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Encouraging Heroes. You can be one too.

Dante left out a circle of Hell when he wrote Inferno. He imagined only nine areas of suffering, but he forgot about middle school.

In an informal survey, the majority of adults looked back and pegged those two or three years as the most miserable time of their lives. I’m with them: seventh grade was torturous, hands-down the worst experience of my childhood or adolescence.

And why is that? Why do so many people shudder when they recall what should’ve been merely another stepping stone from infancy to adulthood? How can one 36-month stretch leave such a scar?

It’s an important question because middle school lies at the heart of a person’s most formative years, and quite often the experience plays a crucial role in determining an individual’s future path.

Think about what happens to us when we advance from elementary school to the next phase. For one thing, we’re changing physically. I don’t need to tell you what these changes did to you, and are doing to your children. Some kids seem to grow four inches overnight, others develop acne scars after one snack, while others need to shave.

And kids don’t develop on the same schedule, which means some students stand out for what’s perceived as an odd reason. You’ve quickly become the tall kid; or wait, maybe you’re now the short kid because everyone but you sprouted. Or while your friends suddenly need bras, you haven’t reached that stage yet. Or any of dozens of other physical alterations.

Then there are the abrupt emotional changes. Your delightful, angelic sixth-grader has moved to middle school and become Linda Blair from The Exorcist. Aren’t hormonal changes fun! Do we even need to discuss these?

But there also are – especially today – social changes. Lots of them. Once content to play alone in her room or the backyard, Ashley now cultivates friends at an alarming rate. These friends apply enormous amounts of peer pressure and – ahem – information about life.

These three changes – physical, emotional, social – converge at the same point, which usually falls somewhere around seventh grade.

So middle school is aptly named; kids are stuck in a middle ground between childhood and adulthood, where their world has shifted and scrambled, often in confusing ways that their young brains aren’t able to keep pace with. Sadly, the result sometimes is a choice or series of choices which knock them off the right path.

Parents find their patience tested most often during this stage, but the waves of time have caused us to forget how much angst we caused our own parents. Maybe because we all want to block the trauma of adolescence from our memory banks.

It’s important to treat all three elements of ‘the change’ individually. We tend to observe the rants of this writhing beast formally known as ‘our daughter’ and apply one salve to her problems. But her physical issues and her social issues are two separate components, requiring two unique discussions. And the earlier you address each element, the better.

It can be frustrating – and even heartbreaking – to watch your child struggle through puberty. But this is where your parenting skills become critical, because we all make dumb mistakes when we’re suffering. Middle school, with its cornucopia of change, is a breeding ground for missteps and wrong choices, each fueled by one of three distinct and confusing issues. This means your role as a parent will never be more important.

A thirteen-year-old mind can’t properly process the changes going on simultaneously, but you, as an adult, have the gift of perspective. You can slow down the game and provide support and guidance. The key is recognizing all of the various ingredients that are churning inside a middle school student.

Our first step requires empathy.

Dom Testa is an author, speaker, morning radio show host, and has kept a ficus tree alive for twenty two years. He’s also the founder and president of The Big Brain Club, a non-profit foundation that helps young people embrace the idea that Smart Is Cool. More info at www.DomTesta.com.