Middle-schoolers need you to set boundaries and be supportive to help them stay safe. Here’s how to talk about staying safe at school, out in the world, and online.
What should I keep in mind?
You can help your preteen make good decisions. Your preteen is starting to want more independence. But that doesn’t mean they don’t still need your help staying safe and making good decisions. Staying involved is the best way to help them stay safe as they spend more time online and off in the world without your direct supervision. Just as you taught your child how to cross the street or ride a bike safely, you can teach your preteen the skills they need to deal with bullying, online safety, and dealing with peer pressure.
Show respect, empathy, and kindness at home. Share your beliefs about how others deserve to be treated, and stick by those beliefs. Think about what being a good role model looks like. Treat strangers, colleagues, and family members with the respect you want your preteen to treat the people in their life with. Help your preteen see the value in standing up for what’s right instead of just going along with the crowd.
Model safe behaviors. Be critical about information you read on the internet that’s not from a reliable source, and be really careful about sharing any personal information or geographic location on social media. When it comes to drugs and alcohol, think about how often and how much you drink in front of your preteen, and be thoughtful about how you talk about alcohol or drugs (including prescription drugs) in front of them.
Take time to figure out what your values are when it comes to parties, online behavior, and bullying. Get on the same page as your co-parent so you can be consistent with rules and be role models together.
How do I talk about internet and phone safety with my preteen?
You may feel like your preteen knows more about technology than you do. But you don’t need to be an expert in any secret online language. You just need to know how to talk with them. A major part of protecting your kids is being aware and involved in their online lives. Know what social media sites and apps your preteen uses, and who they talk to online.
Many kids share social media accounts and phones with their parents. If you think your preteen is old enough to have their own phone/social media accounts, stay involved. You might want to have rules about being friends/followers, or sharing their passwords with you. Parental controls and monitoring software might help you supervise them too. Set clear expectations. Involve your preteen in the process of creating rules so they are more likely to follow them. Make sure they understand how these rules help protect them.
Some basic rules for staying safe in digital spaces are:
Never share personal info (like your address or phone number) in your public profile or with anyone you don’t personally know.
Never send pictures of yourself to other people online without parent permission.
Assume anything you say or put online/in apps could be seen by anybody, anywhere (no matter what kind of privacy settings you use). There can be real-life consequences — for example, administrators at their school can see what they wrote and suspend them if it’s not in line with their rules.
You can’t really tell who you’re talking to online — even if someone says you know them or that you’re friends. There’s no way to know for sure if the person you’re talking to online is who they say they are in real life. Tell them to come to you right away if something happens online that feels uncomfortable, scary, or wrong. Even if they’re worried about getting in trouble — it’ll be ok, you just want to help.
How do I talk about drugs and alcohol with my preteen?
Alcohol and drug use is uncommon for preteens. This age is a good time to talk about your values when it comes to drugs and alcohol — before they’re presented with peer pressure to drink or try drugs. Prepping your preteen to deal with peer pressure can help them avoid unsafe behavior in the future.
First, figure out what messages you want your preteen to get about drugs and alcohol, including prescription drugs. What is and isn’t OK as an adult? How does that look different for teens, and why? What religious beliefs, family history, or other experiences inform your values? Talk about your values with your preteen — and let them know what your expectations are when it comes to drugs and alcohol now, and in the future.
You can use TV, movies, or music as a starting place for a conversation. Ask your preteen what they think about drinking, smoking, or doing drugs, or if they know anyone at school who’s doing that already. Help them think through what to do if they’re ever in a tricky situation, like:
Someone offers them a drink, a cigarette, or some drugs
A friend gets drunk/high and may be in danger
Their driver gets drunk or high
One tip is to let your preteen know that they can use you as an excuse to reject peer pressure. They can say, “I’ll get in huge trouble with my mom/dad if I do that,” or, “I need to go home and help with chores.” Building self esteem is another way to help your preteen deal with peer pressure.
Communicate with your preteen’s friends’ parents about who’s going to be around when your preteen is over, and get to know your preteen’s friends.
Remind your preteen about the legal risk of underage drinking and buying or having drugs. Help them understand how becoming addicted to drugs or getting in trouble with the law — even as a minor — can affect their ability to pursue their dreams for the future.
How do I talk about abuse with my preteen?
Nobody wants to think that someone would victimize their child, but sexual abuse can happen to anybody. But there are a few simple things you can do to help protect your kids, and help your kids protect themselves.
Being actively involved and interested in your kids’ lives is one of the best ways to help recognize if your child has been victimized. Let your preteen know they can talk to you about these things whenever they need to, and that they’ll never get in trouble for anything they say or ask.
Most cases of sexual abuse happen in isolated, 1-on-1 settings, and abusers are usually someone the child or family knows. Be cautious about your preteen spending time alone with other adults or older kids. As a general rule, groups or 1-on-1 situations that other people can observe is best. Think carefully when picking caregivers, and be aware of the adults, kids, families, coaches, teachers, and babysitters that your kids spend time with.
