By Stephanie Thomas

Boy riding bikeLet’s conjure up some middle school memories for a moment shall we?

Here’s what I see: me, shorter and smaller than I am now but feeling large and frumpy. I have friends, good friends, and yet I seem to be both noticeable and unnoticeable – and always at the wrong times. I’m earnest and kind, but my hair is forever greasy and I laugh too loud.

What do you see?

Now that we’re all drowning in our 12-year-old sorrows, let’s take a look at the lives of middle schoolers today. A few quick facts:

  • Sixth graders are growing machines – climbing the charts by an average of three inches in height and 10 pounds in weight in just one year!1
  • Speaking of bodies … this is when things get weird. Middle schools are full of first periods, new armpit hair and hormones all walking around together in one building.
  • Contradictions abound. Preteens are growing up but not quite grown, clinging to childhood in one moment and grasping for adulthood in the next.1
  • Social media wreaks havoc on a middle schoolers growing brain, which is nowhere near ready for the overstimulation, addictive nature and competition of getting likes.2

Middle Schoolers and Substance Use

Because preteens appear to adults as moody and complex creatures, it helps to step back and see life from their perspective. With this in mind, we can better understand the shocking amount of drug use among middle-schoolers.

A 2016 survey found the following rates for eighth grade substance use in the previous month:

5.4 percent smoked marijuana

7.3 percent drank alcohol

2.6 percent smoked cigarettes

6.2 percent smoked e-cigarettes3

A 2017 study reported the following rates for sixth grade substance use rates over a lifetime:

12.6 percent smoked marijuana

23.6 percent drank alcohol4

Middle schoolers – those vulnerable and susceptible beings – who drink or use drugs, even just once before reaching the teenage years set themselves up for a greater possibility of fighting addiction as adults.5 Thankfully, most preteens don’t consider themselves too old to lend an ear – if less than enthusiastically – to their parents.6 So, take advantage. Then be sure to return the favor, leaving the door wide open for future discussions.

Strategies for Talking Drugs and Alcohol with Your Preteen

While continuing the conversations you began in the preschool and elementary years, you need a special gameplan for this unique group.

  1. Hit ‘em where it hurts. Middle schoolers aren’t super concerned with morals. And they can’t imagine being old – like you. Want to know what they care about? You’re looking at it. A smart and sometimes shallow bunch, preteens will be most frightened by what drugs and alcohol could do to their brains and bodies.7 Talk science and look for pictures that prove your point.
  1. Work together to write a “no” script. Agree on and practice a solid line your middle schooler can deliver when declining an offer of drugs or alcohol. This simple strategy effectively reduces the likelihood that your kid will accept when fiction becomes reality. Experts suggest offering yourself as a scapegoat by encouraging your son or daughter to throw good ol’ mom or dad under the bus if needed.7 Works for us!
  1. Be frank about any alcohol your preteen sees you consume. Remember the growing brains we discussed? Not always logical, though they may try. Your middle schooler might make some incorrect assumptions when they see you drink, but you won’t know unless you ask. Be sure that he doesn’t glorify alcohol or view it as a hindrance to your relationship – both of which can cause an unhealthy interest in drinking.5

Make the Most of Your Influence

You’re reading this article, so we know you have no plans to waste these precious few years before teenage independence sets in. You can help your middle schooler avoid drugs and alcohol indirectly by being intentional in three key ways:

  1. Grow in relationship with him. Learn his likes and dislikes, fears and desires, friends and frenemies. Paying attention shows your son that you care and also that you’re paying attention.7
  1. Build his perception of his worth. Of course you adore him, but what does your son think of himself? Researchers at The reTHINK Group consider this your number one challenge as a preteen parent. As he searches elsewhere for acceptance, work to express your acceptance and affirmation of both who he is and who he is becoming.1
  1. Pair him with the right people. Middle schoolers need you, yes, but they also crave interaction with other adults who, well, aren’t you.1 Encourage your son to spend time with an adult you trust and try to be grateful, not annoyed, when he raves about the advice his mentor shared – you know, the same tip you offered two months ago.

For more tips on raising kids, check out Peachford’s parenting classes. You’ll learn about discipline, birth order, communication and other concepts that can help you understand how to approach parenting in today’s world.

1 Joiner, R. & Ivy, K. It’s Just a Phase — So Don’t Miss It: Why Every Life Stage of a Kid Matters and at Least 13 Things Your Church Should Do About It. The reTHINK Group, 2015.

2 Dunkley, Victoria. Why Social Media is Not Smart for Middle School Kids. Psychology Today, March 26, 2017.

3 Monitoring the Future 2016 Survey Results. National Institute on Drug Abuse, December 2016.

4 Eckart-Washington, Kim. Talking to Preteens About Drugs Doesn’t Tempt Them. Futurity, October 5, 2017.

5 Olds, Dorri. When Preteens Drink and Use Drugs. The Fix, March 27, 2017.

6Talking to Your Child About Drugs.”, November 2014.

7Drug Prevention Tips for Every Age.” Partnership for Drug-Free Kids, accessed November 28, 2017.