Chances are, if you are the parent of a middle schooler, you have heard one of these three sentences come out of their mouths as they look at their schedule and see the words Physical Education: (1) Woot! Let’s go I love PE!; (2) Oh no, will I have to change in front of everyone?; (3) Please, please, please, can you sign a letter excusing me from PE? Just as some of us are more self-conscious than others, kids are the same way. For some, it’s not an issue at all, and for others, it can be the source of great anxiety and stress. Between the changes occurring outside of your tweens’ or teens’ bodies to the vital need to fit in happening inside their brain, it’s no wonder that gym locker rooms are the source of both fear and disdain. Not only for the kids but also for many parents who worry about what can happen.

While the primary purpose of locker rooms is for students to change, shower, and store their belongings, this is also a time when adult supervision is minimal, vulnerability is high, and there is room for uninterrupted small talk to occur between peers. This free time can lead to the formation of great friendships or, on the other end of the spectrum, fights, bullying, and intimidation. Unfortunately, bullying tends to peak during the middle school years, and the locker room can be a prime area for your child to encounter a bully from time to time.

The term “locker room talk” has been a hot topic in the media for some time now. It is a general term used to describe male-dominated humor and prejudice, sexist, racist, and homophobic so-called banter. For teens and pre-teens, the phrase encompasses a much broader spectrum. In middle school, verbal bullying is gender-neutral and can occur in all locker rooms. It is a time of significant change as children grow and develop into teenagers. National surveys have found among overweight middle-school-aged children that 30 percent of girls and 24 percent of boys experienced daily bullying, teasing, and rejection because of their size.

The “locker room talk” in junior high can range from kids teasing each other for their outer appearance and growth to their athletic abilities or shortcomings or using this unsupervised time to get even for something that happened during the day. This early adolescent phase is also when they may encounter drugs and alcohol. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, nearly one-third of middle schoolers say that students keep, use or sell drugs in their school. Locker rooms can be a prime time for these exchanges to occur.

The good news is that your middle schooler’s locker room experience will, for the most part, be pretty uneventful. Talks about video games, school exams, crushes, and social media trends will probably be the topic of most conversations. However, the best way to ensure that your teen or soon-to-be teen can navigate the locker room is to prepare them ahead of time. Below are some tips on ways you can help your middle schooler understand and lay the groundwork for what they might encounter.

Healthy Normal Body Changes and Self Image:

Be open and honest about the changes they can expect in their bodies. Use personal stories of things that happened to you even though they may have heard it in science class. It’s more powerful when it comes from a loving parent.

Help Them with Hygiene:

Ensure they have what they need to stay on top of their hygiene. Include items in their gym bags such as deodorant or antiperspirant, clean socks and clothes, a hairbrush, and extra towels if they need them. Discuss the importance of proper hygiene, significantly as their bodies are changing.

Come Up with a Plan of Action:

Ask them what they would do if someone offered them drugs or alcohol. Come up with different ways to answer or deal with a situation where this might happen.

Do Your Parent Homework:

Learn about the procedures at school. Become aware of your child’s particular school’s policies about bullying. Find out who they could talk to at school if something happened.

Be Specific and Engage Every Day:

Ask your child specific questions about their day. Don’t just ask how their day was and expect a good answer. Instead, ask what sport they played in PE or who they talked to or sat next to at lunch. More targeted questions lead to much better conversations.

Developing a zero-tolerance for bullying at home is paramount. The challenges of middle school can be a little easier to face when your child is ready, has a game plan in place, and knows they have your support.

Carolina Droze is a LSIS presenter of K-5th programming, freelance writer  and copywriter. She is also a mom, wife, surfer, nature enthusiast and a lover of loud music and dancing like she just don’t care.