dishes out? Such a waste of time and energy.

– I skipped a shower this morning and went to work with dry shampoo and my daughter’s American Eagle Body Spray adorning my unwashed body. Sorry, not sorry.

– I picked up towels off of the flower, folded them and put them in the clean towel drawer in the bathroom. My daughter refuses to use a towel unless it is fresh out of the dryer. She also refuses to do her own laundry. I guess you could say I tricked her. I actually do feel kind of bad about this one.

– We are ordering pizza tonight and Chinese Food tomorrow. Come @ me. IDC.

– The washing machine is full of laundry that has needed to be moved to the dryer since last Saturday and it now requires a second washing because my way of doing laundry only made the clothes dirtier. Go figure! This is precisely why I am considering a no-laundry-during-the-work-week rule.

– I am on a complete and totally-satisfying carb binge and I don’t plan to ever stop. I freaking love it. I spent 2 years limiting or restricting carbs altogether and I finally said eff it — #carbsorbust. I love them and they are worth the extra 15 pounds that I am pretty sure sits right on my waist line since that first bite of bread 6 months ago. The scale has got to go. I love carbs.

– There is literally not one pair of matching socks in my house. Not one. Four people. Hundreds of partner-less socks. I can’t even. Where the hell do they go?

– I serve fresh Dunkin Donuts for breakfast and my kids’ lunchboxes are filled with a potpourri of snacks each day because I just can’t win these battles. At least not in April. Snacks for lunch it is.

– I can’t remember the last time I made a bed. Really. It has been years.

The list goes on and on. I do have good days, where everyone in the house brushes their teeth both the morning and the night-time and we eat protein and veggies for dinner. On these good days, the homework gets done diligently before dinner, and we are all sound asleep by 9:15 p.m. The dishes are cleaned and put away and the laundry is folded and neatly placed in drawers. These days, however, are rare.

And that is okay.

I am a mom doing the best I can with what I got and sometimes my best is rewashing the dishes in the dishwasher. Sometimes sleep is more important than chores and a family board game is more important than homework.

I am pretty sure my own mom walks into my house and wonders when the laundry will get put away. I imagine the kids probably wish they had a mom who could do it all and make Monkey Bread for their school snack and homemade waffles for breakfast. A mom who eagerly matches socks on the living room floor while helping with math homework and cooking Chicken Cacciatore for dinner.

Right now I am just not that mom. Right now, I am tired. I am tired and I love carbs.

And that’s okay, too.

Summer mom is just around the corner, and she is pretty freaking amazing.

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If Your Daughter Acts Like A Mean Girl, I’m Gonna Call Her Out

I’m not generally in favor of involving myself in other people’s parenting, but if your daughter displays mean girl behavior in my presence, I will call her out.

The other evening, I was driving my 8-year-old daughter and her three friends to soccer practice. I love driving my kids around with their friends because I learn so much. I learn what books they’re all reading, who their favorite (and least favorite) teachers are, what they watch on YouTube, what music they like. They’re in the backseat chattering and sort of forget I’m there—they let their guard down.

So, the other night, one of my daughter’s friends started badmouthing a little girl that my daughter has known since pre-K. The little girl had been held back a grade, and my daughter’s friend was railing on about how she “heard” the little girl had been acting up in class and people were saying she “deserved” it.

It wasn’t the first time I’d overheard my daughter’s friend engaging in that kind of catty “mean girl” talk. She is often harsh and judgmental with her words (“What? I hate that song. You like it? UGH”), but the other girls usually stand up to her just fine, so I mostly keep out of it. And the first couple of times I heard her talking about someone who wasn’t present, I let it slide and diverted the conversation to a different topic without explicitly correcting her. I gave her the benefit of the doubt, thinking maybe she was having a rough day and was lashing out uncharacteristically.

But this time I didn’t let it go. I happen to know the little girl who was held back since my daughter attended pre-K with her. I know her mother too. I know she and her husband struggled to help their daughter adjust to school and that the decision to have their daughter repeat a grade was a difficult one.

Not that any of those details ultimately matter. Even if I didn’t know the little girl, by this point, I’d heard my daughter’s friend say enough shitty things about other children that I was sure her behavior was habitual. She needed to be called out.

My daughter was doing her best to stick up for the other girl, saying she was a really nice person, that she’d known her since pre-K and she never got in trouble for being disruptive. But the gossipy friend wasn’t having it—she just kept talking as if having been held back a grade was some kind of punishment for bad behavior.

I turned down the music and addressed my daughter’s friend via the rearview mirror. “You know, saying ugly things about someone, especially someone who isn’t here to defend themselves, really isn’t a very kind thing to do.”

“Oh, I know, I’m not saying anything bad, I’m just saying what other people were saying.”

“Well,” I said, “there’s a name for repeating mean things that people say about others. It’s called gossip. You’re saying things about this person even though you have no idea if they’re true or not, and you’re doing it when the person you’re talking about isn’t here to defend herself. If I were held back a grade and found out someone was saying I’d deserved it, it would really hurt my feelings. What if she were here in the car with us? Would you still say all these unkind things about her?”

“No, I guess not.”

“I didn’t think you would. And that’s all the more reason not to do it when she’s not here. If we’re going to talk about other people, it should only be to say something nice about them.”

The little girl changed the subject—to another little boy she wanted to badmouth. I waited to see if she’d catch her slip-up before I needed to correct her again. Having heard what I’d just said about gossip, the other three other girls in the car remained quiet, and the awkward silence was enough for our little mean girl to realize she needed to put on the brakes. After that, I started an entirely new conversation about the weekend’s upcoming soccer game.

