The Washington Post

Helping a child with the transition to middle school

Q. My 11-year-old daughter, who has always been a sweet, smart, responsible yet fun-loving girl, is having trouble adjusting to middle school. And yet she thrived in elementary school, where she got good grades, had many friends and was even on the student council for two years.

Although she was eager to go to school, she barricaded herself in our bathroom on the first day, after I had gone to work, and she wouldn’t come out until a trusted neighbor comforted her and then drove her to school.

She worked herself up into a worried mess for the next three days because, she said, she was afraid to ride the school bus, even though she had been riding it for the past six years. I could only throw up my hands, tell my boss I’d be two hours late and drive my child to school. She finally got on the bus on the fifth day, and I got to work on time.

My daughter’s anxiety started last summer, when she was getting ready to go to a one-week gymnastics day camp. She had looked forward to it but then changed her mind about going because her friend couldn’t go. My daughter isn’t shy, but she would rather hang out with a buddy than with people she doesn’t know. Fortunately she did make a friend at camp, and the week improved.

She was also excited to take ballet but quit immediately because she wasn’t as good as her classmates who had taken ballet in the past. The teacher said my daughter could take an easier class instead, but she got scared of that one, too, and we didn’t force her to go.

(Hadley Hooper/For the Washington Post)

There haven’t been any more problems but I don’t know when they’ll pop up again or why my daughter gets so anxious. Is this normal? Or does she have a problem that could be causing her anxiety? Last night she wrote me a note telling me that she thought she had ADD/ADHD because she finds it hard to focus at school and to sit still during her 90-minute classes. While I’m certainly not qualified to judge, I think she is simply finding it hard to grow up and adjust to new situations.

Whatever the cause, I want to help my daughter get rid of her anxiety and her occasional bouts of sadness. But how?

A. Transitions are harder on some children than on others, especially the transition from childhood to adolescence.

Suddenly your daughter’s breasts are budding, her hips are widening and her hormones are giving her the kind of ideas that make a nice girl blush. All of this growth embarrasses her and makes it hard for her to focus at school or to sit still for 90 minutes or even 30.

Your daughter will feel much better if she deals with her anxiety instead of papering it over with the latest label. To help your daughter do that, you need to talk about a worry you have at work or with your Aunt Tilly, and then ask her what she thinks you should do about it. This will teach her to find options for her own problems as well as yours.

Once she finds out that even a bad situation has at least one or two solutions, imperfect though they may be, she will realize that the unbearable isn’t so bad after all. And when you ask her to consider facts instead of feelings, she will feel like an intellectual equal, which will encourage her to think and talk in a more mature way.

The two of you should read the latest studies on PubMed (, a service of the U.S. National Library of Medicine that provides access to abstracts. As you’ll discover, acupuncture, biofeedback, yoga, tai chi and meditation can actually produce physical changes and minimize all kinds of emotional issues, including anxiety. Although acupuncture mellows the mind before it works on the body, it is seldom covered by insurance, and neither is biofeedback or yoga. Tai chi is usually free but can be hard to find. Meditation, however, is cheap, quick, effective and easy, and it is something you and your daughter can do together.

To learn more about these options, read the revised version of “Bodymind” by psychologist Ken Dychtwald (Tarcher, 1986, $16), “The Healing Power of Acupressure and Acupuncture” by Matthew D. Bauer (Avery, 2005, $16) and “A Woman’s Book of Yoga” by Machelle M. Seibel and Hari Kaur Khalra (Avery, 2002, $20). To learn more about anxiety, read “Freeing Yourself From Anxiety” by Tamar E. Chansky (DaCapo, $16). This excellent book just came out but it is already a classic.

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Read a transcript of a recent live Q&A hosted by Kelly. Her next chat is scheduled for March 22.

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