Parents already know how important it is to be involved in their children’s lives. Among other benefits, strong parental support is linked to better behavior in school as well as higher levels of academic achievement. The link between parental involvement and mental health isn’t as well-known, but it may be the most important reason to focus on strong family ties.
During the middle school and high school years, kids often want more independence. They may try to discourage their parents from becoming involved in their education and their relationships with peers. However, new research shows that these years can be the most treacherous—and this is the period when parental involvement makes a critical difference in children’s mental health.
Mental Health Risks Increase in Middle School
The middle school concept launched in the late 1960s, and by the 1980s, it was mainstream. Most school districts had developed separate programs for students in grades five or six through grade eight. Teachers and administrators considered the unique needs of children who are too old for elementary school but too young for high school. In most cases, middle schools were designed to combine elements of both, creating education solutions appropriate for “tweens.”
While peer victimization, or bullying, does occur among younger children, middle-schoolers are more likely to engage in or be the victim of severe bullying behavior. In these years, students aren’t supervised as closely as they are in elementary schools, which increases opportunity for bullying.
At the same time, the onset of puberty (ages 12–14) wreaks havoc on developing brains. Some children begin to demonstrate signs and symptoms of new mental health conditions, including depression, suicidal thoughts, and self-harming behaviors. In other cases, existing mental health conditions become more pronounced.
During puberty, children are particularly sensitive to social dynamics, but their pre-frontal cortex is still growing. This is the part of the brain that handles executive functions like controlling impulses and thinking through long-term consequences. It’s a perfect storm for dangerous bullying behavior, along with a substantial risk of self-harm.
The Impact of Parental Involvement on Mental Health
Researcher Cixin Wang and his team wondered exactly what role parental involvement plays in the mental health of middle schoolers. They collected data from 301,628 students (evenly split between boys and girls) in 615 middle schools to find the answers.
As expected, students who experienced bullying showed higher levels of mental health issues and suicidal thoughts and behaviors. However, through careful analysis, they also learned that parental involvement has a statistically significant correlation to decreased mental health issues and decreased suicidal thoughts and behaviors.
In fact, the students who felt their parents were involved in their school life had less mental health issues, including fewer thoughts of suicide, than those who perceived their parents were not involved. The potential for parental involvement to offset risks related to mental health and suicidal behavior among 12–14-year-olds is clear. Researchers concluded that parental involvement has a “protective factor” when it comes to the mental health of students.
How to Get Involved
Getting involved doesn’t have to be complicated. The most effective steps are probably ones you are already taking.
- Help with homework
- Show interest in children’s school activities, and attend as many as possible
- Form relationships with teachers, administrators, and other parents
- Ask about your child’s day at school
- Show empathy when challenges and obstacles arise
- Encourage open communication
- Listen without judgement
- Demonstrate respectful, assertive behavior
- Support healthy social boundaries
Though middle school students are working hard on becoming independent, research shows that this isn’t the right time for parents to take a big step back. Parental involvement is critical for getting students through the sensitive middle school years. Watch for signs of bullying, both in its traditional forms as well as online. If issues crop up, don’t hesitate to step in—at this age, some situations and feelings are simply too big for tweens to handle alone.