Signs of abuse might not be obvious, so it’s important to know what to look for. Discomfort or infections in the genital areas, changes in behavior like sudden acting out, trouble at school, or anxiety, depression, or being very withdrawn, can all be signs.
If you think your preteen is being abused:
If you suspect abuse, or if your preteen tells you abuse has happened, take it seriously. Tell your preteen that you believe them, they’re not in trouble, and that you’re going to help protect them.
Stay as calm as you can in front of them so they don’t get scared and shut down. Encourage your preteen to talk freely with you. Ask open-ended questions like “Then what happened?” so they can lead the conversation. Tell them how glad you are they told you.
How to report abuse:
It’s important to report abuse to help protect your preteen and other possible victims. In some cases, you may even be legally required to report abuse. Seek help from law enforcement, child protective services, or a children’s advocacy center as soon as you can. You can call the Childhelp National Abuse hotline (800.422.4454) for help reporting.
If there are physical signs of abuse or your child tells you they’ve had physical contact with an abuser, contact a doctor or nurse. They can treat any physical problems caused by the abuse, and may be able to collect evidence for investigations later.
Life after abuse:
It’s important for people who have been abused to seek help from professionals to help them stay healthy. Free, confidential helplines like the Childhelp National Abuse hotline (800.422.4454) or RAINN can connect you with resources in your area.
The healing process may be long and difficult, but try to be supportive, protective, and encouraging. Make sure your child understands that what happened is NOT their fault — nobody deserves abuse, no matter what. It’s common for parents to feel really guilty if their child was abused, but it’s not your fault either. The only person to blame is the abuser.
If you have a hard time talking about abuse with your child, you can seek help from partners, close friends, or family members who can offer support during these conversations. You may also want to consider seeing a therapist or counselor to help you process your own feelings and better support your child.
Child abuse — whether it means child sexual abuse, emotional or psychological abuse, or physical violence — can change people’s lives, families, and communities forever. For you as a parent, it can mean cutting ties with someone close to you and your family, or even someone within your family, which can feel almost impossible. All of this can be overwhelming, so find support for yourself. Seek help from loved ones, as well as counseling, therapy, or a support group if you can. Getting help for yourself can help you focus on being your kid’s #1 advocate during this difficult time.
How do I talk about bullying with my middle-schooler?
Bullying often becomes more of a problem during middle school. It can happen both face-to-face and online. Any type of bullying is hurtful. Preteens who are being bullied may show these signs:
Being unhappy or fearful or refusing to go somewhere
Unexplained injuries or damaged or missing belongings
Regular headaches, stomach aches, trouble sleeping, or other physical problems
Changes in emotions or behavior including anxiety, low self-esteem, or doing poorly in school
Stay involved with your preteen’s social life so you can help them navigate tough social situations. Be clear with them about what bullying is, and let them know that they can come to you for help with bullying.
If your preteen is the victim of bullying, here are a few things you can do:
Give lots of love and support. Listen, try to help them understand that it's not their fault, and show you care.
Give them strategies to deal with it. They can ignore it, tell the bully to stop, or try to stay in a group.
Get the school involved. Talk to your child about the benefits of doing this: they'll work to prevent more bullying. It’s often safer to work with the school than contacting the bully or their parents directly. Have notes ready. The more you can give specifics (names, dates, who saw what, social media posts), the easier it will be.
What to do if your preteen is the bully:
If you hear that your preteen has been bullying someone, the most important thing you can do is take the accusation seriously. Even if their behavior seems acceptable or natural to you, it may be causing real pain or danger to someone else.
Have a conversation with your preteen about their behavior. Remind them that you love them no matter what, but that any kind of bullying behavior — physical violence, teasing, name-calling, or rumor spreading — is unacceptable. Ask them to explain the reasons for their behavior, and make it clear that it needs to change and that you’ll help them change it.
You may need to sit down with someone at their school to discuss the situation. Let them know that you’ll work with them to stop your child from bullying, and any family or personal issues that might be contributing to the problem.
If your preteen witnesses bullying:
Help your preteen practice different ways of helping someone who’s being bullied, including:
Being nice to bullied classmates
Telling a trusted adult
Creating a distraction
Helping the victim leave the space
Setting a good example by not laughing or joining in if bullying is happening
Online bullying (AKA “cyberbullying”) can be just as devastating as in-person bullying. Unlike bullying in school or in public, cyberbullying can be 24/7, come from thousands of people all over the world, and reach people when they’re alone. Examples of cyberbullying include:
Sending emails, texts, or messages on social networking sites with threats, insults, or rumors
Making fake profiles or email addresses with the intention of hurting someone’s feelings
Posting embarrassing photos or videos
Some schools have rules about cyberbullying, and some kinds of cyberbullying are illegal, like threatening violence, sending sexually explicit images of minors, and stalking someone online.
Talk with your preteen about cyberbullying. Be clear that it’s never OK to harass or ridicule people online. And let them know if someone bothers them online, they can talk with you and you can make a plan together. Encourage your preteen to put the phone/computer/tablet down for a while if things start feeling out of control.