And you thought the Terrible Twos were bad.
If you’ve been up with a crying infant all night, or can’t seem to reason with your cranky toddler, we have bad news—it isn’t all uphill from here. In fact, it may get a bit worse before it gets better, with the ultimate low-point being when your child enters middle school. New research from Arizona State University, published in the journal Developmental Psychology, proves what many parents have feared—and what many of us remember from our own childhoods—middle school is no fun for anyone.
Researchers from ASU studied more than 2,200 educated mothers and their children—who ranged in age from infants to adults. Researchers studied the mothers’ well being, parenting, and feelings towards their children. They found that mothers of middle-school children, between 12 and 14 years, were most stressed and depressed, while mothers of infants and adults had much better well-being.
“Taking care of infants and toddlers is physically exhausting,” ASU Foundation Professor Suniya Luthar said in a statement. “But as the kids approach puberty, the challenges of parenting are far more complex, and the stakes of ‘things going wrong’ are far greater.”
Researchers offer many theories as to why this is the case. Aside from puberty, middle school also brings other pressures: cliques develop, academics become more serious, and preteens make moves towards independence and away from parents. Children are also transitioning to a new school environment, where they may switch teachers multiple times in one day, and academics and extracurricular activities are suddenly competitive and important. Teaching styles can also become impersonal, and the desire to “fit in” may trump the need to “be yourself.”
Since mothers are often considered “primary caregivers,” they can experience these same challenges. While children go through these changes, their moms can experience several transitions themselves—including declined physical and cognitive function, and lower marital satisfaction, according to researchers.
“Moms are essentially the ‘first responders’ to the children’s distress, and now they must figure out how best to offer comfort and reassurance, as the old ways—hugs, loving words and bedtime stories—no longer work,” Luthar said. It becomes much more difficult when the once-sweet kindergartner is now a surly, exasperated pre-teen, who cringes with embarrassment every time Mom gets involved.
While it is important to help alleviate children’s stress, it’s equally important for mothers of middle-school students to practice self-care and to minimize their own agitation. Researchers suggest parents should be better prepared for the middle school years, and equipped with information about what is to come. Additionally, researchers suggest that mothers need “ongoing support” when their child enters middle school, all the way until the child graduates.