I haven’t discussed this exchange with the girl’s parents, and unless the issue comes up again, I’m not sure I will. I don’t think this is a parenting problem because her two siblings, one older and one younger, are extremely polite, thoughtful, and kind, and I know the parents encourage generosity and kindness in their household. I also know that the parents are proponents of the “it takes a village” mindset and would have no problem with me calling out their kid. They also wouldn’t hesitate to call out one of my kids if they were having a dicky moment.

But, to be honest, even if I didn’t think this little girl’s parents would be okay with me correcting their kid, I would have done it anyway. I was nice about it, and also, there were two other little girls in the car besides my own who were being forced to listen to her venomous talk. Remaining silent would have made me complicit, and it would have sent the message that I tolerate that kind of behavior. Kids die by suicide because of this stuff. No way am I letting it persist in my presence. So, really, if your kid acts like a jerk and I hear it, whether you like it or not, I am going to correct them.

After soccer practice, once we’d dropped the other girls off at home, I told my daughter I was proud of her, not only because she didn’t join in on the gossip, but because she actively spoke up and defended the girl who wasn’t present. I told her I expect her to always do this. I told her there is way too much ugly in the world, and those of us who want to spread kindness need to also be proactive about stomping out hatefulness—we need to be upstanders. And, to me, part of being an upstander is correcting someone else’s kid when they’re acting like an asshole. And I welcome anyone else to return the favor.

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Experts Say Teens Are Developmentally Similar To Toddlers

sexting-teens

Right now, at this moment, in my very home, I have a 12-year-old son and a 4-year-old daughter. We have three children, and I will admit, there’s a pretty good spread between the oldest and the youngest. I won’t go into all the details as to why that happened, but what I will say is that on the low end, our daughter isn’t all that far removed from the toddler age, and on the high end, our son is considered a preteen.

I will also say this: I’ve noticed some similarities in their behavior. Sure, one is a better communicator than the other. There’s no doubt about that. But both are easily frustrated. Both are pretty good at getting offended, and both aren’t remotely afraid to state their opinions, or act like they are the expert in the room, when, in fact, they aren’t.

If I’m not arguing with one about putting on her shoes, I’m arguing with the other about taking a shower. And perhaps noticing these similarities between my youngest and my oldest is the reason I was nodding my head as I read a recent statement by Dr. Kathleen Van Antwerp, the leading expert in juvenile justice reform. She was the keynote speaker at University of Utah’s “Breaking the Pipeline” fourth annual symposium where she addressed ways to plug the schools-to-prison pipeline trend.

According to the Deseret News she had this to say about teen and toddler development: “Developmentally, teens and toddlers are about at the same level, with each age group struggling to grow into the next stage of life, but not yet equipped with all the tools.”

And later, during her exchange with the participants, Van Antwerp noted how “toddlers have yet to develop a range of expressive skills, so they resort to physical, shrieking tantrums to convey their discontent. At the teenage stage, the part of the brain that controls emotion is hijacked developmentally, governing the teen’s behavior across the spectrum… Research shows the prefrontal cortex, the chief executive officer portion of the brain that governs rational, cognitive thinking, doesn’t develop until the mid-20s or later.”

Mid-20s? Yowza!

But on the whole, why does this matter? Well… for me as a parent, it surely gives me some insight into what I’m dealing with when it comes to my son. Emotionally, he’s all over the place. He eats all the time. A few months ago, I showed him how to make pancakes, and suddenly he thinks he can live on his own. But he is a bright kid and well-behaved young man. He communicates well, has friends, so on the whole, it feels like he’s just a shorter, softer faced, adult. But realizing that emotionally he is still developing — in ways similar to how a toddler is developing — helps me put things into prospective.

I’ll admit, I am looking at my son a little differently after reading this. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I still find him frustrating. But I’m also acknowledging the fact that just like how my youngest is struggling to communicate, he is struggling to manage his emotions, and it will take time for all that to settle. It’s changed my expectations of him, and it’s caused me to be more open about what he’s feeling, rather than just assuming that he’s… well… acting like a jerk, or being difficult for the sake of being difficult.

On the larger, outside of my family, societal level, understanding the emotional development of teenagers matters a lot. The real focus of Van Antwerp’s work is on stopping the pipeline between high schools and incarceration, and she feels a major contributor to that pipeline is that educators and resource officers are interested in stopping students’ behavior, but they aren’t trained in why that behavior is happening on a developmental level.

Van Antwerp has spent just over 30 years developing educational and outreach programs for at-risk youth in schools, juvenile justice programs, emergency care centers and foster homes, and what she’s found is that society makes the mistake of trying to manage behavior rather than understanding it. “[We] should be creating a school climate in which teachers, police and other adults are properly schooled in understanding developmental behavior, instead of simply reacting to something they don’t understand.”

That last line — “simply reacting to something they don’t understand” — is the real kicker for us as parents. I’ll say it, I didn’t understand my toddlers, so I just tried to expect the unexpected. Now I’m bracing myself to do the same with regards to my son and his teen years. In the heat of the moment, it’s pretty easy to respond to any child with raw emotion and focus on the behavior (you’ve been there). Particularly when you are being pulled in a million directions with ALL the things.

But I think if we can take anything away from the developmental observations of Dr. Van Antwerp, it’s this: each stage comes with it’s own roadblocks, and the moment you think you’ve figured your child out, they move into that next stage. Accepting that your teenager is still emotionally developing, similar to a toddler, really should help us locate that emotional calm that can, sometimes, be difficult to find in ourselves — and make their seemingly random emotional swings a little more expected.

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