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Middle School Body Woes and Buddy Troubles

girl looking into mirror

Q. Our daughter is anxious about starting seventh grade in the fall. Over the summer, some of her friends started to develop, and she did not. Now she's having a hard time with some of the girls in her class.

She's so nervous that lately she's been waking up in the middle of the night feeling sick to her stomach; I've also noticed she's eating less. I feel terrible for her. What can I do to help my daughter feel better about herself and about going back to school?

A. Your daughter is entering a phase in her life she may find awkward and uncomfortable, and it's compassionate of you to recognize her concerns. If two children have been friends throughout elementary school and one begins puberty sooner than the other, their friendship usually ends, sometimes messily. The girls may part ways and latch on to a new friend or peer group whose body matches their level of maturity.

While this fact is normal and natural, it's tough when peer relationships change, when one child is left behind or excluded, or, worse yet, when one child becomes the target of aggression. Girls -- like boys -- can be bullies. And while boys often display blatant acts such as unmerciful teasing, jeering, and pushing that can lead to violence, girls are more likely to exclude victims from their circle of friends by whispering, sneering and snickering, and, most drastically, shunning.

Consider pursuing these avenues with your daughter to alleviate some of her stress:

Be Honest About Puberty

Offer her books, teen-appropriate informative Web sites, and other resources. Reinforce that while some girls go through puberty as young as age eight, others don't start the process until they're 15. Let her know that while waiting might be frustrating, her body will start to change when it's right for her, and this timing is completely out of her control.

Discuss her Friend Problems

Let your daughter know that if she makes you aware of what's upsetting her, you may be able to help the situation without meddling in her relationship (and therefore potentially -- gasp! -- embarrassing her). Tell her you'll do everything you can to protect her against anyone who might hurt her physically or emotionally, and gently encourage her to give you frequent updates.

Role-Play

Practicing reactions to tough situations before they happen may give your daughter the assurance she needs to handle the real ones. For example, create an imaginary scene in which girls are snickering at her, and have your daughter practice a short retort such as "That's mean, stop it!" or "Please stop -- you're really hurting my feelings." Have her practice turning and boldly walking away. Encourage her to use strong body language: walking confidently, establishing eye contact, and holding her head high. Let her know that a strong stance and words communicated with bold intonation can help stop bullies and keep the situation from escalating into a verbal altercation.

Enlist School Help

If you determine that your daughter really is the victim of bullying and that it's more than she can manage on her own, don't hesitate to contact the school principal. Bullying is serious, and the principal needs to address the problem with a plan that includes adult supervision and a school policy against it.

Monitor Her Progress

After a month of school, ask yourself:

  • Does she continue to wake and worry in the middle of the night?
  • Has her food intake diminished even more?
  • Has she begun to avoid school because of stomachaches or other stress-related health issues?

If the answer to any of these questions is yes, talk to the school counselor or seek help from an outside professional. As a last resort, you might even consider having your daughter change schools, as sometimes a new environment and peer group gives a child the chance to begin life comfortably and securely as an adolescent.

Jan Faull, MEd, is a veteran parent educator and the author of two parenting books, Mommy, I Have to Go Potty and Unplugging Power Struggles. She writes a biweekly parenting advice column for HealthyKids.com, and a weekly parenting advice column in the Seattle Times newspaper. Jan Faull is the mother of three grown children and lives in the Seattle area.

Originally published on HealthyKids.com, February 2005.