My oldest son is about to turn 13, and while it’s harder to find common ground with him during this phase of life, we have one huge thing in common: we’re both a rollercoaster of emotions.

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I’ve read countless articles about how the middle school years are not for the faint of heart.

While middle school kids can manage their own physical needs, their emotional needs are acute. Some days it’s as subtle as noticing his furrowed brow, asking the right questions to elicit a meaningful answer, and helping him dissect a classroom or lunchroom moment that’s causing distress.

I’ve noticed him withdrawing a bit, which I suspect is a normal part of this transitory period. He’s figuring out who he is, where he fits in the middle school social milieu, and what kind of person he wants to be.

I’ve kept a toehold in the workforce with freelance work for the past decade, but my focus has been primarily on my kids. Lately, I’ve contemplated rejoining the workforce. I sometimes find myself questioning my day-to-day role during these years when I’m twiddling my fingers or surfing the internet while my middle schooler works on homework and his younger siblings entertain themselves.

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It’s been a slap in the face to recognize more often than not, my job is to sit on the sidelines while he navigates these turbulent waters.

My role is to be present, available, and open when he chooses to confide in me.

The day he came home and shared a close friend started sitting at a different table at lunch (with the jocks), we talked about how middle school is a time when kids are figuring out who they are and exploring different friendships.

The evening he shared that lots of his peers are using the term “gay” as an insult, we were able to talk through why this language is unkind and hurtful. These conversations could certainly happen if I were at work all day. But I suspect our interactions would, by necessity, be more focused on homework updates and weekly logistics.

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I’ve also realized because my son is an introvert with anxious leanings, my role is to provide a safe haven for him. I know he’s drained by his school day, perhaps more by the social interactions than the academic requirements. I maintain a stock of healthy snacks and quality books and try to create a calm vibe. I nudge him off electronics, a constant battle with middle schoolers. We talk about how addictive electronic devices are–for adults and kids–and why moderation is a healthy goal. 

I’ve discovered he’s happy and excited to help me in the kitchen. He was downright jovial when I handed him a muffin recipe and asked him to knock it out. A request that he walk the dog, rake some leaves, or take out the trash may not be met with enthusiasm, but these physical tasks seem to shake him out of his headspace.

On the hard days, when he’s suffered a social slight or I can tell something happened at school to shake his self-confidence, I bite my lip and remember my place is on the sidelines.

Present and available—on the sidelines.

Joanna Owusu

Joanna McFarland Owusu is a freelance writer and editor. A federal government analyst in a former life, Joanna now spends her days wrangling two tween-age sons and a preschool daughter.