BRANDON — Latanya Henry repeated one thought to herself over and over when her daughter Tatiana entered middle school two years ago: "If you can get through sixth grade, you can get through anything."
Tatiana, now an eighth-grader at Williams Magnet Middle School, had to adjust to the middle school world of changing classes, locker combinations, raging hormones and tween drama.
"That first semester, there were a lot of tears," said Henry, who lives in Apollo Beach.
Those two little words — "middle school" — strike fear in the hearts of kids and parents alike. But why?
"For most people, change is hard," said Nancy Trathowen, principal at Mann Middle School in Brandon. "I think most students think, 'Will I find a friend? Will I like my teachers? Will I get lost?' "
There are clubs to join, school dances to attend, multiple classes to juggle and higher expectations. Middle school is when counselors start to talk about college and career choices while students turn their attention to appearances and the opposite sex.
Things such as lockers and having several different teachers instead of just one can be intimidating, according to Pat Pawelkop, who teaches math to sixth-graders at Madison Middle School in Tampa.
"It is tough because there's so many new things," Pawelkop said. "One of the things, which seems trivial, is locks on lockers. Some kids don't get it and give up."
Parents, on the other hand, are reluctant to see their children enter a phase in their lives where there is more independence. They're around new kids, new teachers and new choices.
"They're growing up and I think sometimes it might be hard for parents to realize that," Trathowen said.
Eldalisa Arevalo, who works with middle schoolers at the Brandon Boys and Girls Club, said kids that age often act like they don't want anything to do with their parents.
"The important part of that age is to get the parents involved," Arevalo said. "That's the age where the kids don't think they need them but they really do."
A 2006 National Education Association survey found that 86 percent of middle school students still turn to their parents for help with homework.
Educators say such parental involvement is key.
"Parents need to be aware that most kids need a little more help," Pawelkop.
Henry advises other parents to keep the lines of communication open at all times.
She tries to remember what it was like to be a young teenager, and how every little thing seemed so important then.
Henry held tight to her mantra throughout Tatiana's sixth-grade year and they made it just fine. Seventh grade brought an interest in boys from some of her friends.
Now, Henry and her daughter are planning for the academic rigors of eighth grade and then high school.
"I think that's going to be even harder," Henry said.
Times staff writer Elisabeth Dyer contributed to this report. Jan Wesner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 661-2439.