When I was a tween, I was tall, awkward, painfully shy, anxious and almost always the last kid chosen in gym class. As a mom of four boys, I was thrilled to see my two oldest, twins, pretty much sail through what were the worst years of my childhood: middle school.
Sure, they had a few bumps here and there, but nothing like what many of us experienced during those often turbulent years. It turned out to be three great years, in part because of their public school’s efforts to foster teamwork and close-knit relationships with teachers and fellow students. The school’s motto was “We Are Crew, Not Passengers.” In middle school, I was definitely a passenger, in the cargo section and pretty much ignored.
My third son is now a seventh-grader at the same school, but his social life has far surpassed anything his older brothers experienced. He connected with a group of kids, and they bonded to the point they were in constant communication with each other.
The shine of that popularity, though, was short-lived. Every parent hopes their middle-schooler will be accepted for who they are, but as these close relationships, a mix of both boys and girls, continued to blossom, I saw our son start to slowly fall apart at home.
At first, I didn’t make the connection. I could see that hormones were ramping up and that, even though he claimed to be happy, underneath the thrill of parties, activities, frequent get-togethers and text messages, he was growing anxious and depressed. Our easygoing, laid-back kid was now a wreck. Simple questions were met with a high-pitched responses filled with stress and angst. Something was wrong, and just being around him was causing me to be a ball of stress, too.
As the group texts from the moms of these kids lit up my phone to plan the next get-together, I started to wonder whether this level of activity was healthy, and whether it could be causing my son’s anxiety and stress.
His social life rivaled anyone I knew, and he was only 12. At dinner he would talk of the next get-together, and my twins would say, “It wasn’t like this when we were his age!” I said, “I’m 46 years old, and my social life has never been like this.” But as I watched him, I could see he was basically trapped on a social merry-go-round, and he couldn’t get off. It was fun, bright, shiny and greatly coveted, but it was also spinning out of control.
This was foreign territory for me, and for my husband and twins. We all sort of sat there looking at him thinking this seems great, but there’s a dark side.
He was leading a charmed social life, with trips to go indoor rock climbing and skating, visits to coffee shops, a party bus for a 13th birthday celebration, and more. One parent worked for a local TV station and received free tickets to events, so our son saw his first baseball game in a luxury box at Fenway Park and scored seventh-row seats to see “The Nutcracker” with his friends. I was happy that he had these experiences with his peers, but I reminded him that this wasn’t real life.
So I put a stick in the merry-go-round of fun. Even though we always had limits on his phone use and could read every text he received, we curbed things even further, and he seemed relieved. After all, what 12-year-old boy could put his own brakes on something like this?
I’ve seen all sides of social issues with my kids. One of my sons has disabilities, which have made it difficult for him to make friends. I know what it’s like myself to feel like the odd kid out. But this wasn’t something we really knew how to handle, because it appeared to be an enviable social life. We never realized the effect it would have on him or the toll it would take to constantly keep up and be “on.”
I spoke to my son about it, and the tears started to flow. Even though he loved his friends and the bustle of activity, he was losing himself and was still very much a little boy, unprepared for all of this. There needed to be balance. This was a kid whose favorite thing to do when he got home from school was to grab a ball and shoot hoops with our neighbor’s son until dinnertime. Both boys would spend hours jumping on the trampoline in our back yard just chatting and tossing the football, or they’d lie on the grass looking up at the tall pine trees.
My son needed downtime instead of constantly rushing around trying to find the right outfit to attend the next party. The simple act of doing nothing soothes the soul, whether you’re 46 or 12.
He has remained friends with this special group of kids, but we have made it clear: less activity, less doing, more balance. We immediately saw the cloud lift, and our kid was back. One afternoon I asked, “Do you miss it?” “Nope,” he said as he grabbed the basketball and ran outside to shoot hoops with our neighbor.
Laura Richards is a freelance writer based in Massachusetts. She writes about parenting, lifestyle, health and travel. Find her on Twitter @ModMothering.
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